Take it from a cinema studies grad: Film theory’s not for everyone, but there are riches within the jargon

Times Staff Writer

“Two thumbs down!” My friend Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, isn’t a guy who waves around his thumbs around casually -- much less a man given to quoting Roger Ebert. But Alex was fuming, his double-digit antipathy directed at an article by David Weddle published in the Los Angeles Times Magazine July 13 with the title “Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology.”

In the article, Weddle’s daughter, a film studies major at UC Santa Barbara, tells her dad that she has received a C on one of her finals. Baffled, Weddle worries he’s not getting “a fair return on my investment” -- he had, after all, spent “more than $73,000" on her college education. The problem, Weddle soon discovers, is contemporary film studies, a discipline overrun with radicals, who pushed their liberal social agendas via an intellectual smorgasbord of Marx, formalism, semiotics, structuralism, psychoanalysis and narrative study over the apparently discredited auteur theory, which isn’t really a theory -- but no matter.

Weddle’s daughter wanted a career in film but instead was stuck in a department where, as the UCSB Web site states, the “primary emphasis is on film history, theory and analysis.” Film studies majors become “familiar” with what the site calls “the basic tools of filmmaking,” and some students can take courses in screenwriting and production, but this isn’t the place to go if you’re strictly interested in the nuts and bolts of moviemaking.

Expressing concern over his daughter’s theory books, with their arcane language that could get her “laughed off” a Hollywood lot, Weddle wondered if there was a “hidden method to these film theorists’ apparent madness.” Or was Ebert correct when he threw down the gauntlet and declared to Weddle that “film theory has nothing to do with film”?


There are those who will always resent the idea that something as ostensibly frivolous as movies is worthy of intellectual engagement. Readers have always told me to “stick to the film” and leave my opinions and politics out of the mix. They don’t want to know that movies are more than actors and camera angles but are also agents of ideology and that movies tell us certain things about ourselves that we can learn nowhere else.

“I just like going to the movies for fun,” a friend said when I was in the first flush of my romance with film criticism and theory. “I don’t want to think about them.” I liked going to the movies for fun too. But I didn’t understand why grooving on movies and thinking about them should be mutually exclusive pleasures. I still don’t.

Like Weddle, though, I have reservations about film theory -- or rather some film theories, since film studies embraces a host of different, at times competing theories. Soon after I entered a master’s program in cinema studies in 1985, I knew that I probably wouldn’t be going on to a PhD. My moment of truth arrived when the brilliant film historian Janet Staiger, saddled with teaching an introductory film theory lecture class, announced that she “didn’t fetishize the object.” My friend Chuck Stephens, another film critic in the making, turned to me and silently mouthed “I do.”

I laughed. It was precisely because I fetishize movies that I had gone to graduate school for cinema studies in the first place. I had no plans to teach or to write about film; at that point, I had no plans at all. I was just delaying dreaded adulthood by doing one of my favorite things in life -- watching and thinking about movies.


Theory versus the real world

Ebert is wrong -- it is nonsense to say that film theory has nothing to do with film. It’s unlikely that movies would be edited the way they are if Sergei Eisenstein hadn’t been interested in film theory -- and Todd Haynes, a former semiotics major, probably wouldn’t have directed “Far From Heaven.” But it’s also true that the theory I read in school often felt removed from how movies make meaning in the real world with real viewers.

I began to understand just how removed when I was mocked for bringing up “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in one theory class even though President Reagan had cited the film. The other clue that what I was learning might not have much to do with lived experience occurred while I was reading a feminist study on 1940s women’s films in which author Mary Ann Doane repeatedly referred to “the female spectator.” What female spectator, I wondered -- a 1940s shopgirl? Simone De Beauvoir? Me?

For her analysis, Doane draws heavily on Jacques Lacan, whose radical reading of Freud through Marx has been a cornerstone of film theory since the mid-1970s. Like many feminist film theorists, Doane is interested in how movies teach men and women to look at them as male viewers and how, through seamless editing and camera placement, among other techniques, they coerce us to look at them through what theorists (building on Lacan) call “the male gaze.” The male gaze is a complex idea, used to uncover a complex phenomenon, but it’s an exceedingly fruitful way to explore how movies are simultaneously created by human consciousness and actually construct human consciousness.


My grasp of Lacan is fuzzy, and I remain skeptical about any idea of the female spectator that’s not firmly grounded in history. I didn’t need feminist film theory to know that movies depend on sexualized images of women to get and keep our attention (Mae West and Marilyn Monroe had already taught me that lesson), or that a lot of movies are essentially retreads of “The Odyssey.” But theorists like Doane have enriched my thinking about movies. For me, the specifics of different film theories are less important than the fact that film theory taught me how to look at movies analytically -- to see complexities, notice contradictions and read between the lines, just the way I do when I open a newspaper.

To an extent, Weddle’s complaints about film theory are merely a continuation of the culture wars that ignited during the 1980s when the traditional humanist canons were under assault by every “ism” in the book -- feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism. Unlike literary studies and sociology, however, film studies is a relatively new (post-1960s) discipline, and the debates about curriculum have been fairly restrained by comparison, more a question of French versus British influence, and of competing methodologies.

Wide-open field

“To be sure,” Alex admitted, “I sometimes also argue against a certain abstract academic canon of ‘essential reading’ and ‘essential viewing.’ Too often these abstractions seem to make unnecessary the actual experience and viewing of many, many films (all kinds of films), as well as the factual historical study of film production and reception.”


“These days,” says my friend Paul Malcolm, who also fired off a riposte to Weddle’s article, “film studies can look like a shotgun blast. Even within individual essays you can find multiple theories and approaches employed to add heft to an interpretation. Far from the monolithic, authoritarian environment Weddle finds at UCSB, I think most of the field, where ideologues aren’t hunkered down for the fight, is wide open.

“At UCLA, every professor seems to have his or her own personal favorite. The Lacanians still hate the phenomenologists, but both camps are searching for more grounding in the object of study and its history (and I don’t think it still can be assumed that all academics in the field are politically left). It’s a transitional period,” added Paul, which is why in September he’s headed back to graduate school in pursuit of a PhD in critical studies.

Far from being some nefarious, left-wing assault on humanism, film studies’ long love affair with French psychoanalytic theory partly stems from the desire of theorists to construct a methodology that’s specific to the medium rather than borrowed from, say, literary studies. The attempt to find a language to discuss how movies make meaning is useful, especially for a medium that most film writers, including most critics, discuss as if they were books. Fundamentally, though, it’s always seemed to me that the ongoing romance with deep-dish French theory isn’t just a function of academia’s pervasive Francophilia but also poignant evidence that -- like all film geeks -- film theorists want movies to be taken seriously.

I can’t blame them. Some people would prefer if we watched movies with our eyes open and our mouths -- and minds -- firmly shut. They don’t want us to think about the fact that most movies are made by and for men, that many are steeped in violence and that more than a few cost more than the gross national incomes of some poor countries. But whether we like to admit it or not, a movie can be an ideological minefield, a welter of contradictions, a lollapalooza of unintentional meaning. On occasion it can also be a work of art or an evening’s entertainment; on rare occasion, it’s both. Movies are one of the most important ways by which we tell one another stories, share our myths, values and dreams. And while sometimes a movie is just a movie -- sometimes it isn’t.


Manohla Dargis is a Times film critic.