Epistemic capital: the etiology of an "Elitist" Film Canon's aesthetic criteria.
'Tis the good reader that makes the good book.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
IS THERE A CANON IN THIS CLASS?
In 2006, Paul Schrader published his essay "The Film Canon" as a route to explaining his incapacity to produce a book on the same. Modeled after what Harold Bloom had done for literature with The Western Canon, Schrader's book was to be an essayistic catalog of "movies that artistically defined film history," a self-acknowledged elitist canon that would "raise the bar high" (34) and thus serve as a much-needed antidote to the recent proliferation of lists driven by popularity (46). Why did Schrader ultimately surrender his book-writing expedition? In short, it was due to his preparatory research on futurism, which seemed unavoidably to forecast the "demise of Art's human narrative" (34). (1) Not that Schrader necessarily objected to this trajectory; it merely brought home just how "twentieth century" movies were (35). Thus Schrader found his "appetite for archivalism" diminished (35) and himself more fully committed to Hegel's proposition that the philosophy of Aesthetics is its history. Nonetheless, he saw fit to publish his aesthetic criteria for canon selection in an article in Film Comment (2), along with a list of his 60 selected films; and it is largely that list--compounded by his staging of worthy aesthetic criteria--that serves as the catalyst for the following essay. In essence, this paper plans to use that paper--albeit without either condoning or condemning Schrader's canonical choices--as a platform from which to materially defend the so-called elitism of an academic film canon (and, correspondingly, in some fashion, of Bloom's literary canon, too). This is not for the sake of forwarding some conservative polemic. Rather it is to propose in an evidentiary manner that some heretofore undetected competency has been heavily influencing the sorts of films that are traditionally selected for elitist canonization.
"Elitist" is of course a most politically incorrect term, conjuring up shades (if not wholesale Stygian mud-slinging accusations) of Eurocentrism, phallocentricism, imperialism, racism, ethnocentrism, exclusivism, entitlement, and of course the proverbial Dead White Males. Such politicized accusations collectively reflect their decriers' belief in the indefensibility of privileging what has historically passed for "high art." Though the culture wars over the canon may now be passe, they have doubtlessly left their mark on English and cinema studies departments, in the form of (what one of their most strident decriers, Bloom, describes as) "Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians" (492). Bloom has notoriously dubbed these assorted theorists the "School of Resentment'--perhaps the same loose institution that Schrader implies when he refers to the canon's portrayal by some as a "20th-century heresy" ("Film" 35). I can only presume that here Schrader might have had in mind scholars like Jean-Louis Baudry, Mary Anne Doane, Richard Dyer, Colin McCabe, Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, and Slavoj Zizek, whose works import into cinema studies the ideas and philosophiess of scholars like Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser. My aim is not to denigrate film scholars who operate from conspicuously ideological or "extra-filmic" (35) vantage points--especially since they have contributed provocatively and necessarily to the discussion of how producers and percipients negotiate texts. But while they call inadvertent attention to the instability, the multivalency of, and, above all, the politics that shape aesthetic choice, personal taste, interpretation, and so forth, Bloom, who resents their proverbial School of Resentment, mourns the loss of "proper" criteria for textual evaluation and the dissolution of "proper" humanities departments: "What are now called 'Departments of English,'" he be moans, "will be renamed departments of 'Cultural Studies,' where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies, and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Wallace Stevens" (484-485). To me, Bloom's fustian call to cultural disarmament feels as shortsighted as any radical critic's incapacity to recognize that "Part of the rhetoric of 'pluralism' and 'diversity,' the elevation of 'multi-cultural' experience cloaks the abandonment of traditional humanistic culture" (Kimball 175). That is, such terms or their variants have "become code words for an approach to the humanities that is in effect anti-cultural-at least anti-high-cultural" (175), not to mention indicative of a "fundamental distrust of art" (Rosenbaum xiii).
Still, this does not solve the issue of prerogative with respect to canon selection; nor does it quash the oft, if deservedly, slung diatribe that "the reverence accorded the Western canon [is] indicative of elitism" (Kolbas 25). Perhaps we are best off by admitting upfront (as Schrader does) that canons are by definition a mark of entitlement. But is dismantling them altogether the right response? As Schrader points out, canons exist because they serve a vital function and this function increases with every new wave of texts (35). To some extent, it is the prodigious volume of films that drives the need for cinematic canons; for, "It is no longer possible for a young filmgoer to watch the history of film and make up his or her mind: there are just too many movies" (35). The dilemma, once more, arises in determining what constitutes the artistic criteria for determining worthy film narratives--as well as who precisely gets to choose. Certainly someone like Schrader, who has devoted his life to both the creation and serious scholarly critique of film narrative, has license to shape an elitist cinematic canon.
Note that I say "a" canon instead of "the" canon, for I am under no illusion that issues of personal taste, ethics, a desire to reflect variety; historical contingency, and so forth, do not interfere (perhaps interact is a better term) with judgments that go into the selection of films and aesthetic criteria. Further, I am resistant to the notion of canonical coalescence, as Schrader certainly seems to be. Canon-formation is a patently protean and organic process, as the much longer history of the literary canon demonstrates. Further, it is a process being endlessly reconfigured by history, technology, politics, time. Nor should one skirt past the elusive and slippery nature of concepts like "Respectability" and "Beauty'--or "Imagination," a concept which as early as the eighteenth century Joseph Addison lamented for being "vague" and of a "loose and uncircumscribed sense" (qtd. in Stolnitz 139). Such abstractions are indeed open to change and can be defined and interpreted in a multiplicity of ways. For this reason, they understandably stoke endless disagreement.
Nevertheless, when one scrutinizes extant elitist film canons ill this historical moment, whether these be acknowledged inventories of the "the best" (such as BFI's Sight and Sound Critics' Top Ten Poll) or more nebulously named collections of the worthy (such as one finds in a Norton anthology like Film Analysis), one discovers that there is something beneath them that is markedly, if unwittingly, driving a significant portion of institutional choice. For, certain films appear again and again: Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 ... (All these films appear on the BFI list, Schrader's "Gold List," and in the Norton reader.) True, one might advocate that this reflects some institutionalized toeing of the cultural party line; and, in some cases, this may be the case. Then again, Schrader concedes that, though he lists only one film per director as part of his canon, equal cases could be easily be made for some other work in that director's oeuvre: My Darling Clementine (instead of John Ford's The Searchers), Diary of a Country Priest (in lieu of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket), or L'avventura (as a substitute for Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte). In other words, that canonical "something" is not so easily restrictive, but reverberates aesthetically--systemically, we might even argue--through sundry films. Could this have an analog in John Guillory's argument that canons are less collections of texts than aggregations of values, that is, that no isolated work is genuinely canonical, but only takes on the status of such as part of a literary scheme (Lerer 231)? Indeed, part of that amorphous "something," I would like to contend, is literacy itself--that is, our ability (perhaps ironically, given the discussion here is about film) to read and to write, and the consequences of that as manifest in the creative production and spectatorial absorption of film narrative.
Though Schrader acknowledges technology's sway on film in this new millennium, its sway on storytelling, I would like to propose, has been in process since as far back as someone thought to pick up a writing implement and take down Homer's utterances. In other words, the very act of being able to put a story on paper--or, almost as revolutionary, to reshape and disseminate it by way of print has fundamentally altered the way filmic stories can be told, constructed, and digested. Strange (and anachronistic) as this may sound, a significant number of the films that comprise Schrader's canon bear connection to alphabetic literacy--in other words, to a skill-cum-practice that I think few institutions or social groups, even those most radical, would condemn for its elitism.
As I shall show in a moment, alphabetic literacy has been instrumental in molding both our phylogenetic (3) potential for, and our ontogenetic (4) capacity to, produce and engage with the type of films repeatedly deemed canonical by critics. Films like Ford's The Searchers or Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin-Feminin, function out of and, hence, demand an interpretive capacity to negotiate a reticulate set of attributes that are part and parcel of a literate episteme of visual narrative. That is, they are in part the byproduct of a way of knowing that is expressly born of "high literacy,"--a way of knowing that may preclude those who have not been inculcated into the higher order goals that this post-functional type of literacy enables (see Resnick). (5)
Please note that I am not talking about visual literacy here, as that term is currently and popularly employed. Visual literacy, as well as the praxis to which it generally leads, tends parametrically to constrict discussion by focusing too exclusively on competencies of vision (Nayar, "Ecriture" 141). At the same time, I cannot speak of the plastic arts in the same breath, given that the orality-literacy paradigm for visual narrative brings to the fore that the visual aspect of narrative may be subordinate to determinants of a storytelling that transpires as a sequence of events through time.
I say this with a certain confidence based on my previous study of art-cinema narration--i.e., those films most often associated with "'serious' postwar European" directors like Antonioni, Godard, Fellini, Truffaut (Bordwell 88). As I have elsewhere demonstrated, art-cinema narration reflects noetic processes and expectations that are significantly engendered by a culture of the written word. "Literately inflected" norms include a structural privileging of plot deformation (including a formalistic deformation of cinematographic language); verisimilitude and originality; and a non-polarized ambiguity--manifest especially in a lack of narrative closure. These are compounded by a presence of quietude and quiescence; by essential traits that make space for private negotiations of meaning (e.g., sub-text, irony, symbolism, and so forth); and by a psychological and introspective orientation, including self-consciousness and a heavy anxiety of influence. Though space prevents me from articulating in depth these norms' raisons d'etre, I will expound upon some of their attributes in the pages that follow, as a route to explicating their noteworthy sway on canonicity. (For a more detailed etiological explanation of these attributes, see "Ecriture Aesthetics: Mapping the Literate Episteme of Visual Narrative," in PMLA 123.1 : 140-155.)
Methodologically, I was able to trace the literate derivation of art film's norms based on the wholesale absence of such norms in the formulaic masala, or spice-mix, films that were produced in Bombay (or "Bollywood") from 1950 to 2000. India's all-singing, alldancing potboiler spectacles (as they are sometimes disparagingly described) were historically contoured, as I had already shown, by the psychodynamics of orally based thought and by specific devices and motifs common to orally based storytelling. That is to say, they were inflected by a reticulate set of norms directly tied to an oral way of knowing, one that has been commonly associated (and sometimes erroneously conflated) with "ancient" or "tribal" or "pre-industrial" cultures. Scholars across the disciplines who were decisive in excavating traits particular to this way of knowing include Jack Goody and Ian Watt, Eric Havelock A.R. Luria, Marshall McLuhan, Milman Parry and Albert Lord, and Walter J. Ong. As imported into visual narrative, these traits include a disposition toward episodic narrative form (including digressions and flashbacks); toward repetition, recycling, and formula; and toward a Manichaean worldview--not to mention, one that mandates narrative closure. Additionally, one finds in this epistemic realm a penchant for visual plenitude and agonistic display; for a non-psychological orientation; for a non-interpretive and unambiguous sort of meaning (evident, say, in the prominent use of cliches and of totems [in lieu of symbols]); and for an ultimate preservation of the status quo. The Hindi film industry's reliance on oral norms was salutary, if not functionally unavoidable, given the low literacy levels of the spectatorial body during the masala film formula's crystallization. (For a more comprehensive unpacking, see "Invisible Representation: The Oral Contours of a National Popular Cinema," in Film Quarterly 57.3 : 13-23.)
Be aware that these epistemes are to be conceptualized only as two possible and nonexclusive extremities of visual storytelling. That is, the literate episteme should not be mistaken as the polar opposite of the oral, but is merely evidence of a single discursive system that has emerged from our human capacity to depart from a particular way of knowing. Nor can these systems ever be closed, given that the literate episteme is continuously being acted upon by, inter alia, emerging technologies (e.g. the printing press, the computer) (Nayar, "Ecriture" 142). If anything, the oral and literate epistemes point ultimately "to the theoretical inadequacy of calling orality pre-modern or of proposing a cultural shift from orality to literacy, with all its mistaken connotations of a gradual extinction of the former" (142). Multiple storytelling epistemes obviously co-exist and even interact, thus corresponding theoretically with post-Ongian scholarship, (6) which recognizes that "in most societies there is an overlap and a 'mix' of [oral and literate] modes of communication" (Street 110). Moreover, we can postulate (and even ascertain) that a certain orally or literately inflected epistemic contouring of narrative has the capacity to traverse storytelling genres, linking modernist novels, say, more to art-cinema narration than to dime-store paperbacks; or oral epic more to Bollywood (and Hollywood blockbusters (7)) than to James Joyce's Ulysses. (8) Already, perhaps, the overriding epistemic location of many elite canonical works begins to emerge.
THE LITERATE EPISTEME AND THE "ELITIST" FILM CANON
For the sake of a framework, let us examine some of the films that Schrader has chosen. Further, let us do so in light of a number of the aesthetic criteria that he has "cherry-pick[ed]" from the history of canonformation, in large part because of their applicability to film. Schrader submits seven criteria which, for him, collectively ensure a workable scaffold for judging art ("Film" 44-45): (i) Beauty (the Kantian "bedrock of all judgments of taste"); (ii) Strangeness ("in lieu of the more common 'originality'"); (iii) Unity of Form and Subject Matter (or "significant juxtapositions of form," in the case of film); (iv) Tradition (because, in the words of T.S. Eliot, "No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone"); and (v) Respectability (because, in non-elite parlance, "great art 'holds up'"). Add to these (vi) Viewer Engagement (because "A great film, a film that endures, demands and receives the viewer's creative complicity"); and (vii) Morality (because "no work that fails to strike moral chords can be canonical"). Three of these we shall examine in detail, with critical reference made to a majority of the others.
We begin with strangeness. Purportedly this criterion entails the provision of a "type of originality that [spectators] can 'never altogether assimilate'" (9) because of its laudable imposition of "unpredictability, unknowability, and magic" ("Film" 44). Here we might cite as illustration Schrader's own mention of the works of Jean Cocteau; or of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, in which "the frictions of form join to express the function in a new, 'strange' way" (44). Of course we need not limit ourselves to Schrader's critiques. Pauline Kael, for instance, highlights the way in which Cocteau's Orphee is "inventive and enigmatic as a dream"; and Marilyn Fabe draws attention to 8 1/2's deployment of a "strange, stylized mise-enscene" and adaptation of a quintessential modernist technique--stream-of-consciousness narration"--which confused even her on a first viewing (152). We ought to note, however, that unpredictability and unfamiliarity of these sorts--which to a large extent engender non-assimilative strangeness--are fundamentally driven by a subversion of an orally inflected way of knowing. These films' "magic," in other words, is induced by what the Russian formalists famously termed "defamiliarization," a term which implies a deliberate deformity of text, one motivated by an authorial intent to create estrangement-"to make objects 'unfamilar,'" in the words of Viktor Shklovsky, "to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty of length and perception ..." (qtd. in Cuddon 214). Orally inflected texts, on the other hand, are motivated by a desire to conserve meaning through time. Hence their reliance on formula and a "cinema of attractions," two norms which distortion problematically undoes.
In no way am I suggesting that all films on Schrader's list subvert the epistemically oral order. Bear in mind the magic that Chaplin makes in City Lights, via an oft kinetic human choreography. To be sure, it is choreography mesmerizing in its capacity to be at once balletic and pugilistic; but because the film, more generally, is extrospective in orientation--is grounded in a frontality that ministers to pictorial intelligibility--City Lights is also undeniably more accessible across the orality-literacy continuum. (Lest readers mistakenly presume that all silent films are somehow inherently more "orally accessible," I draw their attention to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, which departs from this stereotype to a significant degree. Important here, too, is to avoid the presumption that dramatic "poetry" derives exclusively from literate inflection. Poetry, like protagonists, can exist in either epistemic realm, though it will, by necessity, be differently inflected.)
Again, strangeness of the defamiliarizing sort severly transgresses the bounds of oral inflection via a deliberate extrication from the exoteric and the shared. Often, too, "unknowability" is achieved through an insistence on foregrounding the background, a tendency that, in terms of pictorial practice, deprives a story of transparency. In the idiom of Noel Carroll, deliberately deformed films depart from the realm of "erotetic narration," where an "aura of clarity" is in part certified by the narration's being "larger than life" and in possession of an "uncluttered" flow of action (181). (10) The indeterminacy and unfamiliarity engendered by the former type, in contrast, fundamentally rely upon--indeed, insist upon--a spectator's willingness to puzzle over a puzzle, to independently mine a text for what that text is only obliquely saying (Nayar, "Ecriture" 151). Consider Jonathan Rosenbaum's encomium to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (11): "If we emerge from Tarkovsky's films somewhat puzzled, this is only the first of the special gifts they have to offer, for ultimately they aren't so much mysteries to be solved as experiences to be interpreted, learned from, and assimilated" (200). This same desirable puzzlement even applies, perhaps surprisingly, to the films of Jean Renoir. On the surface his oeuvre may appear visually accessible, given its propensity for long takes and staging in depth, and its refusal to break up an action and the unity of the image of that action. But, much as Andre Bazin proposed, shots that extend durational time by refusing to "cut up" space through montage-editing call for a spectator's more active interpretation of the image (35-36). The less appealing alternative to this was, for Bazin, a purportedly more passive digestion of the image (35-36). But is such digestion always inherently passive as an endeavor? After all, in the oral milieu, where the ephemerality of the utterance breeds a collective compulsion for the conservation of meaning, such distortion or "play" with meaning, such imposed ambiguity--which mandates one having to expend energy searching for meaning--would be anathema. And so, when the eye of Bresson's camera "fastens upon metonymical details, upon microscopic quotitidian gestures or movements that normally pass unnoticed, raising their expressive potential" (McNeece 267), what the literately inflected spectator may interpret as "material indices of spiritual strife" (268), the more orally inflected spectator may read as a baffling extrication from the known.
Though seminal perhaps to the works of directors like Tarkovsky, Renoir, and Bresson--and others like Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman--such expectations/endeavors severely depart, once more, from the non-ambiguous nature of orally inflected texts. These latter texts, in their aim to bind percipients via what the collective knows and wishes to carry through time, generally avoid journeying into a semantically unfamiliar and overly unpredictable terrain. Such terrain, after all, intentionally obfuscates group knowledge, turning space and time into an existential amusement park. In the oral economy, one seeks to preserve the world through story not to undermine it. As a result, defamiliarizations of endings especially--that is, denouements where the world is left open-ended--are especially non-apparent in orally inflected storytelling. Here one speculates as to how things will return to the status quo, for that is the manner by which the self is sutured to the collective. Thus, in spite of its title, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist bears an ending that greatly violates the oral necessity for conformity. Recall the character of Clerici, who, upon seeing a chauffeur attempting to seduce a young boy, denounces the chauffeur for being a fascist (a man, incidentally, who tried to seduce Clerici in his youth and whom Clerici believes he has murdered). But, as Stuart Jeffries points out, "that isn't the end: the last shot has Clerici alone with the boy [whom the chauffeur was earlier seducing]. The camera tracks over the boy's naked buttocks to Clerici who looks at the camera. What are we supposed to make of that, that they just had sex?" This, Jeffries asked Bertolucci directly in an interview. "It's very possible," Bertolucci responded. "But that is a troubling idea," Jeffries mused, as it links fascism with repressed homosexual desire ..." (3). In other words, the film ends on an intentionally disquieting and ambiguous and hence, in some sense, isolating note. Intriguingly, Bertolucci's desire for directorial originality with The Conformist led him to push himself creatively into a territory where he was no longer acting as a "forger" too baldly imitating Jean-Luc Godard (qtd. in Jeffries 3). But in the oral episteme one finds no anxiety of influence akin to what Bertolucci is confessing here. In the oral episteme, the key is never to be so strange as to cease restating the traditional materials (Havelock 310) or to employ anything so original that it cannot be assimilated.
Kant of course deemed beauty the bedrock of judgments of taste, and Schrader openly agrees--in part because, without a respect for beauty, he says, "judgments topple in the wind of fashion" ("Film" 44). Still, Schrader does deem the concept in urgent need of "rehabilitation," given that today beauty is no longer able to be defined by the traditional "rules and attributes (symmetry, harmony, variety within unity)" (44). (Certainly the magnitude of this classificatory shift demonstrates just how malleable and unstable beauty conceptually is.) Unfortunately, Schrader doesn't adequately propose how to rehabilitate the concept, perhaps because to do so would comprise a magnitudinous task of its own. True, he does state that beauty ought to be defined "by its ability to qualitatively transform reality" (44), but that phrase is hardly enough for us to go on. We are probably best served, then, by returning to Kant's theorizations regarding how beauty is most "purely" perceived.
Kant believed that the pleasure experienced in beauty was by necessity an "entirely disinterested" form of satisfaction (10). Only through disinterestedness--which is not to say disengagement--could a spectator identify beauty in a manner that was not egocentrically based (McMahon 232). As such, proposed Kant, the judgment of beauty had to be based on a universal feature of the mind. The implication of such a cognitively derived connection, as Mary Mothersill has intimated, is that the type of pleasure evoked by beauty is both sober and contemplative (McMahon 231). In the words of Kant, what is beautiful is beautiful precisely because it is not "bound up with interest" (6). This point of view is perhaps most fully imported into the realm of film by Rudolf Arnheim, whose work is, according to Murray Smith, "infused with Kantian assumptions and precepts" (465). (12) Smith contends that, with respect to a definition of art, Arnheim borrows Kant's "'purposiveness without purpose': the notion that aesthetic objects (whether natural or man-made) are distinctive because of the manner in which they are cut loose from practical ends ... roughly speaking, the aesthetic object becomes an occasion for reflection rather than action" (465). (13)
But is it possible that, when it comes to the epistemic pressures that guide and shape storytelling, the capacity for, or amenability to, a "pure disinterested satisfaction" (Kant 5) may betray an animation by alphabetic literacy? Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder; but it is a beholder whose eye may have been partly programmed by his or her capacity to engage with the technologies of chirography and print. For, disinterest in the visual narrative realm, as the oral and literate epistemes hint at, largely emerges from the introspective, interrogative, individualistic orientation that literacy affords. That is, if beauty's efficacy rests in its ability "to qualitatively transform reality" (Schrader 44) in such a way that encourages an independence of judgment, that transformation may partially derive from one's capacity to extricate oneself from the psychodynamic and performative exigencies of oral storytelling. This does not mean that oral peoples don't experience beauty, only that the nonoperational aspect of this kind of experience may strike them as impractical, if not altogether objectionable (see Luria).
Perhaps an example might better elucidate this abstract point. Consider what Schrader says in an earlier work, Transcendental Style in Film, about one of his "Gold" list selections, Bresson's Pickpocket: "Bresson uses frontality to create a respectful, noncommitted attitude within the viewer which can result in a stasis very similar to that evoked by a religious icon" (100). Later, Schrader comments not only on how Bresson's protagonists are projected "as objects suitable for veneration," but on how Bresson uses the face in a manner by which it can "simultaneously evoke sense of distance (its imposing, hieratic quality) and a strange sensuousness (the hard-chiseled stern face amid a vast mosaic of environmental panorama" (100). If these shots appear beautiful to the elite viewer, that may be because their staticness--which supposedly "'deprejudice[s]' the viewer's attitude toward the Transcendent" (99)--is fundamentally inflected by literacy. For, keep in mind that a spectatorial inclination (as well as directorial attempt) to parse (or generate) scenic tableaux marked by quiescence and/ or quietude is virtually never anticipated in orally inflected narrative. Quiescence and quietude are norms that are expressively wrested from the voice, after all, just as they are from the exoteric, whose (active and outwardly oriented) tie to the utterance orally inflected narrative inherently compels. And so, solely in a high-literate economy does beauty become identified with a what-ness of things, with lyrical narrative vagrancy or those Deleuzian moments of "pure seeing" (Bogue 109), such as one finds in so many films on Schrader's list: Bergman's Persona, Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love, Antonioni's La Notte, and even (or perhaps especially) Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, which Be1a Balasz so lauded for its poetic and dramatically revelatory concentration on the physiognomy of the face (305). One might even propose that it's only in this realm that beauty becomes Beauty. Indeed, the dissonance between orally and literately inflected ways of knowing may help clarify why, historically speaking, beauty has been so conceptually vexing. In sum, those characteristics that the oral viewer envisages as beautiful, the high-literate percipient is more likely to label kitsch.
Here we might turn to Clement Greenberg who, in his well-known essay "AvantGarde and Kitsch," places a Russian peasant "with hypothetical freedom of choice before two paintings" (105). One of the paintings is an abstract depiction of a woman by Picasso, the other a dramatic battle scene by Repin, complete with "sunset, exploding shells, running and falling men" (105). Why does Repin better suit the peasant's taste, according to Greenberg? Because Repin's painting "pre-digests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art. Repin, or kitsch, is synthetic art" (105). Kitsch, then, is congenitally mechanical and formulaic; it is built of vicarious and faked sensations and "pretends to demand nothing of its customers" (102). But if, as Greenberg posits, the values which the cultivated spectator derives from the Picasso are "derived at a second remove; [if they] are not immediately or externally present in Picasso's painting, but must be projected into it by tire spectator" sensitive enough to react sufficiently to plastic qualities" (104), then very possibly we have an epistemic issue here (14); and, to be sure, it is one that intersects with the potentially literate derivation of the Kantian notion of disinterestedness. The eye does indeed behold cognitively in the case of narrative--not to mention, that it beholds an object that has likewise been contoured by literacy (or not). In this sense, we might argue that Kant's subjective formalism productively and synergistically meets up with Hegel's proposition that art possesses and reflects a history of mind. (15)
No matter how strange or beautiful a Bombay masala film from the 1970's may strike the uninitiated high-literate viewer-at least on the discretely imagistic level--chances are good that that viewer will not mistake the film's strangeness or beauty for high art. Why is that? Is it due to sheer snobbery or to a disdain for national genres that don't sufficiently evince "the indelible print of the director" (Schrader, "Film" 48)? Perhaps something of the answer lies in another of Schrader's evaluative criteria, though not in the manner that a reader might initially suppose. Here I am speaking of viewer engagement.
With respect to this aesthetic yardstick's import, Schrader avers that a great film forces a viewer to "do" something. A great film
frees the viewer from [a] passive stupor and engages him or her in a creative process of viewing.... The film, either by withholding expected elements or by positing contradictions, causes the viewer to reach into the screen, as it were, and move the creative furniture around. This isn't a viewer trying to guess "Who done it?" This instead is a viewer making identifications he or she had no intention of making, coming to conclusions the film can't control, reassembling the film in a unique personal way. ("Film" 46)
Though Schrader provides no explicit cinematic examples for this sort of engagement operationally, we can, by turning to his elitist canon, infer that he is referring to films like Welles' Citizen Kane, Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, and certainly Renoir's Tire Rules of the Game. All three of these force viewers--much as Satyajit Ray declared about Rules--to "read between the lines" (84). Indeed, that Schrader selects Renoir as "the artist without whom there could not be a film canon, and the film without which a canon is inconceivable is The Rules of the Game" ("Film" 47), alludes, in this author's mind, to literacy's involuntary bearing on his selection of canonical films. For, upon examining the oral episteme of visual narrative, we find that this particular mode of spectatorial engagement--which dwells inarguably in a connotative realm--is completely absent. Percipients of orally inflected narrative are never asked to fill in gaps, or to extract for theme, or to "reassembl[e] the film in a unique personal way" (46). Doing so, after all, calls for a move away from a sensori-kinetic participation with a film to one that is ultimately about a film. (16)
Nowhere perhaps is this pro-active mental (and emotional) engagement more solicited than in Godard's textual universe, which verges "on the absurd, or at least on the unmotivated fantastic, with actions defying both plausibility and efficiency.... The tight verisimilar codes so important to the Closed Text are severed and replaced by ellipses and contradictory events" (Neupert 139). Such strategies of disruption in effect render a story more akin to "a story-manque" (Seymour Chatman, qtd. in Neupert 142), or to "a Nietzschean narrative about the absence of narrative" (Orr 25). But this withholding of elements--which demands a viewer "complicity," as Schrader rightly puts it ("Film" 46)--renders the visual encounter a privately negotiated affair, an act and expectation that goes against the philosophical and epistemological grain of oral inflection. Narrative of this type is in effect a form of spectatorial abandonment. True, Hegel may have contended that "Art invites us to intellectual consideration, and that not for the purposes of creating art again, but for knowing philosophically what art is" (qtd. in Danto 31). But, as we have already intimated, such a meditative (and hence non-participatory and alienating) distance may not be in the non-literate spectator's interest or purview, given that distance's functional irrelevancy and lack of practical utility. Could it be then, once more, that accusations of passivity have been too facilely attributed to a type of engagement that may be just as existentially vital, but because it is one lodged in a more epistemically oral environs, it has sometimes been misread by (literate) scholars as signaling a lack of engagement or a resistance to "doing" something?
Conceivably this built-in textual ambiguity is what renders the films repeatable for Schrader. Schrader admittedly privileges those films which possess a "timelessness" and "non-disposab[ility]" ("Film" 45-46). Indeed, the "ability of certain films to retain their impact over repeat viewings is," for him, "a textbook example of what makes a 'classic'" (46). And yet, non- and low-literate viewers frequently return to films that would, by Schrader's standards, qualify as disposable. In other words, repeatability is no less a criterion by which to gauge the success of orally inflected films (as tradition or morality is no less either). But consider the films which Schrader cites for their relative imperishability: Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Vertigo.... Such films patently speak to a literately inflected type of aesthetic "holding up," replete as they are with Barthesian gapes, gaps, holes, miseen-abymes, incompletions; beholden as they are to a non-polarized worldview. (Deleuze, for example, extols Welles' unsummonability ; Francois Truffaut, Citizen Kane's anti-Manicheanism .) Orally inflected narrative, on the other hand, cannot afford such epistemological uncertainties--and this, by necessity, forecloses its capacity for depth psychological or an inward turn. The outward orientation that the tie to the voice dictates would be severely undermined by such forays into appearance-as-disappearance. One might even speculate that such a honeycombed text would appear to the more oral percipient to reflect a lack of story rather than a greater plumbing of a story's depth.
That Schrader's canonical films are by and large auterist (recall his reference to the films' "indelible imprint of the director") is also surely a testament in part to their literate inflection. A director like Resnais may indeed "express a personal vision" and "explore ethical and metaphysical issues as the best artists in the traditional arts do" (Grant 1); but orally inflected narrative by necessity privileges impersonal visions, which is to say public visions. These are visions underpinned by formulae, whether as recycled storylines or archetypal characterstars who migrate (sometimes wholly intact) from film to film; or, on a smaller scale, as a profusion of proverbs and verbal (and even aural) cliches, which serve as convenient carriers of cultural information. Such qualities or features render a text collectively familiar--and also more securely transportable through time. Films that bespeak an "independence of vision" (Bordwell 231), on the other hand, and that thereby call for the recognition of their filmmakers as architects of a "discourse-vision" (Deleuze), are much less common--though by no means impossible--in orally inflected narrative. Indeed, the necessary association of good storytelling (and even good scholarly writing) with innovation and a lack of recycling may be evidence of the extent to which literate biases have been institutionalized.
RENEGOTIATING FILM AESTHETICS AND THE UNEQUAL-OPPORTUNITY CANON
Under no circumstances would I claim that a film's greatness could ever be wholly reducible to the single phenomenon of literacy, nor that there are not other political influences that more significantly impinge upon or drive elite canon-formation. Guillory, for instance, suggests that the reason women authors are not represented in older literature has less to do with "invidious or prejudicial standards of evaluation" than because, historically, "women were routinely excluded from access to literacy, or were proscribed from composition or publication in the genres considered to be serious rather than ephemeral" (15). But the fact that there is not a single female filmmaker represented in Schrader's list of canonical films cannot be so easily explained away on the basis of an exclusion of access to literacy.
Nevertheless, if art has become more autonomous over time, as critics like Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno have contended, if it is no longer linked to its earlier cult function, I would suggest--at least in the realm of storytelling--that this has in part derived from our capacity to drift away from its having to be stored and imparted exclusively by way of the memory and mouth. And given that there is a palpable and critical link between literacy and canonicity, we must ask once again as to the value of dismantling elite canons outright. In fact, would it not be almost paradoxical to do so, given that undoing such canons would mean undoing evidence of humankind's capacity for a creative consciousness that literacy has appreciably engendered? To reiterate, Hegel's proposition that art reflects a history of art is correct; and elite canons retrospectively and retroactively--and hence, quite malleably-serve as a partial marker of that history. If anything, the application of orality-literacy theory to film narrative assists in bringing the canon as a concept out of the shadows of iniquity, which in recent years been cast over it by political correctness--or, at the least, forces political correctness as a conceptual practice to confront its own literate underpinnings.
The built-in irony to this, as one can perhaps already glean, is that any addition to the canon can only serve as an extension of elitism, embedded as all additions are, to borrow Linda Nochlin's vernacular, in an institutional literacy, in a public set of preconditions for achievement (in Lauter 182). One of the preconditions for achievement, after all--even for film viewing--is an ontogenetic preparedness. This is a precondition inescapably housed in a phylogenetic progression of alphabetic literacy--that is, in a progression that has been, and continues to be, mutated by technologies, and of course social and economic enabling factors. Knowledge is indeed "inescapably contextbound" (Casement 42), in other words, much as the antiuniversalist/anticanonist/ multiculturalist would disputatively lay at the feet of the pro-elite canonist. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith puts it, "We do not move around in a raw universe" (1569). But part of that context and that variously "cooked" universe is literacy itself. This is not to say that all "cooked" texts are necessarily aesthetically successful. Art cinema does not, by mere virtue of its name, make a text categorically superior or even good, just as literacy does not inherently make art art. As a result, this essay's novel way of thinking about what underpins critical choice "salvages the aesthetic content of canonical works," while also circumventing our lapse into "rectionary glorifications of them" (Kolbas 2). At the same time, it concretizes the symbolic capital, which is a kind of "knowledge-capital," as Guillory contends, "whose possession can be displayed upon request and which thereby entitles its possessor to the cultural and material rewards of the well-educated person" (ix). (17)
This is even the case, I would posit, for the kinds of spectatorial readings that are sometimes imposed upon film. Consider Jeffrey Sconce's "'Trashing' the Academy," in which he presents paracinema as a "counteraesthetic" that "valorize[s] all forms of cinematic 'trash,' whether such films have been either explicitly rejected or simply ignored by legitimate film culture" (535). Despite its subversive intentions, trash cinema's sub-cultural community is, as Sconce himself acknowledges, primarily "male, white, middle-class and 'educated'" (538). (18) I would argue that the literacy housed in that education is what ironically permits the presumed "struggle over the task of cinema scholarship as a whole" (541). An ironic, Brechtian-cumGodardian reading--which is how Sconce describes these spectators' form of filmic engagement--is, by virtue of that reading's interrogative, individualistic, self-conscious nature, a decidedly literate endeavor. (19) Consider, too, the attention Pierre Bourdieu draws to the "detachment of the aesthete," who, in appropriating objects of popular taste such as Westerns, introduces distance and displaces interest generally from content to form (34).
Perhaps if we genuinely want social diversity reflected in the canon, we should inquire as to what non-literate viewers perceive as canonical and why. Critics and scholars who both produce and war over canonformation are, after all, functioning out of a decidedly literate worldview; and as Joyce Coleman counsels, "The emphasis placed in modern culture on literacy skills, and the corresponding denigration of anything associated with illiteracy, is often carried over unthinkingly into a strong prejudice for a literary history written as the triumph of literacy over orality" (32-33). Obviously, given the nature of elitist film canons, this bias or denigration can occur quite unconsciously. But however true Coleman's admirable deracination of such prejudices are, she, like me, like you who are reading this, cannot but be implicated, just as those who contemporarily critique the canon are also invariably part of this system, beneficiaries of the art even as they may provide a searing commentary on it.
If the radical politicized intellectual still insists that there is nothing to laud in a great film--and by extension those great books which typically foreground "complexity, ambiguity, historical centrality and high seriousness" (Pollitt 188)--we might ask, Why stop there? Why not take the argument to its fullest extreme and propose, Why read at all? The true voiceless, after all, are those who remain tied (somewhat ironically) to an epistemic milieu still restrictively guided by the voice. Though perhaps rhetorically glib, the question above does underscore what orality-literacy theory, when applied to the canon unavoidably exposes, which is the subtle element of the Luddite in the radical's grievances. For, if the key is to foreground the individual at the expense of the institution (that is, in a kind of Manichean depiction of personhood as good and true, and statehood or shared culture as discriminatory and a lie), how pure can that task be given the entirely institutional (as in, phylogenetic) nature of the skill and acquisition of reading? In fact, it is literacy itself which allows for, and perhaps even induces, a privileging of the individual entity in a way that orally inflected narrative, for understandable reasons, does not.
For the aforementioned reasons, I am in wholesale agreement with Robert Scholes' assertion that "No text is so trivial as to be outside the bounds of humanistic study" (qtd. in Casement 57). The hitherto unwitting tie between what cinematic texts get canonically privileged and those attributes which literacy has aided in stimulating, will, if anything, make textual studies more, not less, inclusive. Cultural studies, in this way, doesn't menacingly undermine "serious" cinema or literature; nor is the field in peril of instigating a "flight from the aesthetic," as Bloom has fearfully prophesied (17). Rather, introduction of orality-literacy theory to the discipline constructively contextualizes some of the etiological underpinnings of the aesthetic, and it does so without eliding historical or material constraints on canon formation. The canon becomes in this way productively identified as a testament not to greatness per se, but often to a particular, and continuously evolving, way of knowing that literacy has fundamentally played a part in shaping.
We have distinguished here some of the rewards (which Herrnstein Smith, incidentally; labels indistinguishable ) that guide art-related behavior or experience. When it comes to those films deemed most fit to survive, any elite critique of their aesthetic value and pleasure has at least partial moorings in a high-literate economy. Paradoxically, in her aim to invalidate any notion of a work's intrinsic value, Herrnstein Smith unsuspectingly hints at this epistemic economy when she observes that
... dominant members of a community do not exclusively or totally determine which works survive. The antiquity and longevity of domestic proverbs, popular tales, children's verbal games, and the entire phenomenon of what we call "folklore," which occurs through the same or corresponding mechanisms of cultural selection and re-production as those.., for "texts," demonstrate that the "endurance" of a verbal artifact ... may be more or less independent of institutions controlled by those with political power. (1575)
These are of course storytelling forms and means of communication that bear marked relation to the oral episteme. Perhaps the best corrective to the elitist canon, then, is to recognize whence its elitism derives--or, should we say in a kind of displaced Kantian turn, its readers' fortuitously induced prejudiced condition, given that any of the canon's "collusion with discourses of power" (20) invariably reside in part in us.
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(1) Emphasis added.
(2) Schrader offers a Gold, Silver, and Bronze list, each comprised of 20 films. Though I take into account all 60 of those films in this paper--not only theoretically but y illustratively as well--for reasons of economy i list here only those 20 that are putatively Gold: 1. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939); 2. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953); 3. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931); 4. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959); 5. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927); 6. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941); 7. Orphee (Jean Cocteau, 1950); 8. Masculin-Feminin (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966); 9. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966); 10. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958); 11. Sunrise (F.W. Mumau, 1927); 12. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956); 13. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941); 14. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970); 15.8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963); 16. The Godfather (Francis Coppola, 1972); 17. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000); 18. The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949); 19. Performance (Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg, 1970); and 20. La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961).
(3) phylogeny refers to how organisms, such as humans, have developed over time.
(4) Ontogeny refers to the development of a single organism in its lifetime.
(5) Though the term "high literacy" may strike some as problematic, it is common to the field of the cognitive science of learning and instruction and is meant to distinguish the higher order goals of that advanced stage of literacy from the more elemental ability to read and write. These goals include the ability to yield multiple solutions; to make nuanced judgments; to apply multiple criteria and deal with uncertainty--all in a manner that is non-algorithmic and complex (in that the process cannot always be specified or rendered "visible"); and to self-regulate the thinking process and impose meaning (Resnick 3).
(6) Walter Ong's 1982 book Orality and Literacy was decisive in consolidating the various disciplinary strands of orality/literacy research. Though he has often been criticized for perpetuating a Great Divide apropos oral and literate cultures, this is in many ways a convenient misreading of his work. Scholarship since his has tended to perpetuate this misreading, however. Hence my reference to a certain "post-Ongian scholarship"--which, in that scholarship's defense, has saliently nuanced the discussion through its increased attention to overlaps and interminglings.
(7) Interestingly, Bordwell concedes that, though there have been stylistic changes in contemporary American film--generally in the form of an intensification of established techniques, such as speed--"Hollywood storytelling hasn't fundamentally altered since the studio days" (16). I cannot help but wonder if the pressures of orality and literacy have some bearing on this.
(8) In some sense, this helps to concretize Guillory's abstractly postulated claim that "The distinction between serious and popular writing ... belongs to the history of literacy, of the systematic regulation of reading and writing, as the adaptation of that system's regulatory procedures to social conditions in which the practice of writing is no longer confined to a scribal class.... Thus the generic category of popular writing continues to bear the stigma of nonwriting, of mere orality, within writing itself, since popular works are consumed, from the point of view of High Culture, as the textual simulacra of ephemeral speech" (24).
(9) Here Schrader is borrowing from Bloom.
(10) Carroll's considers spectatorial engagement to be a pictorially based phenomenon; nevertheless, I see definite parallels between erotetic narration and the traits that comprise high-oral inflection in storytelling.
(11) Tarkovsky's Nostalghia appears on Schrader's "Bronze" list.
(12) Smith does concede, however, that Arnehim "seldom makes explicit reference to philosophical aesthetics" (465).
(13) It need be acknowledged that any Kantianism on Arnheim's part is tempered by his "suspicion of pure formalism as an artistic practice, and a recognition that 'informative' modes of film making--like the documentary--are as legitimate an arena of artistic expression as the fiction film" (Smith 465).
(14) Emphases added.
(15) There thus seems to be some etiological proof here for R.G. Collingwood's contention that, as Daniel Herwitz phrases it, "art is process, not product. The viewer recapitulates the artist's act of expression within his or her own imagination, in experiencing the work" (93).
(16) See Freeland 72-73.
(17) Guillory goes on to argue that "the extrapolation of a critique of aesthetics from the critique of the canon is mistaken in its fundamental premise. This premise takes the form of a refusal of 'aesthetic value,' on the grounds that aesthetic values cannot be distinguished from any other values in the social realm, not even economic value" (xiii). For obvious reasons, this is where Guillory and I part ways.
(18) Emphasis added.
(19) Similarly, one must take into account the inherent high-literate bias of, say, Showgirls' stimulation of scholarly thought. (That film engendered a roundtable discussion between "seven distinguished scholars" that was published in Film Quarterly.) One cannot help but wonder if non-literate or low-literate viewers would have similarly engaged with the film apropos "issues of camp, satire, class, gender, the fallen woman, the show-girl musicals, trash cinema ..." (Martin 32). (20) Kermode was here summarizing the view of anti-canon critics (Alter 3).
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|Author:||Nayar, Sheila J.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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