I am torn…
On one hand I absolutely believe that there is No such thing as knowing too much. That ideas matter and that all knowledge has value. Moreover, that knowledge and Learning should not be wholly bound by pragmatism - that if knowledge is chained to getting a job or commercial application, then our society as a whole is diminished. Knowledge for knowledge sake is the noble ideal that very often leads to the most profound but unforeseen benefits. At a simpler level I rather angrily reject the anti-intellectualism that plagues Australian society.
I am in despair by what I consistently endure sitting in the audience of the numerous academic conferences I attend and present at.
We may call my field of interest Screen Studies and thus, by at least my own definition at least, the study of how movies are made and how they work, what we watch and why we watch it? I study screen production in order to generate Useful knowledge for filmmakers and Empower more articulate audiences.
However, when I go to Screen Studies conferences - with other academics, reporting to be Screen Studies scholars - what I hear seems to me to be (by and large) a) NOT Screen studies and b) NOT useful for those who make screen productions or, frankly, those that watch them.
Now, before I go on, don t get me wrong - I am Not suggesting that scholarly academic work on cinema necessarily Has to be about how films work, nor that such scholarship Must be practically useful to filmmakers. But what I am suggesting is that firstly, perhaps we need a new name to separate true Screen Studies - as the study of films and filmmaking - from what is more readily Cultural Studies viewed through a prism of cinema.
And secondly - if I may be permitted some blunt honesty - I just don t give a shit about Screen Studies that isn’t Useful to screen content makers or audiences..
At the risk of sounding like the anti-intellectual I despise, I can t help but see such cinema-derived cultural studies that pretends to be Screen Studies as a kind of self-absorbed navel gazing. If it’s not useful for filmmakers and doesn’t expand comprehension and appreciation for active audiences then I struggle to see the point or purpose.
Now, this may sound verbose but allow me to give this a caveat (and the point of my post); cinema-derived Cultural Studies on one hand and Screen Studies useful to filmmakers and audiences on the other need not be mutually exclusive. Too often there seems to be a separation between studying Cinema as a prism to understand societal and cultural issues and studying cinema to understand how filmmakers can engage cultural and social precepts. But if we accept that art itself is a reflection of societal and cultural values then why - or moreover how - can these perspectives been read or viewed as separate?
To add a touch of trademark audacity I would suggest that cinema-derived Cultural Studies research that isn t useful to filmmakers is just Lazy. If Cultural Studies scholars looking at cinema would put aside their self indulgence for just a moment they may see that the effort to connect their navel-gazing to tangible ideas for filmmakers and film audiences, is no great effort at all.
To prove the point I can take examples from a conference I attended late last year - the Australian and New Zealand Film and History conference. Scholar Julian Murphett presented on camera movement (a paper entitled ‘Tracking the modern: camera movement and autonomy’) and drew together a long history of the moving camera to draw a profile of modernist motion perspective in cinema. At the same conference eminent professor Jane Mills gave a paper that explored the idea of Sojourner Filmmakers - a rich pattern of directors who have gone to a foreign country to make a film that tells a localised story for that place but which is otherwise outside the experience of the director themselves.
What both these papers failed to do - despite their rather astute and carefully observed ideas - was ask the glaringly obvious question; So what does this mean ?
Julian Murphett’s presentation mined a rich vein of moving camera examples but at no time did he make a suggestion about what such an evolving history of motion might mean for cinematographers working today?The only connection he made to future implications of the moving camera was a cynical and decidedly ill-informed view that the virtual camera of digital filmmaking, and in particular computer gaming, was disastrous backward step for cinema. Julian cited only one game to validate his nihilistic point of view, Grand Theft Auto, citing it as a continuous first-person camera that “doesn’t work” . Of course to anyone who has actually played GTA will know that it is NOT a first-person game at all but rather a third-person camera; moreover it is so utterly broken up with pre-edited cut-scenes as to be as far from continuous, and every bit as constructed, as a filmic Eisenstein montage sequence..! GTA is the OPPOSITE of what My Murphett seemed to argue it was.
If he wanted a genuine example for his thesis he should have cited Half Life 2 as the first major FPS without any cutscenes and a single continuous POV shot from start to finish, but I fear that the level of scholarship Mr Murphett clearly extends to traditional cinema he did not see worthy to extend to games. Thus it seems a shame to me that he would feel the need to draw nihilistic conclusions about the worth of the virtual camera in gaming without bothering to actually play games. That aside, for all the valid observations Julian Murphett made he never once approached the notion of what the evolution of the moving camera might actually mean for filmmakers? How will the camera be used in the future? What new states of experience or perspective are possible? What can DoP’s learn from the history of camera movement to inform future techniques? A perfect opportunity to connect observation with tangibility and elevate the research from self-indulgent navel-gazing to something both fascinating and useful seemed to have been squandered.
Similarly in the case Jane Mills - if you re going to make a case for a subset of films and filmmakers as sojourners - a pattern of auteurs who make a film in a foreign country and culture - then should you not take the next obvious step and ask what does this mean for filmmakers and filmmaking? Do such filmmakers make better films because of their non-native and removed position? What does this mean for national cinemas; domestic product for domestic consumption? How are such films received in those countries where they are made as opposed to in the filmmakers homeland? Are the films more or less successful than native works? Should Australian filmmakers be encouraged to become Sojourners? How does (or doesn t) an Australian sensibility hold up in a foreign context? Will films by Australian Sojourners improve or expand domestic Australian screen industries?
jane Mills’ research prompts so many of these great questions directly pertinent to industry and practice and audience, and yet the research itself, as presented, never went anywhere near such questions. Wholly preoccupied with its own navel-gazing and cleverness such questions as so what does this mean seem never to have entered the conversation.
Sadly, as a result, I believe both academia and practice are both diminished by presentations such as these - research that remains pretentious and self-absorbed, all too easily dismissible as irrelevant by both practitioners and audiences alike. Likewise, from the other side, the anti-intellectualism that plagues Australian cinema practice - and which I would argue has held it back in the mire of the lowest common denominator - is deprived of an opportunity to grow beyond its petty shallow banality, to engage with rich ideas.
I’ve ranted on this divide between cinema scholarship and cinema practice before - witness my great frustration with absurdly ill-informed texts such as Cinetech by Stephen Keane which piles fallacy and inaccuracy onto stupidity with every paragraph. (you can read my much justified bashing of this atrocious book here)
And yet it is these two worlds of scholarship and practice that I attempt straddle with my own work everyday. Thus when I see such divides between theory, practice and audiences - entirely unnecessary and unproductive divides - I find myself decidedly frustrated; torn between anti-intellectualism on one side and self-absorbed navel-gazing on the other. Surely there is a middle ground that celebrates ideas and knowledge in the service of making better films and smarter audiences ?