Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Old Books, Pt II

and also old films, so look away if you're of a purely literary disposition.

Romola has been dispatched and I'm parcelling out Alberta, which is almost as depressing-yet-tempting as Jean Rhys' short stories (cold, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, sexism, but -- PARIS!), and I'm trying to get down to 'serious' work reading. Id est, theory. Stuff published (although not really sub-edited) by Routledge and various university presses. I read about half of Griselda Pollock's new book Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum at the British Library before the buzzing neon lights and chattering/texting undergrads overpowered my will to study/live. It's a brilliant concept: a tour through the privately-curated imaginary 'museum' of an extremely thoughtful and wide-ranging art historian, focused around Canova's Three Graces and various statues, paintings, photographs, and performances that resonate with details from the sculpture. It's also a ridiculously badly-designed book: all the images are in misnumbered portfolios at the start of chapters, instead of in the text, which makes it seem impossibly dense. I'm looking forward to hearing further chapters as part of the Slade lectures in Cambridge. Especially the one on Charlotte Salomon, who is one of my favourite artists, and feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

I was reading an essay over the holidays (because Theory never stops) about Akerman which made me realise that I also need to start Delirium's Cinema, as the number of important films I haven't seen is at least comparable with the bookshelf lacunae. Film and books are totally tied together for me, not only because I am fascinated by adaptation (even more so after reading Linda Hutcheon's enviably readable and comprehensive A Theory of Adaptation) but also because I learnt a lot about film from books, and vice versa. I've never been so startled as when a student came up to me on the first day of the first film course I ever taught and said they were horrified that there was a textbook and a course reader -- they had thought that a film course meant no reading. I'm intrigued by accounts of film-going in novels and poems, and by the use of poetry and literary allusions in cinema. Although cinema studies is becoming fiercely anti-literary, I can't help but see the two as entwined.

That's why I'm enjoying my other big read of the week, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's Unthinking Eurocentrism. Like the nineteenth-century novel, this is a work whose importance I've long known, and whose position I've known about through references in other books, but which I've failed repeatedly to read beyond the useful introduction (linked above).

What's most useful for me is that it's a vast catalogue of films that I either don't intend to see (Drums Along the Mohawk) or wouldn't have a chance of seeing (Brazilian auto-ethnographic video documentaries). Perhaps it's as naughty to expand one's cinematic knowledge through reading about films as it is to presume that seeing the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is the equivalent of reading it, but what a cataloguing project like Shohat's and Stam's offers is discernment and guidance in the overflowing world of media "choices."

Many of the films in my "never going to see" category are the ones that are easily available: screened at multiplexes, frequently on cable, released on DVD. These are the ones that, according to Shohat and Stam, form the presumed canon of cinema. They're mainly Hollywood or Hollywoodized products and there's a widely-promulgated belief that Hollywood is the natural definition of cinema. In fact, they have some excellent statistics as to why not: Hollywood cannot compete with the domestic output of Asian national cinemas today, for example. Even in the early days of film, the narrative that holds that the French invented cinema and the Americans perfected it (with crumbs for the Germans and British) leaves out the development of national cinemas in India, Argentina, Brazil, and other countries, which occurred simultaneously. Yet "early film," as taught in the majority of EuroWestern schools, means Griffith, Chaplin, Méliès, and Murnau. Maybe with Nell Shipman thrown in to demonstrate "diversity." But the whitewashing of cinema is inbuilt into the aesthetic criteria cinema studies inherits from art history and literary criticism: West is best, which means linear narrative, character motivation, verisimilitude, etc. And as in early cinema, the argument goes, so in contemporary cinema. After all, Hollywood's dominant production and distribution model has reached every corner of the globe, so what film hasn't been affected by it? Why, therefore, bother teaching a Malian or Filipino film, when they're just derivative of the superior model? And why even touch contemporary cinema when classical Hollywood film and European neo-realism are the quintessence of filmmaking?

Shohat and Stam's book offers a number of powerful rebuttals to these arguments (which I grinned and bore through dinner with a senior American film scholar last week -- perhaps the reason that I finally pulled it off the bookshelf). Is it necessary to watch all of classical Hollywood to understand continuity editing? Nope, nor to get agitated by the sexism and racism built into the system. Is it necessary to see Knocked Up to know that it's not very funny when it comes to the right to choose? Nope again. That's why film criticism exists, and even Theory, divided off into a scary section of its own in most bookshops. It can encourage people to go and see a more challenging film, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days by making it accessible as well as relevant.

That's what's also needed with Theory: books like Hutcheon's and Shohat and Stam's, and even Pollock's, have plenty to offer readers who want to be informed. They're not jargony, they have lots of images, and they're all concerned with questions relevant to contemporary life. But while memoirs, pop philosophy, and "history of x" books have seen non-fiction sales soar in the last ten years, books that require readers to think (rather than doing their thinking for them) have been pushed into corners haunted only by students with booklists. Just as even independent cinemas are falling over themselves to screen barely left-of-centre, studio-funded fare like No Country for Old Men. Perhaps I'm alone in wanting a challenge, particularly to the status quo, but I don't think so. Nor did George Eliot. But that's why Romola's never been adapted for the screen. Too much thinking.

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