I came across this Los Angeles Sunday Times Magazine article complaining about required film theory courses through Planned Obsolescence. The author David Weddle is shocked by his daughter’s C on her film theory final and awed by all of the incomprehensible jargon on her final exam. As KF points out:
Weddle’s article is so rife with the kinds of anti-intellectualism often found in the mainstream media that it becomes a sort of cliché.
Professors are characterized as wild-eyed Marxists with bad hygiene who have no concpet of how the “real world,” in this case the film industry, functions. More specifically, he identifies the rise of film theory with 60s politics, which he characterizes as “a fantastic Day-Glo wonderland, a frothing kettle of New Left politics,” primarily using Penley’s experience at Berkeley to support his argument. The dismissive identification between drug use (“Day-Glo wonderland”) and leftist politics is bad enough. Weddle is also careful to choose his political “straw men” carefully, focusing only on film theory professors’ “Marxism” (which is of course a tremendous generalization) and ignoring the important contributions of feminist film theory (for example). Along with these charges of radical politics (one professor is condemned for participating in a Gulf War protest), Weddle has a particuarly incoherent discussion of how leftist film theory has destroyed any focus on authorship, another vast generalization, replacing it with a focus on the social forces that produced a given film.
Special ire is reserved for Edward Branigan, the offending professor who dared to “give” his daughter a C:
Branigan stands before a blackboard covered with rectangles and hexagons heavily notated with abbreviations. They appear to be the complex equations of an astrophysicist, but are in fact illustrations of semiotic theories of “narratology.” Branigan has tangled brown-gray hair, a shaggy beard, large glasses coated with flecks of dandruff and fingerprints, and wears an oversized gray sweater and corduroy pants. As he speaks, his hands grasp at the air, shaping it as he shapes his thoughts….Branigan’s oratory mesmerizes many of the students. They lean back, deep into the seats’ red upholstery, eyes staring blankly into space. Some give up and close them altogether.Certainly someone so unaware of his physical appearance can have nothing useful to say about how film operates. Perhaps more troubling, Weddle (echoing Roger Ebert) implies that film theorists are essentially cultists, viweing themselves as “high priests of culture.” He dismisses Constance Penley because “she exudes an almost religious fervor for film theory and its power to transform” and then changes her admiration of Christian Metz into that of a gooey-eyed Justin Timberlake fan: “with the I-can-hardly-believe-I-actually-got-to-hang-with-him glow of a teenager who’s met a rock ‘n’ roll idol.”
This kind of anti-intellectualism is troubling for me. I recognize that film theory requires students to tackle difficult concepts and to challenge–and possibly rethink–standard assumptions about the world, but isn’t that what a liberal-arts education is about? I also find it troubling that these complaints are frequently directed at film and literary theory, while math and science courses are rarely criticized for their use of specialized jargon which seems to assume that studying a film should be “easy” and math/science courses can be “hard.” One of the major points of film theory is that sign systems are complex things–that they have a profound effect on the ways in which we pecreive, understand, and act in the world. Even though one of the professors Weddle interviews makes this point, he refuses to seriously entertain it. Still, I am troubled by these charges of “elitism” and the continued emphasis on “hands-on” practical experience that threaten to marginalize the work that I do. These perceptions about the academy have a lot of power, which leaves me wondering how we can change them.