Rupture of a Soap Bubble by a Projectile (Lucien Bull, 1904)
What is (film) theory? Why does it matter? Over the last year or so, I have had to draft responses to these questions (for students who would rather work on “real” films and colleagues who would rather do “real” history). Though I am someone who takes pleasure in reading theory, arguments for pleasure (i.e., I enjoy it. You should, too), or for the pleasures of departure (from “real” disciplinary concerns) are not all that convincing. A first sketch of another argument:
My route to Film Studies was a circuitous one. I began as a French student with an interest in the avant-garde. I eventually followed a number of writers and artists into the cinema, where I stayed to discover other forms of silent film and the eccentricities of early ethnography. Initially, my shift away from the literary humanities was born of necessity. I was tracing the paths of Antonin Artaud, Jean Epstein, and Germaine Dulac as they pivoted between literature and photography, theatre and film. But as I left these figures behind and began to adopt a new disciplinary home, I found that Comparative Literature and Film Studies are joined in fundamental ways.
Comparative Literature emerged in the late 1950s and early 60s, a post-war discipline that challenged the hegemony of the Western canon and radically departed from the methodologies of Area Studies and Classics departments, wherein scholars delimited their objects of study according to historical, geographic, or national boundaries. Comparative Literature began without a place, without the burden of circumscribing and defending a textual territory, without pages and pages of material. Comparative Literature shifted the focus of the literary humanities away from the specificity of place, text, and author toward the immaterial and absent: the silences of non-western and post-colonial voices, the traumatic ruptures and reflections that shaped post-war literature, the insurmountable spaces between bodies and cultures. Comparative Literature began with a set of questions: What is Literature? What is reading and interpretation? What gets lost and found in translation?
As a discipline, Film Studies was born at roughly the same historical moment as Comparative Literature and very often reflects the same rich historical context, one that includes decolonization, civil rights movements, and waves of student and worker protests. And like Comparative Literature, Film Studies began with a question, rather than an object. That is to say, Film Studies began by placing its object of study into question, rather than assuming it could be read. Between 1958 and 1962, André Bazin published his two-volume treatise, What is Cinema? These texts have come to operate as a kind of disciplinary origin, the first textbook for a first generation of film students. But Bazin’s work simply recasts and responds to the central question (namely, what is it?) that had been cycling through the first five decades of film thought and writing. The responses are seemingly endless and the question—What is Cinema?—continues to shape and reshape Film Studies. What is cinema as we share time and space with its images? What is cinema as film moves through global circuits of production and distribution? What is cinema as the moving image becomes digital, virtual, viral, and social?
But why does Film Studies begin here, rather than elsewhere? Why does Film Studies begin with this question, rather than an affirmative claim about the nature of film? Why does this form of the discipline not emerge, as it did in the case of Comparative Literature, centuries after the field had taken its texts for granted? Paradoxically, and in marked contrast from the development of Comparative Literature, the very first film objects demanded to be thought against the grain of their own materiality, their own easy visibility. Film was always a startling and enigmatic experience, whose object-ness resisted both physical touch and written translation. D.N. Rodowick meditates on film’s ontological obsessions and speculates in this direction:
“Film, it would seem, is a very uncertain object. […] Literary texts may be cited critically and analytically in the same notation as their source. But film loses what is most specific to it once it is captured in a different analytic medium: the frame enlargement or film still absents the movement that defines its particular form of visuality […] Writing may capture succession. Yet it fails to reproduce film’s peculiar quality of an automated, ineluctable movement. Here the curious paradox of film is that its materiality cannot be grasped because it resists writing.” [i]
Rodowick makes three important claims here. First, film is an object and immaterial experience that unfolds over time and spreads into virtual space. Second, film is a hybrid medium that invites comparisons and contact with the visual, literary, and performing arts. Finally, film analysis depends upon multiple acts of translation: from movement to stillness, image to language, seeing to reading. Film material is always slipping through our fingers, away from us, and out of view. More broadly (and importantly), Rodowick argues that film theory is an essential, inseparable part of Film Studies. He makes a clear case for film scholars and film students (I teach this essay on one of our intro courses at Aberdeen): film theory is not an optional accessory, a separate body of knowledge, a course for those who are willing. The physical, material stuff of film is always and already unsteady. From the very start, it gives way to concepts and questions, to comparative thinking and an imprecise fumbling for understanding. In short: there is no theory-less object or history of film.
This discipline-focused, object-centric defense, I think, raises interesting questions for the literary humanities (with which I began). Does this argument move us past Film Studies to a defense of theory (writ large)? Probably not…
[i] DN Rodowick, “Dr. Strange Media: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Film Theory,” in Inventing Film Studies, eds. Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008): 374-398; see also The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007).