Movies and Methods
The fugitive kind

by Russell Campbell

from Jump Cut, no. 15, 1977, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2004

Bill Nichols, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1976). $7.95.

U.S. publishers have a penchant for huge compendiums. Perhaps they feel that if they just keep adding, they'll be sure to reach the critical Hegelian point at which quantity is transformed into quality. Perhaps, in the more pragmatic native tradition, the philosophy is simply that more is better. Bill Nichols’s Movies and Methods is, at any rate, a large and unwieldy anthology. Trying to review it is like attempting a single column analysis of all the plays currently on the boards in New York City.

Maybe not quite that bad. Nichols, for the most part, has left the traditional mainstream and classic revivals to his competitors and focused on the insurgent radicalism of the off- and off-off-Broadway practitioners of film study. There is more of Screen, that is, than of Sight and Sound; and even fringe journals like Afterimage, The Velvet Light Trap (and yes, JUMP CUT) are represented.

Nichols has clearly wanted it this way. And the blurb on the back cover virtually admits that the book was designed in contraposition to the Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen anthology Film Theory and Criticism (Oxford University, 1974)—making for a happy conjunction, at least on the surface, of theoretic preference and commercial viability. The Mast and Cohen book which, incidentally, has the same number of selections (52) and pages (140) as Movies and Methods—is divided into sections comfortably accommodating inveterate approaches to the cinema: “Film and Reality,” “Film Image and Film Language,” “The Film Medium.” “Film, Theater, and Literature,” “Kinds of Film,” “The Film Artist,” and “The Film Audience.” The Nichols book, in contrast, presents itself as being distinctively modern:

“The materials have been grouped in critical categories reflecting recent approaches to the medium. In place of older questions such as the relation of film to the other arts, or film’s ability to capture an imprint of reality, the questions emphasized in this anthology concern film’s ideological operations, the nature of film genres, the role of the auteur in the creative process, the representation of social groups (such as women) in film, the logic of narrative and formal organization in films, the treatment of films as myths, and new theoretical perspectives.”

The book is actually divided into three main parts—contextual criticism (comprising political, genre, and feminist criticism), formal criticism (auteur and mise-en-scene criticism), and theory (film theory and structuralism-semiology). A priori, there are two observations one might make about this otherwise neat schematic. Genre criticize may be entirely too formal (though in practice, like the pieces on the Western reproduced in the book, it tends to speculate on the relation of films to society and history). Also, the first theory subdivision deserves a title that marks off something lees than the entire category (since the structuralism-semiology pieces, too, are concerned with film theory). Such reservations aside, the classification seems a plausible one, and it does prove to be serviceable once one considers the texts Nichols has chosen.

The remains, nevertheless, a degree of arbitrariness in the allotment of articles to their rightful places. Perhaps this does not mark the conceptual scheme’s inadequacy as much as it does an interlocking of methodological approaches to film that has marked the best writing of the last ten years or so. And recent work, as advertised, by and large comprises Movies and Methods. By my count there is one article dating from the 20s, none from the 30s, two each from the 40s and 50s, 15 from the 60s, and 32 from the period 1970-76.

This interlocking of approaches is exemplified, for instance, by the renowned Cahiers du cinéma collective text, “John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.” It is, as the title suggests, an exercise in auteur criticism. It is also decidedly political, and it rivals the pieces collected in the mise-en-scene section for close stylistic analysis. The article, however, is situated in the structuralism-semiology section, as a tribute to its pioneering application of semiotic concepts to film.

In general, the breaking of bounds in recent film studies has takes the exciting form of the bringing of theory to criticism. The last few years particularly have seen a film criticism emerge which is no longer naive, which interrogates its own assumptions, which is self-conscious and grounded in a consistent theoretical base. A revealing example of this development is afforded by the inclusion in the book of David Bordwell’s 1971 piece on CITIZEN KANE along with an “Addendum, 1975” in which Bordwell lays bare the unanalyzed theoretic and aesthetic assumptions on which the article rests.

Despite the value of this delayed self-reflection, the CITIZEN KANE piece seems to be to be the one that Nichols might well have left out. If the defining characteristic of truly modern film criticism is, as I have suggested, its explicit theoretic underpinning, then the anthology might have gained a greet deal of needed coherence with the omission of articles that lack a sophisticated awareness of the tools of analysis being employed. To suggest the rejection of articles such as Richard Griffith’s “Cycles and Genres,” Richard Thompson’s “Meep Meep” (on cartoons), Raymond Durgnat’s “Six Films of Josef von Sternberg,” and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s “Shape and a Black Point” (a 1964 examination of Antonioni), as well as the Bordwell piece, is not to pass judgment on them as effective pieces of criticism but to argue that they belong to an earlier phase, a “childhood” or pre-history, perhaps, of critical thinking about films.

Unfortunately, the contemporary phase is not represented at its strongest by the anthology. This seems mainly because Nichols made most of his selections (as he states) in 1972-73, when the range of sophisticated theoretically grounded critical texts was considerably less extensive than it is today. A consequence is not only that important newer trends in film study, such as the application of psychoanalytic and Brechtian models, are underrepresented but that several of the selections reprinted have tended to become obsolete by virtue of the rapidly developing mastery, by critics, of the new methods of analysis.

Sam Rohdie’s “Totems and Movies,” for example, dating from 1959, records his disappointment that the structuralist method he employs fails to account for the “interest, power, classic greatness, sheer entertainment” of MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN. It has since become apparent that structuralism’s forte lies more in helping to define the formal connections of groups of films (the oeuvre of an auteur, a genre) than in the elucidation of aesthetic qualities within a single work. A more recent structuralist piece would not bring such false expectations into play (nor would it give place to such unanalyzed terms as “classic greatness” or “sheer entertainment”). Alan Lovell’s article “The Western,” dating from the mid-60s, is another instance of writing that has been overtaken by theoretical developments. Its impressionistic handling of themes such as the treatment of the Indian and the rejection of civilization antedates the application of structuralist models to the genre by Peter Wollen, Jim Kitses, and others and fails to exemplify the rigor characteristic of contemporary film analysis.

Perhaps the feminist criticism section suffers most from the publication delay: most of the sections (Siew Wah Beh on VIVRE SA VIE and THE WOMAN'S FILM. Karyn Kay on MARKED WOMAN, Constance Penley on CRIES AND WHISPERS) date from the first emergence of a specifically woman’s approach to film and exhibit a consequent conceptual crudeness—centering on role models—not evident in other sections of the book or in more recent feminist criticism. Though Claire Johnston’s astute “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema” does tend to redress the balance, it shares with the other feminist pieces included a tendency to premature sweeping judgment (“there is no doubt that Varda’s work is reactionary”), and its defense of Hollywood (the discernment of “progressive elements” in Ford’s SEVEN WOMEN and CHEYENNE AUTUMN) is at least problematic. The addition—had it been possible—of more recent feminist writing, such as Julia Lesage’s “Feminist Film Criticism: Theory and Practice” or Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” would have greatly strengthened the section.

One of the questions the anthology should and does provoke is the extent to which the alternative approaches outlined and exemplified are theoretically compatible with one another. The position adopted by Nichols (in his introduction and short prefatory remarks to each text) seems to be basically a contented pluralism, a willingness to adopt any methodology (at least of those represented here) as long as it has not rigidified into dogma. Cross-fertilization he also applauds. Though I have no quarrel with this openness to critical experimentation at this stage in the development of film study, more thought should be devoted to the political and aesthetic stance one is committed to by the adoption of specific approaches  —thought that will make clearer the ways in which a hybrid methodology may or not prove profitable.

There is, in particular, an epistemological disjunction between those methods (notably auteurism) seeking to elucidate single works and those (Marxist and semiological) aimed at providing a model for a total system. The Cahiers YOUNG MR. LINCOLN article evidences that these may set uneasily with one another. In this case there is something quixotic in militant French Marxists training their critical guns on a minor film (in terms of public response) made in the United States 30 years previously—a choice of object intelligible only in terms of a lingering auteurist nostalgia for the Hollywood the authors were now chiefly intent on exposing and subverting. The Cahiers editors, who have done no further work along these lines, it must be said, noted the incongruity. (Parenthetically, the weakness of this article’s attempt to define the film’s historical determinations, observed by Nichols in his introduction, should also be borne in mind. Such limitations in contextual understanding,   perhaps derived from the curious cross-cultural nature of so much film study, are too common. Specifically, it is hard to view YOUNG MR. LINCOLN as Republican propaganda at a time when Abe was, among other things, one of the favorite totems of the Communist Party.)

The Cahiers article is by no means fatally flawed by its mixed critical methodology, however. And there are other selections in the book that amply demonstrate the advantages to be gained from a flexible, multi-leveled analysis when the interrelations are systematically understood. I recommend in particular Brian Henderson’s “Toward a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” an examination of the ideological implications of Godard’s tracking shots that merges the best of mise-on-scene and political approaches (and is included in the film theory section). This piece triumphantly signals the inadequacy of mere formal criticism, careful and systematic as it may be (for instance, as in “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir” by J.A. Place and L.S. Peterson) and points the way for future fruitful work.

Theorists will no doubt quarrel with the selection of texts in part 3 of the book, which is naturally oriented to the position Nichols himself adopts, as developed in his own “Style, Grammar, and the Movies” (reprinted as the final article). Nichols, in line with the general anti-Metz stance taken by the Film Quarterly critics, lays stress on the analog functioning of film communication, denying that it can be reduced to a digital model similar to that of language. Whatever the merits of this particular argument, Nichols’s passionate advancement of it lends his book a tone of acknowledged partisanship rare among scholarly anthologies.

Movies and Methods is, am I have suggested, an unwieldy book. The interweaving between the diverse texts that Nichols rightfully takes as a sign of the growing collectivization of film studies does take place, but not to a truly satisfying extent. In the ultimate analysis, the volume will be valued not as a guide to new directions in film study (it is already too outdated for that) but as a convenient source for many fugitive texts—which is, after all, the main justification for an anthology.