Academic writing on the cinema has never been in worse shape, to judge by the sampling of it on display in the Conference Papers section for the past few months in Senses of Cinema. Academics have never travelled to so many conferences to deliver their ‘papers’, and never have the returns so little justified the expense in travel grants.
Look at the section in May’s installment, supposedly devoted to Hitchcock. What, in a paper nominally concerned with the meeting-in Vertigo-of the High and Popular arts in Hitchcock’s work, do we learn that we didn’t know before? If we are coming from the Popular side, nothing. If we are coming from the Criticism/Academic side, again nothing. The entire piece, from start to finish, is a deluge of references to academic and popular publications on Hitchcock; every point made is a summary. Nothing is said without mentioning some article or book with a college pedigree, French for preference, and accompanied by a quotation couched in the most pretentious pseudo-technical jargon the paper’s author was able to scoop up. Everyone, from Lacan to Camille Paglia, is here. A choice lexicon of the cloudiest and most abstract generalities that ever avoided saying something original or relevant about Hitchcock is offered to the reader. Every paragraph, without exception, leans on some prior academic publication.
But there is not a word about the experience we remember, and some of us love, under the name of Vertigo. Not a single specific scene, shot or character, not one formal attribute of them, nor even one original or enlightening observation of the author, is to be found. Instead, we hear about an ‘installation’ exhibit accompanying the conference at which he spoke, and a few like-minded exhibits elsewhere. This seems to be the sum of new information to be had in the paper. The rest, in its entirety, is what he said about Hitchcock and Poe, what she said about Hitchcock and postmodernism, what they said about Hitchcock and Lacan. Not even said: wrote. In short, the paper is nothing but a bibliographical compilation-one which might as well have spared us the author’s tortuously long, horribly clumsy sentences by limiting itself to the reference list at the end.
This, an exceptionally bad example, is a good model of what is wrong with so many of the academic papers. Films’ and directors’ names stand tall in the titles; but they cast no recognizable shadow on the contents. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that their signatories had ever sat in a cinema with a human audience or ever thrilled to the experience from the screen in their lives, if that is what they have. What we find in place of that are academics talking about other academics-or even about summaries of other academics at a secondary or tertiary remove. This only multiplies the occasions for misquotation and outright error: a germ of carelessness which these conferees seem particularly to attract. This wouldn’t matter much if it were confined to the academics (who reads them, besides each other?). What matters is the seepage of error into what they say about the films and filmmakers concerned-the misleading or mistaken pronouncements on this man’s montage or that man’s sources or the other’s mise en scène. In passing, of course; always only in passing.
Look at this beaut, from the author of the paper whose title makes a distant allusion to Vertigo: “In a word, Hitchcock’s deftly crafted parables about love, death, loss and obsession are predicated on Eisensteinian montage as much as they are on surrealism, expressionism and existential black humour (Kafka/Sartre).” I won’t comment on the ‘in a word’. Nor on the dubious justice of having Kafka slash Sartre, or Sartre slash Kafka (no surprise, with such mismatched Siamese twins).
But to characterize Hitchcock’s montage as “Eisensteinian”-this must be answered, and in the sharpest possible terms. No two methods of montage are further apart than those of Hitchcock and Eisenstein; the two are as different as night and day. Eisenstein’s was independent of unified space-time coordinates; Hitchcock’s depended on them. In Eisenstein, it was the collision between shots that produced the ‘synthesized’ effect he sought. In Hitchcock, it was their unity that caused the dreamlike shock of this-juxtaposed-with-that, in one place and time-which alone enables the ‘surreal’ jolt to occur. Why? Because only then do we believe in it: we believe that both things are there. This is the source of the Hitchcockian power. The reality of the ‘surreality’ must be believed while viewing as much as a dreamer believes in the dreamt world while dreaming. Why did Dali’s objects have such hyperrealism, if not to aid the effect of their juxtaposing? Didn’t he more than once call surrealism an “art of juxtapositions”?
Just so with Hitchcock. How many times did he tell interviewers that you cannot be frightened by something you don’t believe? Substitute ‘aroused’ or ‘affected’ and you have the whole story. Was Eisenstein concerned with any of this? It was to an arousal of consciousness that he addressed his efforts, i.e. a purely abstract, intellectual upheaval-one that took place, if at all, in the mind, not in the gut, of his audience. His montage was designed around the yoking of disparate objects. It was a device for ‘making connections’, often via far-fetched analogies, metaphors, symbols, etc., of literary or painterly more than cinematic inspiration.
I feel almost ashamed at having to retail such stale information. This has been known about for such a long time that it ought to be part of every genuine cinephile’s instincts. Montage is one of the fine differentiators among the masters of film. As differentiae, Hitchcock and Eisenstein have come to be emblematic: polar opposites of the field they define, and none more sharply. They were so already to Godard in the nineteen-fifties, and to other Cahiers critics. But then, most of those turned out to be practitioners of the art they wrote about: makers, who knew whereof they spoke. Not verbose fakers hibernating amid the forced ivy of gothic-revival stone.
Does biographical misinformation go down any easier? How easy, reader, if you are at all knowledgable about Hitchcock, do you find it to digest the following gem from the same paper-and what would a browser who’d been personally acquainted with Hitchcock think of it? “Hitchcock as the canny insider/outsider, the chameleon trickster, who knew how to cultivate himself as the exiled Englishman serving tea in Hollywood, among the many displaced émigré European filmmakers, writers, intellectuals…”
Hitchcock was not an exile, and certainly never felt “displaced”. He was invited to Hollywood by Selznick, and thus had no need whatever to play a Jeeves-the-Butler role “serving tea” or “cultivating himself”. Nor is it at all likely he would have done so even had he not been invited and cultivated by Hollywood. Nor are any genuine exiles of the ’40s on record as having done so-and certainly no Englishmen. On the contrary: it had been fashionable among them to proclaim publicly how much they scorned the patronage of Tinseltown’s big players; and the fashion was maintained later by Graham Greene, who prudently waited until his contract had expired. From it, and from similar social trends in Hollywood, Hitchcock remained aloof-which was one source of his power, and of the aura of immense authority that was to accumulate around him. And how does the “chameleon” sort with the position maintained in the rest of this piece, on Hitchcock of the rock-like stability and instantly-recognizable public identity? On what is it then to be “predicated”? (Really, one should not go about using verbs, however impressive-sounding, of whose meaning one is not quite certain. “Predicated” does not mean “based”-even if, in the present context, it does point to something debased.)
Of course, this “serving tea” bunkum is not meant to be taken quite literally. It is a broad and rather careless ‘so-to-speak’, dropped, like much else that’s careless, in the middle of one of the author’s eternal sentences. It is not the figure of speech, but the sense that is false; not just the metaphor, but what it stands for, is utterly wrong and misinformed. And it risks being taken as gospel by a reader new to its subject and his career. Hence the urgent need to correct it. It is not men like Hitchcock, it is not the practitioners of an art, but its parasites, its secondary celebrants and fawning journalists, academic and other, who typically “serve tea” and “cultivate” introductions to those whose works (like Hitchcock’s) their own existence depends upon. It is the critics, academics, and journalists whose lives consist of cadging acquaintanceships, who stick their hands out and wait to be patted on the head by whoever can boot them, directly or indirectly, a rung up on their scrawny rotten little ladders: the press-agent, the department administrator, the Arts editor, the vice-chancellor. They will serve you tea, for whose tongues no shoesole ever existed or ever will exist that is too dirty.
Until there is a quantum leap in the quality of cinema writing, it is the man-in-the-street, the ordinary cinemagoer with access to a repertory theater, who will continue to discover Hitchcock as he wanted (with good reason!) to be discovered; who will respond to the screen as Hitchcock wanted him to respond: gut first, thinking after. Only such viewers stand a chance of sounding what the great Englishman left in his films-of seeing a formal attribute transformed in front of one’s eyes into a meaning, wordable or otherwise. A color-configuration triggering distant frame-mileage, a track, a floating wake, a walk, a rhythm, an ordinary but warning-light gesture, an unearthly scent suddenly amid the quotidian….
For the present, there are only the conference people trailing a damp alphabet-soup from their tails-BAs or MAs, or ‘Hon.’-and busily reflecting each other in every word they produce: the paper-people. A Paglia will forever mirror a popularized Lacan, a Jameson a Lyotard, and a Conomos a Jameson-setting the tone almost right from the start by asking into which of this absurd pedant’s three categorical straitjackets Hitchcock will fit: “realism, modernism, and postmodernism”? Can the cinephile wait to hear this question answered?
I don’t wish to seem to be singling out this paper as a target; as I said, it is a model of the general dereliction, nothing more. Any one of a dozen others-including one from last month’s issue-would serve just as well in illustration of the point I want to raise here: that in each case where some theme or theoretical principle is ventilated, the films (if any) cited are there solely for supporting the principle, or illustrating the theme; not vice-versa-the theory or theme for the sake of shedding light on the films. The ominous truth is that the paper just cited is actually not the worst in this regard, since it has no principle to ventilate and mentions no films. Much worse are the papers that make a serious pretence of wanting to discuss, say, Hitchcock, or electronic/film-media interfaces, or Kubrick (via attitudes to technology) or westerns or anything else recognizably cinematic. As a quick scanning of the references in the ‘Endnotes’ to each of them shows, pretence is all it is. What do they take as their real reference-points? By what have they truly been influenced?
This disarmingly honest statement at the head of one of the papers (by a young “PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at the University of Melbourne”) in the April issue tells us: “I would like to preface this paper by noting how my thinking has been influenced by Lorraine Mortimer’s work on Edgar Morin and also her article “The Grim Enchantment of It’s a Wonderful Life“, in which she discusses the idea of a ‘knowing enchantment’ that is neither ‘dumb’ nor ‘cynical’.” There follows the first of the writer’s 34 footnotes (in 5 printout pages). A quick check of Mortimer’s not-very-overwhelming “idea” in the Massachusetts Review shows that, not Capra’s film, but Capra as filtered through Morin’s writings-or rather, just plain Morin-is her real concern. In other words, it is another of the many thousands of Ivy League parrotings of long-since disseminated French ideas, to add to the “deconstruction” of Derrida’s (abysmal) translators, the “postmodernism” of Lyotard’s, the “telesthesia” of Deleuze/Guattari/Virillio’s, and so on. It is this that our PhD candidate has taken her “influence” from. If there is anything of It’s a Wonderful Life left in it all, it didn’t succeed in worming its way through the other layers: four (being optimistic), five (counting the French subtitles Morin probably depended on).
-All for the sake of a Stoic/Puritan-New England-schoolmarm “idea”! Is that all you saw, reader, in the film that Capra made? All you got out of that invertible sleeve? Then you will no doubt be surpassingly content with Candidate Murray’s summary of others’ “ideas”. But don’t trust me; just cruise the paper (titled This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life) and try to find a single quoted line in it that comes from the film.
Elsewhere, it is much the same-if more subtly camouflaged. (Age tells.) The Parted Eye: Spellbound and Psychoanalysis exists only so that its author may insert a new ‘divided eye’ theory of his own into Freudian orbitings around that favored object, The Text, while delivering a few kicks to the Thelma-and-Louise duo of feminist film-criticism-Mulvey and Modleski (a frayed string beating an already-dead horse). The film certainly exists for no other purpose, as the author all but tells us: too “flawed”. Another paper (calling itself Modernity: A Film by Alfred Hitchcock) opens with a quote from W. Benjamin. By footnote 15, Freud has joined him (oh, wow) in an italicized citation jostling for space alongside Hitchcock in the orthographic text. By note 20, not only Deleuze (gasp!) but Bergson, Kracauer and Brecht have all elbowed their way into the main textual body. Alas! Doesn’t Hitch deserve better company? But he, typically, is reduced to some credit-title designs, and the intertitles for two of his silent films (one of whose were designed and executed by somebody else). Meanwhile, the paper gets bitten in two places by that chronic bug of semi-literates: the word ‘affect’ where ‘effect’ is meant. Selznick, the Silents.periods in which the Hitchcockian is least to be found; that should tell the reader something.
But the reductio ad absurdum of all this was the Issue 5 contribution by “James Verdon”-mentioning not a single work by anyone, nor a scrap of invented or humanly-derivable content. Instead, the author, a Swinburne Tech boffin, delivers a computer/video technical exposé in preparation for discussing his own ‘interactive’ installation (which this paper evidently reflects: where there is no content, spectators must bring-their-own). He even quotes one of the reviews he has had! In fairness, it must be admitted that no readers are likely ever to reach that point; the entire thing is a self-nullifying joke, like “James Verdon”: the name of the exhibit’s programme-file. We have an electronic installation talking about itself-as a scanning of any paragraph will at once reveal. What mere human could have written it? Whether the editors realize it or not, they are to be congratulated for a scoop: a true ‘first’!
This divagation into the absurd was merely intended to show what film-criticism has least to fear from. The real poison is in the misleading stills and titles; in the pretence that undermines what it glances at, sidelong; in the implied devaluation of a mere prop. (A fashionable one moreover, ever since Deleuze &c. sank their image-hungry fangs into it.) Spotting a paragraph with italicized titles, director-surnames, misquoted dialogue and plot-summaries amounts, in these hands, to wearing a suit that looks good at a distance but ‘deconstructs’ into hand-me-down patches as you approach. Their true interests are elsewhere, the relevance to films is questionable, and the light shed on them, negligible. And the harm they do: likewise? Perhaps; but those, not yet out of their teens, on the brink of an ecstatic discovery at one of the repertory venues-or who, in some form, have already made it-just might have their receptivity narrowed or distorted by some long-eared blatherer with a semiotic (if barely literate) axe to grind. Not permanently, of course; but time impermanently wasted can mean films forever lost and hungered-after. It is not fair that open minds should starve to fatten the careers of fakes parroting bad translations from French.
Yes, reader: fakes. If these writers possessed some illumination in their own fields-English or Media Studies, say, or Semiotics-the term would be inapplicable. But no: parrotry, with emphasis on the syllable rot, is all there is. We have the surface of savants’ speech without its substance, without any substance to convey, in the majority of these papers. Which is right where I shall take the proof from. Suppose I carry my point: shall these conferees be left with a platform, other than ‘professional’, from which to lecture the film-buff?
Sample this marvel, from a paper pretentiously titled Vectoral Cinema by one of our local “telesthesia” fans: “Every sign we receive is an index, Hitchcock tells us, but of what, we can rarely ever know.” See you this “rarely ever”, thrust out like a pug’s split lip at the good re-reader for choosing? ‘Tis a choice phrase indeed-and it is immediately followed by another: “An index is a sign that is directly produced by a material effect, like a smoke signal.” What say you to this “effect” that produces directly? Or the example, a “smoke signal”? Is the smoke-signal or the smoke the effect? No, an index is directly produced by a material cause (like a smoke signal) whose effect (smoke) is the sign. To the illicit grammar of “rarely ever” we must add a mistaken definition compounded by an illogical example. Through this thicket of confusion, what are we supposed to be instructed in? Would you walk away from it knowing what an Index is? -And all within two lines! The writer, you will be pleased to learn, is a “senior lecturer in media studies at Macquarie University”, and signs himself (with ‘X’s?) “McKenzie Wark”. Mac lecturing at Mac.
Does it have correspondences? It does, indeed it does. Every Mac has its Murdoch; and every Murdoch has its “Senior Lecturer in English”, capitalized this time, to instruct us in “Postmodern Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2000)”, with which one’s credentials for appearing in the 7th. Senses of Cinema are announced. This capitalized senior lecturer, you may be sure, is equal to the standards set by our previous exemplar: -
“The point is that what we now think of as technology, what we call ‘technology’, in a sense has not yet fully arrived in the social present; it hasn’t been fully present-ified, as yet, but seems almost to belong to the future, or to provide a glimpse of the future, and thus to be caught up in a kind of future tense, or at least a futuristic tense. It doesn’t seem to be of this world but to have arrived out of nowhere, from someplace else.“
I have quoted this paragraph in full to allow the reader to participate in the breathlessly thrilling stammers of the author over the word future as he approaches the end; to let the emphatic “of” make its full impact; to ensure that the coyly hyphenated “present-ified” is not lost on us (titter-titter); and to climax with “nowhere/someplace”, another deathless coupling in the Antithetical Hybrid form, familiar from Mac.
I can spare readers further quotations of this paper’s prose if I point out that this is but a concentrate of characteristics that appear throughout: the ghastly repetitions, the stuttering redundancies, the platitudinously breathless forward rush, as if the author were rethinking each phrase in the very act of writing. Its style is French-translator-deconstructionese, not English-not of any kind-notwithstanding the author’s claim to be lecturing “in” it. (Neither ‘on’ it, nor ‘in’ it, as far as can be seen from the present sample.) The writer, one Niall Lucy, despite discussing two complex feature-films, has not a thought to offer on them that isn’t lifted straight from Plato’s Pharmacy by Jacques Derrida, of whom Lucy is a self-admitted admirer; or from one of Derrida’s American commentators, by whose prose his own seems to have been irreparably infected. But so have his discernments, if the following item from his reference-list is any indication: “Zoë Sofia, ‘Exterminating Fetuses: Abortion, Disarmament, and the Sexo-Semiotics of Extraterrestrialism’, Diacritics 14, 2(1984)“.
I wouldn’t have wanted to deprive the reader of this “sexo-semiotics”. Or the name of the journal that tried to digest it. And least of all: the information that drivel of this sort, already at the stage where it can’t be distinguished from someone’s parody of it, can still affect a terminally jet-lagged culture’s human products-like Our Lucy-to the point of entering the Senior domains of lecturing “in” English. English. How does an illiterate stutterer manage to obtain such a post, even at a privately-endowed university? Well, there is an answer to that-but I have tried the reader’s patience long enough. Leave it to a future article (if I can be bothered). For the moment, I can only point to the evidence of our own eyes. Does this “senior lecturer” qualify, in his field? Can he write elementary English? Have a read, if you can stomach it: does he have anything new whatever to add to Siegel, Kubrick and Technology-the supposed subjects of his paper?
Is he, or are any of his cohorts, fit to lecture you in the field of cinema? By what right? They cannot even contribute anything to their own!
The mass-audience has already given its answer. Its obdurate loyalty to Arnie and the Cruise and the Aliens, to Lethal Mission and Weapon Impossible, is after all nothing to wonder at. Who wants to endure a cinemathéque venue under these recommendations? That quantum leap will have to come first.
Until it happens, true cinephiles cannot be expected to seriously pay attention to the Academites and their rear-window outpourings. Certainly not to this “conference” trash-most of it, anyway (single exceptions always exist). I get very sleepy when, on perusing the only quoted film-dialogue in a paper, I find a particularly famous instance of it misquoted; e.g. Hal’s plea to Bowman while being dismantled in 2001: “My mind is going, Dave.” (It happens in Total Eclipse of the Heart: Thinking Through Technology-Lecturer Lucy’s paper.) Misdatings, misattributions, general ignorance-these are all part of the same foul-smelling package. The respect for facts: where is it? Whither ‘learnedness’? But without them, why have academics at all; unless mere glorified Technical Instructors are to be comprised under that name (as some appear to want)?
But someone must raise a voice against the abysmally low standards on view-a Protest (old-fashioned word) against the co-optive abuse of cinema by supposed experts in another field, who turn out to be incompetent in it. So here I raise it. Yes, yes, by all means: A Quantum Leap! I leave you with one final demonstration of the desperate need for it: -
“For a useful summary of the view that cinema itself is ontologically surreal in its defamiliarising imperative capacity to penetrate the surface of the world see…”[There follows a reference to a Duke University publication titled, appropriately, Empty Moments.]
The reader probably thinks I’m making it up. It certainly sounds like a parody of current Academese putting on its English finery. The tragedy is that this is intended seriously, and comes from the reference sources at the end of the paper in Issue 6 mistitled Vertigo of Time-the one with the totally unnecessary still of James Stewart from the film’s nightmare sequence. (Very misleading: after title and still have promised us something on Vertigo, all we get is-a nightmare.) The tragedy is in its typicality. This is almost a model of what comes from Film Academia today. The only thing missing from it is the doggerel-verb ‘to reference’, ‘referencing’-but you will find it in the body of the paper. And no, it’s not just a style that is at stake; but the misinformed ignorance, illiteracy and emptiness that it is meant to mask.
— <> —
A curious thing about extreme states is that the exceptions to them tend also to be extreme. And very visibly so, being rare and coming in singles. The extreme state being described here-of the decadence to which academic film-writing has declined-is no different in this respect. It would be very remiss not to point out the honorable exception to the dismal state of affairs detailed above: Bill Schaffer’s paper Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho (in Issue 6). In this superbly written piece one encounters, at last, a palpable residue of something experienced, deeply felt and thought-about, thrust into the author from the screen. It contains an original and very valid observation on the inter-dynamics of Hitchcock’s screen and the viewer’s interior space. I cannot recommend it too warmly to readers who want to see what most academic papers lack-and how good one can be. Perhaps only in a journal as eclectic and open as this one would a section like the Conference Papers contain the gauge by which its own deficiencies can be measured.