Stuff to Read

June 21, 2011

In the current issue of Film Comment, the distinguished film scholar David Bordwell offers a vital piece called “Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why Can’t Cinephiles and Academics Just Get Along?”  In it, Bordwell points out that cinema, to a far greater extent than more rarified art forms (literature, visual arts, music, architecture), has inspired popular and scholarly traditions of criticism that rarely overlap.  In fact, the approaches of popular film critics (or “cinephiles,” as Bordwell calls them) and university scholars are so far apart that their members are often actively hostile toward one another.  Bordwell, a career academic at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and also a blogger widely respected among unaffiliated movie buffs, is an ideal figure of compromise to broach the subject, and he concludes that a “hands across the aisle” rapprochement between the two camps could be brokered via the internet.

Sorry, but I’m not ready to surrender my arms just yet.

Bordwell’s topic might seem like a pointless exercise in inside baseball, and one not particularly germane to this blog (although I will connect it to the subject of television, if you’ll bear with me).  But most of the other film critics and enthusiasts of my personal acquaintance hold strong opinions on the subject, and it has certainly colored my own fifteen years as a semi-professional media historian.

Bordwell’s article resonated with me because it brought back a lot of memories from my own undergraduate education, which was perpetrated during the late nineties in the University of Southern California’s cinema-television program.  At the time, the program was dominated by scholars huddled under the umbrella of “Grand Theory” – a collection of cultural-studies disciplines (semiotics, reception studies, psychoanalysis, feminism & queer theory) which connected only tangentially to art appreciation and aesthetics.  In practice, this meant reading a lot of essays about movies in which no individual film was discussed or even named.  Bordwell uses the phrase “smother living work under a blanket of Grand Theory,” and that accurately describes the dispiriting attitude I encountered all too often.  Instead of embodying a broad curiosity about film as a medium, these cultural scholars tended to cherry-pick texts and trends that supported whatever specialty they had staked out on the Grand Theory map.  (Bordwell: “the habit of interpreting films as charade-like enactments of theoretical doctrines.”)

The few USC faculty to whom I was able to relate – like Rick Jewell, a rigorous historian of Hollywood production methods – seemed to exist on the margins of this not-really-about-films film school in which I found myself mired.  I took what I could from teachers like Jewell, but on the whole I emerged from USC with a sense of resentment towards a curriculum that often seemed to condescend to the material I went there to learn about.  A big part of that problem was the basic indifference or even contempt toward the craft of writing that I encountered in the critical literature I read.  The impenetrability of academic writing is an old joke, but it bears repeating that, as Chris Fujiwara puts it in a response to Bordwell’s article, “there is probably no professional sphere in which the lack of desire to write and the lack of interest in writing are more endemic than academia.”  My own formal education therefore had the effect of alienating me from its auspices: although I’ve occasionally written pieces that drew in part on some cultural-theory notions gleaned from college (for instance, this post-feminist reading of The Donna Reed Show), I’ve made a conscious decision to place my work on the popular side of cinephilia (or telephilia, as the case may be) because I want to reach an audience who will read about East Side / West Side or The Patty Duke Show because they want to, not because they have to.  (Fujiwara: “The system of ‘publish or perish,’ together with the reliable assurance that what gets published will remain unread (not infrequently, I imagine, even by those who get paid to edit and review it), guarantees an abundance of terrible academic writing.”)

One quibble I have with Bordwell’s piece is that, perhaps for reasons of space, he uses the term “research” a lot without ever defining it precisely.  For Bordwell, research seems to represent the serious work of scholars; whenever non-academics produce valuable research, it’s a happy accident.  (Bordwell writes that Joseph McBride’s heavily footnoted Spielberg biography “is academic in the best sense.”)  Of course, Bordwell’s own work is prodigiously detailed and specific (see, for instance, his blog post about flashbacks-within-flashbacks), so I suspect he would be surprised and disappointed by how infrequently I encountered the same breadth of curiosity and rigor among the faculty and grad students in my USC program.  Bordwell suggests that “academic research is less geared to evaluation” but I often found that academics were highly evaluative.  It’s just that they were quick to judge texts based on their usefulness to a particular scholarly discipline or approach rather than on their value as art.

I hit my breaking point with this form of myopia when Jeff Kisseloff published his pioneering work The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 during my USC years.  Kisseloff’s book gave me more insight into understanding how television was made than anything I’ve read before or since.  And yet, when I recommended it to one of my television professors, not only did she have no interest in teaching the book, but she wouldn’t even read it.  It was inconceivable to her that oral history could teach her anything useful about television.  I encountered that attitude – that the work of the scholar should be abstract and contemplative rather than nuts-and-bolts – all the time, and it’s why I take exception to Bordwell’s non-definition of “research.”

My own definition of research, then, would be along the lines of investigative journalism: perusal of archival records, excavation of contemporary publications, viewings of obscure works, and yes, actually talking to people who created the objects of one’s study.  Bordwell’s implication that the success of non-academic scholar like McBride in this area was somehow exceptional offended me slightly because, in my view, McBride is the rule, not the exception.  Much of the best movie and television history (if not always the best criticism, which is Bordwell’s primary focus) is the work of outsiders, not of academics.  Of course, that’s the opposite of how it ought to be.

I promised to apply some of these thoughts to television, and I think the best way to do that is to question another generalization of Bordwell’s: that mainstream or cinephile critics are mainly auteurists.  I guess there’s a broad tradition, perhaps more among editors than writers, of following the DGA’s possessory-credit lead and referring to most films as the work of their directors, without any investigation of who actually did what; but I also think that many good mainstream critics are equally likely to come at movies from a context of national cinemas, movie star personas, zeitgeist notions, or any of a dozen other frameworks.

Anyway, it occurs to me that the idea of an auteurist approach breaks down completely when you try to apply it to television.

That’s because the episodic director is rarely the primary creative force in television (except for cases where a Michael Mann or a Martin Scorsese directs an HBO pilot), and understanding the process of who fills that power vacuum is work that few mainstream (and academic?) critics have attempted.  The “showrunner,” a relatively new term and a relatively modern conception, has become a sort of default auteurist figure among television critics, but it’s often misunderstood and selectively applied.  Most critics probably don’t realize that a showrunner may or may not be the same thing as an executive producer or a head writer (for instance, Dick Wolf’s Law & Order shows and Jerry Bruckheimer’s C.S.I. franchises all have their own showrunners, and yet more strongly reflect the sensibilities of Wolf and Bruckheimer).  And I don’t understand why Mad Men and Deadwood are widely understood as the singular visions of their particular creators, and yet I’ve never read any auteurist criticism devoted to, say, John Wells or Ryan Murphy (even though ER and The West Wing, once it passed from Aaron Sorkin’s to Wells’s control, have a great deal in common, and Murphy’s superficially very different Nip/Tuck and Glee are of a philosophical piece).  There are also cases where actors, cinematographers, executives, and other less-than-obvious figures who set the tone in television – not to mention exceptional television directors who really are auteurs but whose work is so spread out that they haven’t been recognized as such – but I’ve seen little work that tries to grasp any of that.

The popular/academic schism in film culture in film culture may be bad, but at least it’s indicative that some approaches have been codified.  In the television realm, I sense that the academics are still chasing their trends instead of doing serious research (can I tell you how many Buffy-loving hipsters I ran afoul of during my USC sojourn?) and most popular critics are just trying to keep up with the screeners that land on their desks, without looking hard enough at the bigger picture.

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Speaking of academics: Lynn Reed is a graduate student at Skidmore College who has been exploring ideas related to her master’s thesis in a good blog.  Her starting point is Mad Men, which she follows into tangents as inevitable as feminism and as unlikely as Remington Steele.  Reed has a fascinating piece up about a Mary Tyler Moore-like sitcom that Sex and the Single Girl author Helen Gurley Brown pitched to Warner Bros. and ABC – in 1962.  Needless to say, this proposed show that envisioned a female protagonist with a sometime boyfriend she “had no plans to marry” was a bit ahead of its time.  I’d love to read what, if anything, resides in the Warner Bros. Archives at USC to document the reaction of the studio’s television executives (at that time a typically cigar-chomping, old-school bunch) to Brown’s salvo of premature feminism.

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Speaking of journalists: My pal Tom Lisanti has a fine three-part interview with sultry France Nuyen on his blog.  He doesn’t say why it was omitted, but evidently the Nuyen profile is a leftover from one of his worthwhile books about sixties ingenues.  Nuyen was Eurasian and hard to cast, but I always thought she was a subtle, wistful actress, with a sexy, marbly voice.  Nuyen is pretty frank but Lisanti didn’t get the one quote I was looking for – a response to the strange, cryptic, misogynistic barbs about his brief marriage to Nuyen that Robert Culp delivered on his I Spy audio commentaries.  Culp evidently had some unresolved issues on the subject, and didn’t mind telling the world about them.

And blogger Mel Neuhaus has another amazing three-parter, this one with child actress turned sixties ingenue Sherry Jackson.  Jackson is forthright about her entire career, but the really eye-popping revelations come in the first installment, during which she reveals the truly toxic environment on the set of the happy-family sitcom Make Room For Daddy.  The whole series (including part two and part three) is a must-read.  There is equal room in my philosophy, I’m proud to say, for both thoughtful criticism of shows like Mad Men and salacious gossip about Danny “Plate Man” Thomas’s kinky sexual proclivities.

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