Rethinking “Against Insight”

Peter alerted me to David Bordwell’s “Against Insight,” a short CineScope essay, in which Bordwell argues that contemporary film criticism is failing. Bordwell is equally critical of academic film criticism and the film writing that appears in film magazines and free city weeklies, suggesting that the former is wedded to a jargon-heavy approach which “grinds Movie X through Theory Y” and that the latter formats “promote that self-assured nonconformity which prizes jaunty wordplay and throwaway judgments.” As Filmbrain notes, “it’s not quite a polemic for a new criticism,” but Bordwell leaves little doubt that he is troubled by the state of contemporary film criticism. My response to Bordwell’s comments is almost certainly mediated by my theoretcial disagreements with Bordwell’s academic criticism, but I’ll admit that I’m intrigued by Bordwell’s emphasis on the role that good film criticism can play in the public sphere.

I’ll admit that I have some serious reservations about Bordwell’s sweeping generalizations about academic film criticism. As someone who frequently reads and writes for academic film journals, I’m not sure his argument about theory holds up. Bordwell argues that

Actually, prestigious academic film talk is drenched in opinions. Theory is a matter of taste: you say Virilio, I say Deleuze. Most film academics don’t critically examine the doctrines they applaud. Many dismiss requests for evidence as signs of “empiricism,” and when they cite evidence it’s likely to be tenuous or tendentious.

No doubt Bordwell could offer examples of this kind of writing if he chose, but such examples could be dismissed as “cherry-picking.” Bordwell’s suggestion that “Theory is driven by fashion” also makes it easy to dismiss the insights that careful engagements with film and media theory can provide and probably says more about Bordwell’s distaste for certain kinds of theory. I do think that theoretically-informed arguments can provide insight into the mechanics of spectatorship (apparatus theory and its legacy in feminist film theory), to name one example.

Like Filmbrain, I also found myself disappointed by Bordwell’s surprisingly brief account of what it means to turn “insights” into nuanced “clear-cut ideas” and why he believes that film critics are failing this obligation (he does cite Dwight MacDonald for writing some of the “zestiest” film crit around, but doesn’t explain this appraisal). Again, I’d like more evidence explaining why MacDonald’s criticism is more satisfying than other critics who are working today or why film theory ought to aspire to the scientific rigor or attention to technique that he associates with Charles Rosen, Jacques Barzun, and Robert Hughes. Perhaps I’m simply finding myself defending a profession, a role that I often find myself assuming, but these sweeping comments often overlook some of the more insightful attempts to understand the social, political, and material effects of cinema in our daily lives. If Bordwell is right that academic film writing (I won’t speak about writing for film magazines for now), then that may be a commentary on the publication demands imposed by a tenure system that often imposes an institutional pressure to publish too quickly (and if I’m not mistaken, he has raised this critique elsewhere).

I’m still thinking about my position on what Bordwell refers to as “journalistic critics.” I’m still tempted to attribute the shifting grounds of journalistic film criticism to a decentralization of cinema culture, both in terms of vuenues for film crit and in terms of the object of study. Film production itself would seem to be far less centralized, but like Bordwell (and Filmbrain), I think film criticism in general can do better, that it has a viable and important contribution to make to the public sphere. Peter cites an entry I wrote the other day in which I seek to deconstruct the idea of a “golden age” of film criticism, in part by pointing to some of the film writing taking place in the blogosphere and in other online venues. I still think there’s some good work being done by film bloggers (Peter has a great list), but some second thoughts have cropped up. First, I have thought for a long time that good blogs can aspire to the essayistic writing that Bordwell imagines. Blogs are often recursive, doubling back on old ideas, allowing the writer to rethink old assumptions. Like the best essays, they can be deeply personal, building from the experiences and observations of the essayist (Girish does this as well as anyone) while providing deeper insight into cinema. Is there a lot of bad criticism filled with vacuous observations and hollow word-play? Most certainly. But like Filmbrain, I think film bloggers are producing some excellent film writing and that it’s worth emphasizing these voices.

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