You will watch a lot of movies alone.

One-Way Street’s Richard Prouty weighs in here on Manohla Dargis’s profile of David Bordwell in this past weekend’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section. I agree with much of what Prouty says regarding Bordwell’s distinctive but almost impossible to pigeonhole approach to film analysis; I too disagree with anybody who thinks that positivist/empiricist/“scientific” approaches to film analysis are more important or more correct than the “loopy” (Prouty’s word) perspectives we get from practitioners of “SLAB” (“Saussure, Lacan, Althusser and Barthes”; Bordwell’s acronym) theory.

Bordwell, like the theorists who dogmatically bow at the altar of the Text, interrogates films as systems of aesthetic elements that are designed and assembled in a way that produces definite, intentional effects on a perceiving viewer; that Bordwell practices this mode of analysis with an air of scientism (thanks to both his reputation for being a cognitive film theorist and his incorporation of neuroscience and cognitive science in many posts on his blog) doesn’t make it any less textual or anthropocentric. I ain’t sayin’ there’s a problem with this, but I (a 21-year-old undergrad who has seen maybe 1/1000 as many films as Bordwell has) do think that film theory ought to address the non-human and metaphysical dimensions of cinema (and there are plenty) as well. I alluded to this position in my last Bordwell post, in which I cited the work of Graham Harman and the other Speculative Realists as perhaps offering us a theoretical framework for performing such an analysis. I’ve got much more reading and thinking to do before I can propose how it’d all work.

One thing Prouty’s wrong about, at least in my mind, is his point in the following passage:

If you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to do nothing else with your time but watch movies, David Bordwell is the person you would become. You will become, like him, rigorous, disciplined, and unsentimental. No one will be able to disagree with you. You will watch a lot of movies alone.

Having seen or otherwise encountered Bordwell at countless screenings here in Madison over the years, I can say for certain that he is seldom if ever alone; if his wife and collaborator Kristin Thompson isn’t present, his entourage of admiring grad students and former colleagues in the UW Communication Arts department is. I’ve always wondered/worried whether cinema is a means of isolating oneself, of sinking into the shadows of anonymity in order to momentarily lose sight of one’s ego and find other, more interesting personalities on the big screen. However, the figure of the viewer as an “underground man” hardly applies to Bordwell, who, in my experience, never hesitates to hold court before or after a screening. I’m sure I’m embarrassing him at this point, so I’ll stop.

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4 Responses to “You will watch a lot of movies alone.”

  1. Richard Prouty Says:

    Thanks for your commentary.

    David Bordwell is definitely one of the giants of the field. I’ve learned a lot from him, especially about the classical Hollywood style. I agree with you, though, that his approach is too narrow. The approach of most major scholars and critics is too narrow. We all see differently, yet we’re also the sum of our influences. We all cobble together personal theories from a variety of sources, and this is how it should be.

    I was trained in the big French theorists, Lacan included, as well as the big German theorists, most notably Walter Benjamin. They’ve shaped how I see and read and write, but I don’t read any of them uncritically. Anyone who studies critical theory with serious intent is ambivalent about it to one degree or another. This is what the enemies of theory don’t understand. My views on Jacques Lacan have evolved over the years. He’s tremendously important for thinking about the subjectivity of viewing and our relationship to language. At the same time, though, I wonder about the charges of charlatanism sometimes leveled against him. His parable of the tin can floating in a sea that looks back at us (I’m writing this from a hotel room in Boston, so I can’t look up which essay it comes from other than to direct you to Ecrits) is a good insight insufficiently developed. Really, we can’t look at anything without sensing that it’s look back at us. This is the “loopy” quality his writing, and others, sometimes lapses into. However, I wouldn’t dismiss all of critical theory, or even a majority of it, as loopy. It seems once a thinker reaches a certain prominence, all of his or her ideas make it into publication, whether they’re fully formed or not.

    As for watching films alone, this was an insufficiently developed idea. I can imagine the crowd that gathers around David Bordwell and his wife on campus or at public screenings. Film studies has always struck me as a sociable discipline–more so than literary studies, at any rate. Part of the fun of studying film in college is sharing your experiences with like-minded peers. The Society for Cinema Studies conference was always my favorite.

    However, your fears about the subject matter becoming isolating are well founded. Outside the academy you’re pretty much on your own. Going to see a Romanian film at a crowded downtown theater with expensive parking is a commitment that few people are willing to make on a regular basis. DVD’s make viewing easier, but only hardcore cinephiles would enjoy spending two hours on a Friday watching an Ozu film. An early Howard Hawks film or a Sirk melodrama aren’t easier sells. Oftentimes, cinephilia is a lonely pursuit that becomes all the more isolating the more esoteric, or scholarly, you are, the less likely someone else will share that passion.

    Good luck with your studies.

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Richard! I’ve followed your blog for a while; seeing as how I count Walter Benjamin among the handful of thinkers who have drastically shaped my thinking about pretty much everything, I suppose I was predisposed to love a blog named for one of my favorite writings by Benjamin.

      I’ve only read a few short essays by Lacan, though I’m sure that will change when I ship off to grad school in the not-so-distant future.

      While you and I are here, I gotta ask: Do you have an opinion on the work of Graham Harman, Larval Subjects’ Levi Bryant (who is a Lacanian of a sort) or any of the other Speculative Realists/Object-Oriented Ontologists? I might be a relative rookie, but I nevertheless think that the ideas these thinkers are developing in the wide-open space of the blogosphere could have a significant effect on film studies and film theory soon enough (Harman’s work on aesthetics in particular).

      My strategy for overcoming the self-imposed alienation inherent to cinephilia: Make friends with the clerks at your friendly neighborhood movie rental joint.

  2. Richard Prouty Says:

    Hi Dan:

    Actually, you’ll most likely be assigned to read somebody writing about Lacan rather than Lacan himself, who is tough sledding. I’ve not read Harman or Bryant, but I’ll definitely check them out. There are good films blogs, of course, but very few that cover film theory. Girish Shambu, who’s actually a professor of electrical engineering, is a good source for all things cinematic in the blogosphere.

    Independent videos stores are great. I actually like them better than independent bookstores. Just wait until you meet your former students working there.

    Where are you going to grad school?

    • Dan Sullivan Says:

      As of now my grad school destination is TBD. I have a few places I’m partial to but I’ve yet to begin the application process in earnest. Can’t hardly wait.

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