Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thoughts on Film Canon While Re-Reading Some Books by Rosenbaum

While much of what Rosenbaum says in Movie Wars is clear to anyone who goes to the movies or who reads about them, my experience as a college student, as one who has taken film courses in three different universities over the past decade, gives me a perspective that a self-taught critic does not have. I have been taught the canon of schlock, and if not for sheer luck of the draw, I may have never known better. Even with Ray Carney directing the graduate program in film studies, Boston University was hardly a challenge to the status quo. During my two years I took courses in both the Horror and Gangster genres. I was enrolled in a course called American Masterworks once and a teaching assistant another time. In both classes we watched one film by Spike Lee, John Ford, Spielberg, Coppola, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Altman and Oliver Stone. Both courses screened The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Rebel without a Cause and Citizen Kane. Do the Right Thing and Dr. Strangelove are the only two films from either course that were made outside of Hollywood. I watched three Spielberg films in classes at BU: The Color Purple, Jaws and Poltergeist. I saw Godfather II twice and Godfather three times (Gangster course and both American Masterworks courses)! At Ohio University I saw more Hitchcock and more Hollywood schlock. The school of film offers, or has offered, courses that address science fiction film, teen film, cult film and Marxism in film. Once there was even a course called “White Male Masculinity in the Action Film.”

As Rosenbaum says, if the critics and academics do not build a film canon, the academy of motion pictures and the box office receipts will do it for us.

Rosenbaum also argues that academics are making a canon anyway, but a canon of essential theoretical texts rather than essential films. (pgs. 84-85) “In English and literature departments a mistrust of canons devoted mainly to the works of ‘dead white males’ has clearly diminished the possibility of teaching literature from a literary standpoint; the social sciences have taken over the study of fiction and poetry to a crippling degree, and in a way this has only completed the damage often done in grammar school and high school by neglecting to enforce grammar for related ideological reasons. Some perceptive remarks by Michael Chaouli, assistant professor of German and of Comparative Literature at Harvard, in the Times Literary Supplement, are telling:

The wider the range of objects of study, the more specific and specifically policed the style of presentation becomes. This may be one reason why in our graduate curriculum the literary canon is being inexorably displaced by a rather narrow theoretical canon. If during the reign of the literary canon one lived in fear of having one’s work labeled ‘trivial’ today’s dreaded word must be ‘untheorized.’

In its intelligent versions, cultural studies urges literature departments no to promulgate a canon indebted to the notion of the romantic genius, but rather to devote themselves to studying the ordinary without abandoning the value of value. But given the workings of our field, a democracy of objects of study may easily be vitiated by an aristocracy of subjects. The trade-off is quite clear: the more ordinary the object of inquiry, the more extraordinary the critic; all the cultural capital that is given up in choice of object flows back in the breathtaking creativity with which meaning can be made to appear anywhere. The romantic genius returns, this time not as poet, but as critic.

A couple problems I find with Rosenbaum’s arguments are worth noting. First, his faith in people strikes me as flat-out utopian. His belief that people will make smart choices if they were presented with better choices is just na├»ve. He fails to acknowledge that there already is a niche market for art film made up in large part of people who have heard the buzz about a particular film, and consider it there cultural responsibility to see art movies just as they would go to the ballet or the opera. Sadly, the bulk of the market for films like Ordet or Au Hazad Balthazar consist of folks who would also line up to see Sideways and Closer. Of course without this market I would not be able to get Balthazar on DVD, but the matter of having or not having an audience is not a question of marketing.

I also disagree with Rosebaum’s suggestion that the commercial failure of art film is related to the PR they get. It is not an issue of coverage. People will not make smart choices if they do not first understand why they should, and advertising campaigns are not really designed to delve into that kind of aesthetic question. Marketing an indie movie or an art film is always an effort to make it look like something more recognizable. Look at the trailer for an indie like Junebug or a re-issued masterpiece like Grand Illusion. Junebug looks like Jerry McGuire and Grand Illusion looks like some Spielberg ode to his favorite war. Imagine how angry, confused and bored the viewer would be who was led to Junebug by such a preview! Of course it has to look like conformity because if the trailer looks like anything as weird as Junebug or as boring as Grand Illusion, the numbers (of seat filled, of copies sold) would diminish. It is a mistake to think that people want something different from what they are getting. They need it surely enough, but they do not want it.

Our culture needs to be overhauled. We need art programs on TV. We need to foster a population that reads books. We need to make culture a priority in primary school. None of that will ever happen. The average American might have accidentally watched a program on Van Gogh or a performance of some Balanchine piece on PBS when there where only four or five channels to choose from, but no one would have to resort to that now. Most basic cable and satellite packages come with about four channels each of sports and music. Who is going to watch Balanchine when there’s a game on? PBS knows the answer to that question as well as we do, so they do not show programs anymore. Programmers for public television can hardly be blamed; they have to compete with the other networks for ratings, because the jackass administration that oversees them insists on treating them as a business concern rather than a public service. This country is about to lose public TV and radio altogether because neither is popular enough, and in America if it isn’t popular, it must be excised.

The point of all this for us and for film canons is that art is not popular. It is extremely unpopular, in fact; hardly anybody wants anything to do with it. I make the students in my introduction to the arts course watch independent, experimental and foreign films every quarter, and almost all of them hate every movie I show. It is important that you understand that I do not use “hate” for some literary purpose. “Hate” is the exact word. The films I show make the students who manage to stay awake miserable. They rarely adjust over a ten week period. Amount of exposure doesn’t seem to be the problem. Many of my students have seen independent films before, and they come to class hating them already. When I tell them the movie we will watch is black and white, they groan, “This isn’t an independent film is it?” It is as if I promised them cake only to reveal, just before serving it up, that I made it from a mixture of road-kill. Suddenly no one wants any part of Dr. Jones’ fun-time movie class. How much exposure does it take? One summer I showed a class juniors and seniors fourteen films over an eight week period. Every movie was stylistically different from the last. Their papers and our class discussions made it clear: exposure and instruction is not enough.

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