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January 20, 2006


Seth Edenbaum

“how does one do an analysis of film?”
How does one do an analysis of painting?
Film is a visual medium. Scripts are props.

Jessica Silbey

I agree that film is a visual medium, hence the attention to the visual in interpreting it. But art historians don't interpret paintings the way film scholars interpret film because the history of the media, the modes of viewing and their form are all inherently distinct from each other. One point of my post was to think through the idea that film studies is its own discipline, with a method by which it produces knowledge and understanding about film. Art history (the broader discipline in which paintings are studied, for example) likewise has its own methodology or established (authoritative?) way of making sense of its object of study.

To cross-reference another post on this blog ("What Counts As Legal Scholarship"), I wonder what the methodology in law is when scholars make sense of their object of study? And, apropos of the theme of this blog generally, when the study is law and culture (law and literature, law and film, law and science), how do we blend methodologies to make sense of the interdisciplines?


Scripts are not props. Scripts are foundations. Now actors... actors are props.

And, for the record, the last time film was a visual medium was back in the 30s. Film is a medium of synchronized picture and sound.

It's my impression, as a filmmaker, that much of academic film scholarship doesn't make sense, or if it does make sense it is so opaque, so dense and couched in jargon, as to ill repay the effort of reading it.

A lot of film scholars seem to be profoundly ignorant of film production and the actual elements and considerations that go into the making of films - an ignorance that renders their conclusions nonsensical, or at best irrelevant to understanding film.

Literary criticism and legal scholarship have, to a certain extent, the built-in correctives that their practitioners are expected to be able to function in the areas they are criticizing: if a literary critic cannot write well, he or she is probably not worthy of attention; if a legal scholar is a bad lawyer, that fact will not long remain secret. Film critics labor under no such expectations. (Nor do art critics, for that matter.)

This is not to tar all film criticism with the same brush. But since you asked...

seth edenbaum

History is narrative and academic philosophy is anti-narrative: analysis is the study of synchrony, of structure outside time. There's a general tendency in academia to want to stay 'clean,' to describe ambiguity in such a way so as to pretend to be above it. I don't think there's any way to do that and do justice to subjects that are not hard sciences, and even that works for the sciences only outside of any social context. But law is an intellectual hybrid: it's both logic and performance, and the study of law simultaneously as idea and action is a good way around the Continental/Anglo-American divide. And theater and literature become the model- not a philosophical discourse concerning or 'about' theatricality.

When I first began reading Jack Balkin I sent him a note asking if he knew whether or not anyone had done anything on the parallels between original intent in law and music. He sent me this: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/writings.htm#C
And he hosted something with Richard Taruskin as well.
as an aside, in 1987 I went with a teacher of mine, Tom Gunning, to a lecture by his teacher, Jay Leyda. Leyda was old and frail, but spoke with a knowledge and affection for the history of film that seemed odd to me.
"What's Leyda's degree in?"
"Film Studies"
"At his age, where did he get a degree in Film Studies?"
"Who'd he study with?"

I still get a kick out of that one.


I am intrigued by both posts. And Tock, your second comment sounds eerily like one from my dissertation committee, now eons ago. So, good for you for being a stickler for form. Sincerely, correction noted.

Unfortunately, however, your comments about "built-in correctives" just isn't true, in my experience. Consider all the influential literary critics whose writing is impenetrable -- Lyotard and Jameson come to mind. And many, many legal scholars were never practicing lawyers, so it is not clear how we'd know if they were good or bad at the trade.

One issue, it seems to me, is that the profession of literary criticm, film criticism and legal scholarship (law to a lesser degree, perhaps) occupies a very different cultural space than the profession of novelist, poet, filmmaker or lawyer. The two spaces generate different kinds of knowledge about the world and different kind of experiences of the world. All the while (and this is your insight), the former folks (critics) are trying to speak to or influence the latter folks (novelist, filmmaker, lawyer), but it remains unclear whether the latter care what the former are doing. Indeed, I would say that novelists, lawyers, filmmakers are critics in their own right, just doing criticism in another way. (This presupposes that "criticism" means trying to materially affect the world in some way, either evoke emotion, social change, provide insight into stratification of power, etc.)

Finally, I wonder if what you're really talking about, and what Seth picks up on, is the difference between popular critics (those that write for an audience broader than the academy) and those who make their living in universities and colleges, primarily teaching and writing scholarship. That difference grows as the distance between the subject of cricitism and the act of criticm widens, as Seth's wonderful anecdote about Jay Leyda illustrates. A good book to read on this subject (primarily for literary studies) is William Cain's The Crisis of Criticism. There are many others, just peruse the shelf in the film studies or cultural studies section of your local bookstore. The anthologies are inevitably titled "Reinventing Film Studies" or "Relocating Criticism" or something like that.


You're right, of course, there are impenetrable critics of all stripes. I'm a filmmaker, so I suppose I tend to overreact to film critics and let others off the hook. (Or, more likely, just not notice them as much.) At any rate, in the absence of any evidence of usefulness, I tend to see impenetrability as evidence of inability - inability to be clear, at least, and often inability to understand what one is even saying.

You have a wonderful characterization: "the distance between the subject of cricitism and the act of criticm widens." But I have to disagree with your conflation of "criticism" and "scholarship" - they may overlap, but it seems to me that criticism has lately become its own beast.

One way of framing it might be that the corpus of novels, poems, films - include the law if you like - forms the common ground for a community or culture of writers, filmmakers, lawyers, and, yes, critics; but that a lot of critics seem, these days, to have left the common ground, built their own raft, and cut the moorings. And yes, the distance widens... which is to say, those critics are completely out to sea. (You must be familiar with the story of Alan Sokal's now-classic article, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity,' but I just have to mention it, because I love it so.)

Critics tend to get denser (and so does their writing... sorry, I couldn't resist) the further removed they are from practice; and the denser they get, the more one begins to suspect they are writing for themselves, and neither attempting to influence practice, nor in fact really concerned with their purported subject matter at all. A lot of current academic criticism seems to be inordinately self-referential - that is to say, it's about nothing other than criticism. While that may be a good way to get tenure, it doesn't strike me as any way for a grownup to spend his time.

Again, not to tar all critics with the same brush, but when the brush fits...


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