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Film Schools obsessed with theory
September 14, 2003 1:19 AM   Subscribe

Film Schools obsessed with theory David Weddle complains that in film schools "discussions about movie characters, plots and the human beings who created them are replaced by theories such as semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalytics and neoformalism. [More inside]
posted by gregb1007 (45 comments total)

 
Roger Ebert, film critic, agrees with him saying that film theory classes are "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in."
posted by gregb1007 at 1:21 AM on September 14, 2003


MR. PINK
Why am I Mr. Pink?

JOE
Because you're a faggot, all right?

(Mr Brown laughs, Mr Blonde smiles)

MR. PINK
Why can't we pick our own colors?

JOE
No way, no way. Tried it once, it doesn't work. You get four guys all fighting over who's gonna be Mr. Black. But they don't know each other, so nobody wants to back down. No way, I pick. You're Mr. Pink. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow.

MR. BROWN
Yeah, but Mr. Brown, that's a little too close to Mr. Shit.

MR. PINK
Mr. Pink sounds like Mr. Pussy. How about if i'm Mr. Purple? That sounds good to me. I'll be Mr. Purple.

JOE
You're not Mr. Purple. Some guy on some other job is Mr. Purple. You're Mr. Pink.

MR. WHITE
Who cares what your name is?

MR. PINK
Yeah, that's easy for you to say. You're Mr. White. You have a cool sounding name. All right look, if it's no big deal to be Mr. Pink, you wanna trade?

JOE
Hey, nobody's trading with anybody. This ain't a goddamn fucking city council meeting, you know. Now listen up, Mr. Pink. There's two ways you can go on this job-- my way or the highway. Now what's it going to be, Mr. Pink?

MR. PINK
Jesus Christ. Fucking forget about it. It's beneath me. I'm Mr. Pink. Let's move on.

TRONDANT
Who am I again?
posted by trondant at 2:09 AM on September 14, 2003


They'll not receive any sympathy from literature students.
posted by DaShiv at 4:22 AM on September 14, 2003


"You know, it's just a fucking movie. I think we're all taking movies a little too fucking seriously here"
posted by Veritron at 4:25 AM on September 14, 2003


Reminds me of the way I got my major in Media Studies. All my film study units were theory-based; I still have no idea about any real aspect of creating a movie.

The absolute worst unit, as far as b.s. went, was when they started to use Freud and psychoanalysis as a way of deconstructing film. When we started to discuss feminist film theory and "the male gaze" in film, I guess I'd felt like I'd reached my boiling point. I understood the theory, but like Veritron's comment, I felt that it was just a fucking movie.

I remember a major project saw me analysing "Aliens" according to feminist film theory. Mother versus mother, stupid males with their "ejaculatory firepower" who were rendered useless against the feminine. My b.s. detector was going overtime; I couldn't help but think that it was just a goddamn war movie.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:02 AM on September 14, 2003


I mean, God forbid we have intelligent movies with multiple themes and underlying meanings. The American public is too stupid.....
posted by bkdelong at 8:02 AM on September 14, 2003


Film school as a ways to learn how to make a movie is one thing, and film theory, semiotics and analysis another. One is a craft, the other is a scholarly discipline. I'd consider both worthy of study, depending on what you want to do. I read that "Alien" essay you're talking about, chronic sublime, and I thought it was anything but b.s. I mean, the damn computer is called "mother." Look at those Giger designs and tell me what you see. It's all there--but you don't need to know it to make your own film. If you mix the two disciplines, or make people who want to do one learn the other, you're likely to run into problems.

In English departments, usually the lit people and the creative writing people don't understand one another very well-- it's the same division between craft and analysis. When you're spending your time in workshop trying to figure out how to be a better writer, you don't want to go to a seminar afterwards where they tell you that "the author is dead."

But this doesn't mean any kind of scholarly inquiry by means of theory is bunk or doesn't have its place. It just doesn't help with selecting a lens, dealing with actors, or editing a scene. You should know what kind of program your getting into when you sign up.
posted by muckster at 8:05 AM on September 14, 2003


No, it's bunk. Barton Fink allowed more pointless questions by professors than I'd care to count. I loved the movie, but reading some friends' questions from film classes which dealt with the movie, I'd swear I hadn't seen it before.

The thing that kills me about this is that the director's themselves would probably get C's on such an exam dealing with their own movie.

Oh, and bkdelong, it's just a little disheartening to think that we're developing yet another language of arcane references that only apply to those schooled in the same language, when we let established languages (say, from the rest of the planet) rot on the shelves, unanalyzed.

I mean, god forbid people learn about the rest of the world...
posted by Busithoth at 8:29 AM on September 14, 2003


i dont' want to talk about film theory right now.
maybe later.
posted by clavdivs at 9:05 AM on September 14, 2003


Don't disguise your anti-intellectualism as curiosity for the world, busithoth. It's all bunk because your film school buddies' test questions didn't make sense to you? Well, you didn't take the class, right?

God forbid you learned something about semiotics.
posted by muckster at 9:49 AM on September 14, 2003


Boo hoo. God forbid we study different approaches to looking at media. As a graduate student studying literature, I'm siding with DaShiv. Just because the writer of the article doesn't understand theory doesn't make it bad.

I mean, the student in question enrolled in a class called "FILM THEORY." What did she expect?
posted by synecdoche at 9:57 AM on September 14, 2003


jesus, there's an insane killer in the white house, about a kajillion people out of work, the world hates us and now our film schools are obsessed with theory? when is it going to end?
posted by quonsar at 10:09 AM on September 14, 2003


I took four years of the shit. I love film and reading criticism/analysis, but the way it was taught was inane. Film Theory at the school I attended (majoring in film production) was mandatory. You couldn't graduate without it. However, for those same students, Screenwriting (you know, how to tell a story) was optional.

In one instance, one of the screenwriting profs was a theory prof, meaning he was a theory teacher and because of a lack of funds, they had him teach s/w. I got my scripts back from him all marked up in red. At first glance I thought, "Great, he's actually gonna teach us something!" Nope. Rather than concentrate on plot and character, his comments were things like "Which hand do you think this character would hold the tray in?" and "Don't tell us the style of music she listens to--get to the heart of the matter, what song is it? What are the lyrics?"
posted by dobbs at 10:19 AM on September 14, 2003


There is nothing really new here. Muckster puts it quite well, it's the old debate of "craft" versus "art" (or really the intellectualization or theory of art) that's been around for ages.

I finished my MFA in Ceramics back in 1989 and postmodern theory was all the rage. I was never required to take any courses in art theory but because I found some of the concepts interesting and because my program was mostly tutorial I did a lot of reading on my own. Did reading Derrida help me when I wanted to make a teapot that didn't drip? Not really, but it did help me think about making a teapot that might be about something more than the simple crafting of an object. I think this kind of intellectual inquiry should be encouraged of artists no matter what medium they chose. But I'm not sure it should be required or used to to the exclusion of other lines of inquiry.

My own problem has been overintellectualization. I haven't made any new art in over two years because I can't seem to rationalize, regardless of aesthetic value, putting another useless object into this world. For me the "craft" itself has never quite been enough.
posted by hotmud at 10:46 AM on September 14, 2003


Sounds like a case for noindoctrination.org!
posted by ~rschram at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2003


Why on earth would you spend all that money on film school when for the same amount of money you could make a decent film on high-def video? Hell, we all heard about R. Rodriguez making El Mariachi for $7,000 and doing a good enough job of it that it was picked up by a mjor film studio (who then spent $150,000 cleaning up the audio. But that's another story).

There's something to be said for learning by doing, particularly in field where the result is product, not just thought. I didn't go to J-School but got a job at a newspaper out of college (as a film critic, ironically). I didn't get an MFA, but I sold a novel. Were I decide to want to do a film, I wouldn't go to film school. I'd make the film.
posted by jscalzi at 11:01 AM on September 14, 2003


there's an insane killer in the white house

now our film schools are obsessed with theory?

when is it going to end?

sorry q, robert vaughn must have a stand-in.
posted by clavdivs at 11:09 AM on September 14, 2003


BFD. It's like this in every subject. Some schools emphasize theory; others emphasize pratical issues. I had friends in the UCLA computer science department who said half their class couldn't code their way out of box.

Here's the crux of the article:

Alexis wants a career in film. She chose UC Santa Barbara because we couldn't afford USC and her grades weren't lustrous enough for UCLA.

Oh, I get it: his daughter couldn't go to USC or UCLA, so UCSB should transform their entire film department to be more like other schools. Great idea!
posted by electro at 11:11 AM on September 14, 2003


I think many people go to film school expecting a trade school of sorts. And the academics who have fought hard to make cinema academically acceptable (for better or for worse) aren't going to have any of that.

I hope students don't forget that the most valuable part of learning this academic stuff is gaining the ability to make an informed rejection of prevailing thought when necessary.

Video games are starting to get this kind of treatment in academia. I can't wait to see what "theoretically informed" video games are going to look like.
posted by DaShiv at 11:25 AM on September 14, 2003


There's the concrete of what it physically takes to make movies, and understanding the choices a director specifically makes to complete a film. Then there's the abstract of trying to understand what the movie is supposed to mean. The answer is yes to both, but one taken out of context of the other is worthless. Also, reading into a film what is definitely not there defeats the purpose as well. Taking both the concrete and the abstract into account improves the chance that what one theorizes doesn't turn out to be snobbish absurdity.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:45 AM on September 14, 2003


Sidney Lumet's book is a good introduction to the practical aspects of making movies.
posted by muckster at 12:09 PM on September 14, 2003


Maybe they just need to develop their program more.
posted by cinderful at 12:10 PM on September 14, 2003


DaShiv: my sister presented a paper at a conference in Toronto on Tomb Raider and (I think) postcolonialsim. I haven't had a chance to read it, though.
posted by synecdoche at 2:16 PM on September 14, 2003


god, it pisses me off the amount of snobbery from people who object to critical analysis of films. that stuff is there in the film and it goes into your head whether you realise it or not. these theories are part of research into the nature of communication. that is why things have changed since when that fella was in college, because of further research being done! maybe we know more now, and understand more. the subconscious definitely is relevant. semiotics can help us understand films, if we want to. you don't have to try to understand them if you are a consumer, but if you are producing them you are going to make better films if you are at least aware of the possibilities! anyway my thesis was a freudian analysis of monty python and the holy grail. so there.
posted by mokey at 2:37 PM on September 14, 2003 [1 favorite]


The thing that kills me about this is that the director's themselves would probably get C's on such an exam dealing with their own movie.

Perhaps. Why is that a problem to you?
posted by cx at 2:52 PM on September 14, 2003


Why on earth would you spend all that money on film school when for the same amount of money you could make a decent film on high-def video? Hell, we all heard about R. Rodriguez making El Mariachi for $7,000 and doing a good enough job of it that it was picked up by a mjor film studio

If Rodriguez had gone to film school, perhaps he'd be able to make half-decent movies.
posted by MarkC at 4:34 PM on September 14, 2003


IMO, after George Lucas made the first version of THX 1138 as a class project at USC and went on to become... well, George Lucas, the film schools were flooded with kids-who-wanted-to-be-the-next-George-Lucas, and the ivory-tower intellectuals didn't want to have anything to do with that. So they started drifting farther and farther away from the practical process of filmmaking and deeper and deeper into abstract film theory until, now, 30-plus years after Lucas graduated, they've ensured they'll never make that mistake again...
posted by wendell at 4:50 PM on September 14, 2003


Hmmm, this article highlights why I chose not to go to grad school after getting my B.A. in Film Studies. When I talked to various schools about their masters programs, I was immediately told (by all of them in various ways), "Well, we assume you'll be studying Marxist-Feminist Theory. That's what all the women here are working on." Granted, this was back in 1992, but when they found out I was interested in Formalism, I got a "nice meeting you" and a kick out the door.

A good friend of mine did his masters in Film Studies at U of Iowa. When offered the chance to do his PhD on them, he declined, stating that he was tired of "No-Theory Theory" (my personal favorite of all the psychobabble) shoved down his throat.

What did I learn from Film Theory? How to write a paper that 99.99% of the general population (including my mother) couldn't read. Ugh. It was the most frustrating experience of my life. Not that I'm bitter, or anything.
posted by greengrl at 5:13 PM on September 14, 2003


it pisses me off the amount of snobbery from people who object to critical analysis of films.

I don't object to all film analysis, only those where they utilize their own pretentious terminology designed to befuddle anyone not trained in the cult, and when they insist upon viewing everything through the lens of their own political leanings.

that stuff is there in the film and it goes into your head whether you realise it or not

Well, maybe. Sounds a little too close to Wilson Scott Key and his sex-in-the-ice-cubes theories about advertising for me.

my thesis was a freudian analysis of monty python and the holy grail

Ooo-kay...
posted by pmurray63 at 5:16 PM on September 14, 2003


Although, I should mention that my classmates and I had a wonderful time psychoanalyzing Smiths songs at a "film student after exam party" once...
posted by greengrl at 5:22 PM on September 14, 2003


Hey folks, take a few minutes to read that second link that greengrl posted -- it's eminently sensible and quite good.
posted by pmurray63 at 5:23 PM on September 14, 2003


I studied Film and Theater, but at a "regular" university and not a film school. I dropped Film Production after about four weeks. Screw that. It was full of guys that all thought they were going to be the next Tarantino and nobody that wanted to talk about the actual art and power of films. (I think it's funny that most of the guys who want to be Tarantino have only watched his movies, forgetting that he spent years in a video store watching *everything*.) I went back to my theory and criticism classes and I loved 'em. Some folks like the mechanics and some like the theory. Personally I think the best filmmakers are the ones that know both, but there's nothing wrong with specialization.

I think this is mostly a problem of vocabulary. Words like "semiotics" and "formalism" sound abstract to the anti-intellectuals, so therefore they must be wank. Do you think "blogosphere" sounds any different to the average Joe on the street? There are always people in a "scene" (for lack of a better word) who like to discuss that scene itself, and they'll invent the words they need to do it.
posted by web-goddess at 5:38 PM on September 14, 2003


Words like "semiotics" and "blogosphere" is wanking.
posted by Stan Chin at 5:43 PM on September 14, 2003


And my grammar are bad.
posted by Stan Chin at 5:45 PM on September 14, 2003


"Film school as a ways to learn how to make a movie is one thing, and film theory, semiotics and analysis another."

Which one would I need in order to become a filmic storyteller?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 5:49 PM on September 14, 2003


"If Rodriguez had gone to film school, perhaps he'd be able to make half-decent movies."

Snob.

His movies are more than half-decent (well, a number of them, anyway -- I offer no excuses for The Faculty). Also, from a practical aspect, he's extremely proficient at a number of jobs in filmmaking, including directing, editing, scoring and so on, which he learned by doing. He is also both inventive and economical on the technical front, which means his pictures make money -- and thereby he continues to be able to have rather more control of his films than most commercial filmmakers.

I would suspect film students could learn rather more of benefit regarding a career in film from Rodruigez than from your average film theorist.
posted by jscalzi at 6:54 PM on September 14, 2003


Which one would I need in order to become a filmic storyteller?

you cannot become a filmic storyteller. under the genetic theory of filmic storytelling, one is born a filmic storyteller.
posted by quonsar at 7:14 PM on September 14, 2003


So did Michael Bay have to learn film theory?
posted by inpHilltr8r at 7:34 PM on September 14, 2003


I agree with the learning-by-doing thing. I couldn't afford "real" film school, but I learned the basics of filmmaking at the New York Film Academy in a few months' time. My films may suck, but at least I'm making them.
posted by Poagao at 12:07 AM on September 15, 2003


I've never studied film theory, so I can't comment directly on that (although I'd be intuitively suspicious of analysis that doesn't make sense to film-makers or film-goers & doesn't have any other external source of validity). However, I would be disturbed to take a class in film theory and find that it was based on Freudian analysis. I may not know film theory, but I do know psychology. Freud may have been important for his influence on the history of psychology, but his theories were a bunch of made-up garbage with no scientific basis whatsoever. Certain aspects of his theories have caused a lot of harm over the years & I can't off-hand think of what good they've done. Somehow I can't imagine that taking his ideas out of psychology and transplanting them into filmic analysis is going to magically transform them from a steaming pile of dung into something worthwhile.
posted by tdismukes at 3:58 AM on September 15, 2003


tdismukes, Freud is now often being read more for the quality of his literary analysis (of Hamlet, Oedipus, etc) than his psychology. In that context, it may make sense to read movies through his work.

As for semiotics--there's at least one work of art that is based entirely on this discipline: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is thinly veiled theory made narrative flesh...and it sold rather well.
posted by muckster at 9:05 AM on September 15, 2003


Not even film theory could help Michael Bay, inpHilltr8r... Thanks for that laugh, I needed it today.
posted by greengrl at 9:51 AM on September 15, 2003


A frequent defense of crypto-theory, which I heard often from the more obscurantist film profs, is that no-one expects mathematicians, chemists and engineers to be intelligible to the general public when they talk about their work, so why should film-school grads be any different? And in a way, there's no good rebuttal to it. For any complex discipline develops a complex language. Despite the down-home folksy image Weddle paints of Hollywood and real film schoolin' (the education he got), learning how to be a cinematographer or a grip or a production designer also involves an alarming amount of jargon - as any first-time PA knows when s/he's asked to fetch an *unintelligible techno-jargon* ASAP.

Isn't there room for all these different educations? I think electro hit the nail on the head: Weddle really wanted USC. Maybe I'm just a Canadian, but I'd say his real problem is the outrageous cost of postsecondary education in the US.

As for Ebert, I'm surprised he's so vitriolic about film school, but I suppose a denial of film theory's value provides an easy rationalization for a failure to engage with it, despite being paid to review movies all day.
posted by D at 3:02 PM on September 15, 2003


As for Ebert, I'm surprised he's so vitriolic about film school, but I suppose a denial of film theory's value provides an easy rationalization for a failure to engage with it, despite being paid to review movies all day.

On the contrary. The fact that he's paid to review movies all day despite knowing nothing of film theory is conclusive proof that film theory is completely unnecessary to his job. You wouldn't be upset to see thousands of kids spending lots of money to learn something you consider worthless? One thing I've always been impressed with about Ebert is his forthrightness.

Will a knowledge of film theory enable you to make better movies than people who lack the knowledge? Or will it allow you to be more consistent? If the answer is "neither" then I don't see how it has any more value to a filmmaker than it does to Ebert.

The last thing anyone should want to see is American cinema being polluted by a bunch of pretentious films that are understandable only to people who have had the same film theory classes as the director.
posted by kindall at 5:50 PM on September 15, 2003


The last thing anyone should want to see is American cinema being polluted by a bunch of pretentious films that are understandable only to people who have had the same film theory classes as the director.

But taking a few theory classes doesn't magically prevent you from making accessible films. In fact, it's much less likely that films would get this way as opposed to, say, literature, just because of the cost of making them. Are we really concerned that the megaplexes will drown in Godardesque anti-narrative?

However, a touch of theory may enable you to get more meaning out of a number of films that were informed by it. Perhaps the budding young Michael Bays don't need it, but many filmmakers do and have - so yes, it can enable you to make better movies, so it can't be dismissed out of hand. As for Ebert, I'll salute anyone who co-wrote one of my favourite films and does great work in film history, but c'mon - he should put down the Forrest Gump and pick up a hint of theory now and then. He loves a lot of great films that are definitely informed by theory. You can know who Virilio is and still be a populist.
posted by D at 11:29 PM on September 15, 2003


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