Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Film Studies: Future of a discipline (parts 1 & 2)


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I have been involved in the area/discipline known as Film/Cinema Studies for over forty years. I began studying film in the mid 1960’s while an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal. At that time, cinema studies was not considered to be a legitimate discipline and there was considerable argument among a variety of theorists and cultural analysts, as well as traditional academicians about whether film deserved to be studied at the university level and given the status of the traditional disciplines. For the most part, as a consequence of this ambivalence, film was relegated to English departments where it was approached much as one might approach a work of literature or to Art History departments where it was taught as a sub-set of the visual arts.

This lack of interest in the medium haunted those of us excited by the advent of the New Wave in France, for example and by the exciting work being written by authors for Cahiers du Cinema. The work of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut and Italian directors like Antonioni, Bertolucci, Fellini and Pasolini combined with an explosion of creativity in experimental cinema in the United States by artists like Stan Brakhage, Ed Emshwiller, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas and Maya Deren was so intense that it led many of us to believe that the cinema had finally arrived as a legitimate object of study. Crucially, arrived not as medium so much as cultural event, a window and often a mirror through which individuals could reflect not only on art, but also on their status and identity within western societies. This duality was central to the excitement many of us felt about the cinema. Unlike other activities, the cinema’s links to popular culture encouraged new ways of thinking about hitherto dominant notions of high culture. Simultaneously, pop art was transforming the modernist trajectory in the visual arts incorporating everyday objects and sign systems into artistic visualizations and representations. The impact of this convergence along with the scholarly work of McLuhan, Innis and Carpenter in Canada, Christian Metz, Roland Barthes and Claude Lévi-Strauss in France and the advent of new journals like Screen, Cinéthique, and Take One were part of an intense period of creation and reflection on the status of cultural forms and their impact.

In fact, for many including myself, film was at the heart of oppositional culture as it was expressed through the rebellious cultural activities of the 1960’s and much of this was linked to the concurrent revolution that was occurring in popular music. In this context, many films of the period were experimental as new narrative forms were explored within the framework of a self-reflexive modernism. The general approach to narrative was framed with the rediscovery of Dada, surrealism and experimentation in literature (especially James Joyce). For example, Andy Warhol’s eight hour exploration of the Empire State building in New York (entitled, Empire) was not only a challenge to watch, but defied nearly all of the conventions of storytelling that mainstream cinema had built up since the invention of the medium in the mid 1890’s. (I was privileged to see one of its first screenings, which took place in a loft in Soho in 1964. The showing took place from four o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. I slept on and off as Warhol’s stationary camera allowed me to explore the movement of people in and out of the building and the changing light over the time period. It marked the beginning of my own fascination with Art Deco.) Warhol’s film had its roots in the 1920’s, more specifically in art films of that period, which explored urban landscapes using both stationary shots and frame-by-frame exposure to show the way light changes every minute of every day. In fact, Warhol’s famous time capsules (which were found after his death) have become records of his life and also of New York, and reveal the degree to which he saw himself as an ethnographer of everyday life. The time capsules are boxes of paraphernalia collected over many years including clips of films and cuttings from newspapers. Together, they constitute a cabinet of curiosities in the nineteenth century sense of that word.

At the same time, there was an explosion of interest in animation represented in large measure by the experimental work of Norman McLaren. McLaren’s films focused on celluloid, drawing and working with cells. An entire generation rediscovered the materiality of the cinema through his work and began to recognize the connections between animation and so much work in the arts in the 1920’s and 1930’s. His locale, the National Film Board, itself represented a major commitment to the cinema and its potential. This was Canada’s great contribution to film culture of the time largely because the NFB was also a hotbed of experimentation in the evolving genre of documentary cinema.

The confluence of documentary cinema (driven by the intensely self-reflexive work of Jean Rouch, Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault) with the exploration of narrative forms by Godard and many others, linked to debates about the meaning of culture and its relationship to politics and change and with that to the role of spectators either as active participants or passive viewers. If anything, the connections between the specific nature of the medium and the general orientation of film as a means of communications seemed very clear. Film was part of a cultural explosion and had an important role to play in the promotion of new ways of seeing a contradictory, if not compromised dominant social model of post-war capitalism. Mainstream cinema for the most part seemed to be compromised, not only by its stories but also by the ways in which those narratives came into being and were distributed. At the same time, Hollywood cinema was being studied largely because of the interest of French filmmakers in Douglas Sirk and John Ford but also because of a growing fascination with film noir of the 1940’s. It was clear that film noir was far more critical and analytical as a cultural phenomenon than was previously recognized. So, even though distinctions between high and low culture was very powerful, (particularly in academia) examples of convergence among cultural phenomena abounded.

Most of the alternative examples of the period (1960-1975) were housed in university classrooms and art cinemas. The few festivals of the period did not have the power that present day events of this kind are able to generate.

So, it seemed natural, given all of the ferment, that there should be a discipline of film studies and that it deserved the same rank and place as any other discipline. This was reinforced with the English translation of Andre Bazin’s “What is Cinema”, a collection of his writings from Cahiers du Cinema. Although most of his writing was completed before his premature death in 1958, his influence extended far beyond that period and was responsible for many of the efforts to define film studies as a discipline. The difficulty was that Bazin wrote within a context that could best be defined as genre driven. He was also labeled as a realist, someone who supported and propped up a cinema that was less self-reflexive than the period demanded. Yet, a closer reading of “What is Cinema” reveals a complex individual striving to celebrate the potential of film to transcend simplistic narrative models generated and corrupted by an American cinema that in his eyes had no other purpose than to make money. This was contrasted by his efforts to promote a nascent independent French cinema that would reproduce the realism of French literature in order to show moviegoers that the cinema had status as an art form.

To be continued……