Anyone who makes a habit of writing or even talking about films in any depth – debating meanings, interpretations, and so on – will sooner or later get the dismissive response: “well, you can make it mean anything, really, can’t you?” It can be a frustrating reaction, because often it is prompted by a knee-jerk resistance to the idea that there’s anything deeper going on in a medium such as film that is so synonymous with popular entertainment. It becomes particularly maddening when it can be easily verified that an interpretation under discussion was intended by the filmmakers: so, for example, if someone is dismissive of the idea that High Noon has a subtext commenting on McCarthayism, despite screenwriter Carl Foreman having endorsed that reading. At the same time, though, such scepticism serves a purpose in demanding some sort of justification: either a recourse to evidence that the filmmaker intended a reading, or an explanation of why a reading unintended by the filmmaker is nevertheless plausible and useful. That’s a positive impulse, and part of the fun of interpreting and discussing films is haggling over where to draw the line between an interesting interpretation and an unsustainable crock.
On a film-by-film basis, those lines get drawn based on the strength of the argument put in front of you by an individual piece of criticism. This kind of debate happens out in the popular media all the time: film critics will offer up interpretations of movies, and the enormous number of casual film fans will read and dissect those arguments either privately or, increasingly, in public forums such as the internet. This kind of interpretation is very democratic, in that it usually doesn’t require a great deal of specialist knowledge to understand or critique, and the average reader can make a good judgement about whether particular readings are sensible or silly. But what happens when we start to mount wider arguments about cinema that apply beyond individual films and which involve academic film theory? That kind of argument doesn’t generally play out in the popular media: it occurs in universities and through specialist film journals. And in that kind of situation, we start to see much more complex arguments put that are harder to quickly evaluate without detailed specialist knowledge. So, for example, we get psychoanalytic interpretations of films, which read films through theories about how the subconscious mind functions. This is where we enter the realm of capitalised, important-sounding Film Theory. And if we did present many of these arguments to the “person on the street” I’m sure the verdict would come back pretty quickly: “Bullshit!” The question is: are they right to react this way? Does this kind of instant reaction perhaps give a true indication of the merit of film theory? Have those who pursue academic theory constructed a giant artifice that simply isn’t sustainable?
When I first start doing university film studies, this kind of question really bothered me, and I found myself being torn between my interest in the subject and my frequent exasperation at the kind of theories being used to examine films. For example, take this extract from an explanation of the idea of “suture,” which is one of the classic underpinnings of psychoanalytic film theory (this is from page 405 of the third edition of Susan Hayward’s Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, which postdates my original time at university, but the basic idea is as the same as was presented to me at uni):
Lacan used the term suture to signify the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious which, in turn, he perceived as an uneasy conjunction unction between what he terms the Imaginary and the Symbolic orders – two orders which, after infancy, are always co-present. In its initial manifestation, the Imaginary stands for the period in infancy of a child’s life when it first glances at its reflection in the mirror and sees itself as a unified being. This period, which Lacan terms the mirror phase, marks the first stage of the child’s acquiring an identity separate from the mother and marks the child’s first understanding of space, distance and position. This moment is pre-Oedipal. It is a moment of pure jouissance or jubilation and narcissism in which the child, held up to the mirror by the mother, sees or senses itself as a unified being at the centre of the world.
Without getting into all the ins-and-outs of Lacanian psychoanalysis – it keeps going, and gets worse – suffice to say that these concepts pop up in film because it is suggested that when we see a film we experience a psychic sensation of mastery similar to the experience of our infant selves during the mirror phase. What are impressionable young university students supposed to make of this kind of stuff? My own gut reaction at the time (which hasn’t really changed) was that Lacanian psychonalysis was a giant steaming pile of crap, and essentially useless as a tool for analysing film.
This kind of cocky dismissal is very satisfying for an overconfident undergraduate: there’s nothing quite like the smug satisfaction that you get from the feeling that, unlike these supposedly super-smart academics, you can see that the Film Theory Emperor has no clothes. The problem, though, is that such instinctive dismissal just puts you in the camp with the kind of reactionary conservatives who write lazy opinion pieces in newspapers making fun of crazy university academics and their wacky theories. These aren’t good people to align yourself with; it turns out the “I’m too smart to get educated” crowd is pretty dumb. If you start taking the approach that all attempts to theorise film are rubbish, before getting your head around them, you’re pretty quickly going to be the equivalent of that guy who rejects the McCarthayist reading of High Noon just because he doesn’t know any better.
Unfortunately, however, formulating a smarter sceptical response is difficult when dealing with a whole body of academic film theory. I referred earlier to the democratic nature of the discussion about movies: the debate isn’t so open when we get in to film theory, because the arguments aren’t mounted in terms that everyone can understand. You can argue with the High Noon guy by drawing on basic high school history and your knowledge of the film itself, but if you want to argue with an advocate of Lacanian psychoanalytic film theory you’ve got to get your head around terms like suture and the Imaginary and the Symbolic and the Other and jouissance. (Not to mention some infuriatingly pretentious punctuation habits, like the littering of sentences with brackets so that words mean more than one thing at a time, as in: “The subject (mis)recognises itself both as itself and as other”). However, for most of us, life is too short. Who has the time to immerse themselves in a body of theory that they don’t believe in, simply to vindicate their instinctive rejection? Certainly my own reaction was generally to avoid psychoanalytic theory in particular, and to focus instead on different theoretical approaches that seemed more rewarding: theories about film that weren’t part of the grand paradigm of Film Theory (by which I mean the conglomerate of Lacanian psychonalysis, structuralism and post-structuralism, Althusserian Marxism, and their related offshoots).
The result of this kind of avoidance, spread across the whole of academia, is that only the believers enter the church of Theory. If the collective response to those sceptical of Theory is avoidance, it never becomes seriously challenged. And for much of my study I assumed that was the state of play. It was therefore something of a revelation when I came across Noël Carroll’s writing, and in particular his book Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. Published in 1988, it is Carroll’s definitive assault on Theory. It turned out that Carroll’s book was the rigorous debunking of the basic tenets of film theory that I had hankered for through most of my undergraduate degree. Reading it, I felt the pieces being put into place, and my instinctive scepticism about film theory finally getting the thorough, systematic justification I had been craving.
By academic standards, it’s a relatively slim book (262 pages, including endnotes and the index). Carroll’s approach is not to try to cover everything; instead he aims for some of the base readings of the gaggle of theoretical approaches I’ve already mentioned, which at the time formed the dominating model of Theory. (I wouldn’t want to generalise about the standing of such theory today, but I doubt it has the same stranglehold of the centre of debate it did when Carroll wrote; having said that, there’s still plenty of it in the Theory gene pool, often cross-bred with other approaches such as postmodernism and feminism). Carroll’s approach is to try to analyse some of the classic base texts of such theory, reasoning that they form the foundation for so much of what came later. Quite apart from anything else, this makes it the ideal companion for anyone struggling through some of the foundation texts of film studies: in the first two (and best) parts of the book, Carroll covers Jean-Louis Baudry’s writings on “The Apparatus”, Christian Metz’s thoughts on the “Imaginary Signifier” and the analogy between films and daydreams, and the basics of psychoanalytic film theory via Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan. For a student studying these texts, Carroll’s commentary is invaluable for two reasons. Firstly, there’s the reassurance that someone else has struggled to accept the arguments as true; but secondly, there’s the benefit of understanding them in the first place. Carroll’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and his book is admirable for stripping the obscurity away from some of these concepts.
Indeed, that is perhaps one of his most potent rhetorical devices. In many cases, once he has clearly explained a particular theory, it is all too clear just how anaemic the argument truly is; Carroll’s subsequent deconstruction just drives home what is already obvious. (Carroll’s critics have accused him of constructing “straw man” versions of the arguments he opposes both in this book and elsewhere, but the explication of the standard texts in Mystifying Movies all seem spot on to me). Carroll’s clarity is devastating because it shows that to a large extent these texts are artfully constructed to obscure the basic idea – which is often both simple and fairly obviously bogus – and shroud it in layers of confusing metaphors and jargon. A recurring complaint of Carroll’s is that theory is often put together by way of constructing analogies or metaphors: so, for example, Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz compare the experience of watching films to dreaming and daydreaming (respectively). What Carroll points out in some detail is that simply drawing an analogy isn’t enough: you have to establish that the analogy is meaningful in some way. So Carroll probes the gaps. What are the differences – the disanalogies – between the experiences? And what, in practical experience, is the result of those differences? Carroll brings the debate back to what should be an obvious point: just because an analogy can be made, doesn’t mean it should, or that once made the analogy should actually be held to hold any theoretical force. A very good example is Carroll’s discussion of Baudry’s linking of cinema screens and the so-called “dream screen.” Baudry theorises that there is a meaningful similarity between the screens on which films are projected and Bertram Lewin’s idea of the “dream screen,” which is a surface on which dreams are projected and which is taken to be associated with a mother’s breast. (Yep, that’s really what he argues; this is what I mean about how some of these ideas start to become pretty self-evidently dumb as soon as you explain them clearly). This then feeds into more complex ideas about the psychological regression we undergo when watching films, but Carroll points out the obvious problems with the founding analogy:
Maybe some white people envision breasts as white and then go on to associate the latter with white screens. But not everyone is white. And I even wonder if many whites associate breasts and screens. Certainly it is not an intuitively straightforward association like that between guns and penises. For example, screens are flats; and lactating breasts are not. A screen is, ideally, uniform in colour and texture; but a breast has a nipple… I do not deny that there may be some people who associate screens and breasts, thereby at least suggesting the hypothesis of oral regression in those cases. After all, it is probably psychologically possible to associate anything with anything else. But even if some people associate breasts and screens, that does not provide enough evidence to claim a general pattern of association between breasts and dreams such as might support a theory about all dreaming.
The last point ties into another angle of attack, which is the devaluation of evidentiary proof. Even where analogies are not so strained, determining whether an analogy is helpful or not really demands some recourse to empirical evidence: so before we start to draw psychoanalytic conclusions about the meaning of a purported dream / screen association, we should see if anyone actually draws that association in the first place.
This is another of Carroll’s key complaints, and is particularly telling with regards to theory that draws on psychoanalysis which, whatever one thinks of it, is a scientific discipline. Carroll notes, for example, how little actual evidence underlies Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage and the psychological construct of The Imaginary:
It is difficult to gauge the evidential support for this account. Lacan spends almost no methodological energy laying it out in the essay in which he postulates the mirror stage. Nor does he explain how he knows with such precision how children feel prenatally, in their first six months, and in their first encounter with the mirror. One is taken aback when one realises that so much contemporary theory is based upon so little documentation.
This is a massively important point. Baudry’s idea of the “dream screen” is something of a theoretical novelty, without which psychoanalytic film theory can stand largely undamaged, but Lacan’s mirror stage (and its accompanying ideas of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and so on) remains central to a vast body of writing. Carroll himself traces one of the most important of those strands (between psychoanalysis and Marxist notions of ideological control) at some length in the book. But then, Carroll has an even more fundamental objection to the whole strain of psychoanalytic film theory than its lack of empiricism. Carroll’s basic question is, why do we need to apply psychoanalysis to the cinema in the first place? Aren’t their simpler explanations? As Carroll points out, psychoanalysis is directed at explaining particular types of deviant behaviour, not normal psychological processes:
…the explanation of the particular construction of a given bridge in terms of psychoanalysis would be bizarre… But if some phenomena bear psychonalysing and others do not, what criteria guide us [in] these matters? And are things like the cinematic apparatus and cinematic representation such that our criteria indicate they should be analysands or, rather, should they be in the same category as bridge construction?
To specify the criteria for the appropriateness of psychoanalytic explanations, we must recall that psychoanalytic theory is designed to explain the irrational. The general paresis and epileptic fits, due to injury of Broca’s area in the brain, are nonrational and not a subject for psychoanalytic enquiry. Similarly, when an agent does something that is rational, we have no prima facie reason to investigate into the psychoanalytic causes of his behaviour. That is, a methodological constraint on the application of psychoanalytic explanation is that it not be mobilized until there is a recognisable breakdown in rationality (which cannot be explained in terms of the intervention of some nonrational process).
Given this requirement, which is mandated by the very concept of psychonalysis, it is clear that not all beliefs, not all emotional, social, aesthetic, and cognitive responses are candidates for psychoanalytic investigation. Insofar as psychoanalysis is designed to conceptualise irrational behaviour, which is only identifiable as a deviation from rational behaviour, there is no work for psychoanalysis to do where the behaviour is of an unmistakeably rational sort. That is, where adequate rationalistic explanations are available, we do not require psychonalysis.
Even putting aside the details of Carroll’s particular critiques, these three interlinked objections to much of theory – that it substitutes ill-fitting analogies for rigorous theory; that it lacks recourse to empirical evidence; and that it fails to ask whether simpler explanations exist for the phenomena under investigation – apply to a great deal of film theory.
The immediate response to Carroll’s article was telling. In 1989, Screen, the journal that had been a focal point for much of the theoretical discussion that Carroll took to task, ran a review of Mystifying Movies by Warren Buckland that strongly rejected Carroll’s approach. Buckland’s critique is wide-ranging, but the part I most struggle with is right at the start, when he criticises Carroll’s approach for its “scientific imperialism.” Buckland sees Carroll’s approach as vitally flawed, because it assumes “its own norms and values are presented as the absolute standard against which to interpret the norms and values of other paradigms.” So it is argued that theoretical frameworks are understood within a particular belief structure, and hence when Carroll imposes his quest for objective, verifiable truth onto them, he is effectively rudely taking them out of context. As Buckland puts it:
The radical opposition between Carroll and the contemporary film theorists is largely the result of this extreme interpretation of their arguments totally in terms of the norms of scientific reasoning. This imperialistic standpoint inevitably decontextualises and reformulates the contemporary film theorists’ arguments, leaving them wide open to criticism because they were not formulated within the context of scientific reasoning and its “quest” for objective truth.
I should at this point note that this was written nearly twenty years ago: for all we know Buckland may well have moved on from this viewpoint. But I wanted to pick it out because this line of thinking embodies everything I find infuriating about a certain sub-genre of academic writing. The idea that our notions of “truth” and “objectivity” are entirely (or nearly entirely) culturally constructed is surprisingly common; I mentioned an encounter between Carroll and a similar strain of “global scepticism” in my article about JFK and The Thin Blue Line (here). The sense that “scientific reasoning” constitutes some kind of ideologically suspect imperialistic impulse that imposes itself at the expense of other paradigms strikes me as the ultimate by-product of humanities academics’ suspicion of the sciences. All scientific method asks is that theories are tested against evidence to see if they are actually true, and at the end of the day all Carroll is “imposing” is the notion that a theory about how audiences respond to films is of no actual use if we never stop and ask: does this actually happen? Too many theorists seem to have become immune from asking themselves that basic question, and that’s a big part of why too much film theory prompts incredulity from those newly exposed to it. It fails the basic test of actually being a convincing explanation of something (rather than being “elegant” or “interesting” or “ingenious” or any of the phrases sometimes thrown at theory). Academics go to the trouble of learning about the things such as the mirror stage and the Imaginary and the Symbolic, and get very proficient at plugging films into such frameworks, but too many don’t seem to ask themselves if they actually believe these things. Maybe they do. But when the theory of how we respond to movies starts to show little semblance to our own experience of actually watching movies, it is not surprising that a really good piece of criticism so often seems much more useful and informative than a theoretical article.
I trawl over this twenty-year-old academic debate because Mystifying Movies had such a profound effect on my own thinking about film academia and theory. However, its effect on the wider world of film theory has, unsurprisingly I suppose, not been quite as profound as it was on me. It would be a fantasy to assume silly theory would go away because of one sternly worded book. Browsing through introductory textbooks and anthologies of film theory, I rarely note more than passing reference to Carroll or the objections he raises. To some extent this is fair enough, since through sheer longevity and influence Lacan’s writing about the mirror stage demands an acknowledgement more strongly than a single critical book. Yet at the same time, it seems odd that a very significant figure in film studies can raise such a soundly-argued attack on the basic tenets of these approaches and not warrant more than the occasional aside. In the case of the mirror stage, for example, isn’t Carroll’s observation that we have virtually no evidence even of the existence of this mental process fundamentally important? Reading through psychoanalytic theory produced since Mystifying Movies, I see the weakness of an analogy that I made earlier in this piece and which Carroll himself makes in the book: that a body of theory can be considered like a building, and that if one attacks the foundation, the whole structure will fall. The unfortunate reality is that theory goes along like a train on a track that is constantly being built ahead of it. If someone comes along and blows up the track behind the train, those on the train will merrily keep on going. Never mind that nobody else can follow.
So the more lasting significance of Carroll’s writing lies in its contribution to an alternate way of looking at movies. In this book and in several others (perhaps most notably the anthology Post-Theory, which Carroll co-edited with David Bordwell) Carroll outlines alternative approaches to theory that have contributed a great deal of plausible and interesting theoretical work since Mystifying Movies was published. One strain of that writing is the approach known as cognitivism, developed by various writers including Carroll and Bordwell, which posits more plausible theories about our mental processes when watching films than psychoanalysis. But the broader contribution Carroll’s writing has made is his advocacy for an approach to film studies that is less focussed on “grand theory.” Caroll calls this alternate apporoach “piecemeal theorising” and argues that we probably shouldn’t expect all-encompassing theories of film; rather, we should focus on small scale ideas that explain particular puzzles. That kind of writing almost always ends up being more persuasive than old-school Theory that tries to tie everything into the one idea. It doesn’t try to stretch theory to cover things it shouldn’t, and because of its narrower focus it has a natural tendency to be more empirical. Carroll’s various collections include many good examples of this kind of writing.
So in answer to my deliberately provocative question about whether film theory is bullshit: well, a lot is. What I took from Mystifying Movies and the other writing of good theorists like Carroll and Bordwell was that we shouldn’t just accept theory, and that those writing about film should have the courage to rigorously probe theory to see if it stacks up. At the same time, though, Carroll’s writing shows just how good some approaches to film theory can be. Film theory doesn’t have to be based in impenetrable abstractions and vague generalisations; it doesn’t have to be implausible; it doesn’t have to be tricked-up criticism that just plugs film X into theory Y; it doesn’t have to be difficult to understand. There is really good film theory out there, and it can tell us things that regular criticism doesn’t. We just have to demand it and, where possible, write it.
Mystifying Movies is out of print, but you can order second hand copies through Amazon here.
I also very much recommend Post-Theory, which you can get here.
And you can find an interesting article on Carroll at Senses of Cinema, here.
Benjamin Wright, who writes the blog Aspect Ratio, has responded to this piece with an update on the state on the front line:
I’m currently completing my PhD in cinema studies and encounter these arguments on a daily basis. The weight of psychoanalysis in film studies is still being felt. In fact I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference and was surprised to see the continued influence of Lacan and other vestiges of 1970s theory on many panel topics.
My real problem with this type of scholarship is that it does not demand historical (or even theoretical) rigor. By applying a Grand Theory to a film, you are only serving the needs of the Theory, and you are not actually revealing anything about the filmmaking process; the filmmaking style; or the industrial conditions.
The fact is that Bordwell’s “problem/solution” methodology and Carroll’s piece-meal historiography are niche theories that are not celebrated because they don’t have the currency of a Deleuze or Mulvey.
My own research addresses stylistic and industrial changes in film sound technology since the advent of Dolby in the 1970s. Some of my colleagues don’t understand why I’d be interested in tracing stylistic patterns or technological development, since they’re obsessing over the limits of Deleuze’s “time image”. In many ways, the prevalence of Grand Theory has diluted the importance of real historiography.
My article was prompted by my own return to film academia (doing my PhD); it’s interesting – but depressing – to hear somebody popping out the other end of a PhD voicing similar thoughts.