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September 14, 2003

The Death of the Director

Posted by Mike on September 14, 2003 8:42 PM

"Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology" is some moderately entertaining squawking about the rise of film theory in film schools, and the rarified language that accompanies it:

"The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as 'diegetic,' 'heterogeneity,' 'narratology,' 'narrativity,' 'symptomology,' 'scopophilia,' 'signifier,' 'syntagmatic,' 'synecdoche,' 'temporality.' I picked out two of them—'fabula' and 'syuzhet'—and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. 'They're the Russian Formalist terms for 'story' and 'plot,' ' she replied.

"'Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' '

'We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.'"

Roger Ebert's quote is particularly scalding:

"Film theory has nothing to do with film. Students presumably hope to find out something about film, and all they will find out is an occult and arcane language designed only for the purpose of excluding those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who have. No one with any literacy, taste or intelligence would want to teach these courses, so the bona fide definition of people teaching them are people who are incapable of teaching anything else."

I've taken a few film classes in the past year and I'm looking forward to two or three more this term. So far there's nothing as obnoxious as what this author reports going on at sleepy PSU. We get a little Barthes, we get a little Greenberg, we watch a film or two a week, and we talk about what they call that funny canted angle and how it helped the director get something done. Most of the hands-on stuff seems to be farmed out to the Northwest Film Center, and most of my film classes are handled by the English department, which is not as interested in teaching us how to make films as how to read them.

More to the point, I don't feel particularly ill served by the process: I think the classes are fun and they encourage me to think about movies in new ways. On the other hand, if I wanted to make films for a living I would feel ill served if this sort of theorizing occupied the bulk of the curriculum. The author grudgingly admits that in his daughter's case, it does not.

Unfortunately for this piece, he's in full-on axe grinding mode by the time he's done, and he spends his final paragraphs in a classroom with bored students who squirm under the Marxist stylings of one of his hated film theorists. I admit that I have no idea how these students ended up in the class the author reports on, or how it was advertised, but I will offer that I've seen similarly agonized students whose misery has less to do with poor little undergrads being beaten down by the mean old postmodernist's big words and a lot more to do with lazy children who signed up because they thought they were going to watch movies and write little reports about them for which they'd be rewarded a nice, gentlemanly "A". They should have dropped the course the second the professor told them they'd have to learn how to take notes, think critically, and watch a film at the same time, because that was clearly not why they were there.

I sympathize with the anxiety academic language can induce in some people. I spent my first term back at school feeling more than a little put upon and nervous when confronted with the disconnect between my first time around in a college classroom 17 years ago and the current state of academica as it plays out here and now. The vocabulary did seem dense and rarified, and I spent several office hours with each of my professors trying to tease out clues. I had to do a little outside reading and research. Certainly I wasn't able to pick up some of the reading we were handed without going over a few sentences more than once, and Google was my friend more than a few times. In the end, though, it wasn't that hard when approached with an open mind and a little willpower. Poking fun of all the funny, big words wouldn't have served me very well, and had I not moved past my initial resistance to learning a specialized language, well... I would have gotten what I deserved.