New theory in the classroom

by Bill Nichols

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 53-56
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

At Queen's we have offered a first year course in film studies since 1973.(1) (Before that the program began at the second year level.) The course, though, did not arise ex nihilo. It had personal and social roots of considerable importance. They contribute to its present shape and introduce elements and emphases that might not be readily transferable. On the other hand, I suspect these origins are at least instructive and a good place to begin when we ask in what way should we introduce the study of the cinema in an undergraduate curriculum.

Queens University is a conservative, 10,000 student university drawing its enrollment largely from white middle and ruling class families. It has a solid reputation as one of Canada's best universities academically. It is also somewhat notorious for its school spirit (whose less innocent aspects shade, perhaps ironically, into political quietism, personal complacency and intellectual indifference). The University's greatest strength lies in professional schools of Law, Medicine, Commerce and Engineering. The humanities departments have a number of weak links, and literature and the arts are somewhat underdeveloped. Introducing questions of art and ideology is an uphill battle.

My own background, growing up in a suburb of New York City in a lower middle class family, led me to conceive of art, or culture, as a beacon that could guide my life. (There were the multi-volume classics of world literature our house contained, alongside a holding of two decades worth of Reader's Digest. There was the public library with the novels of Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky alongside the most recent Look and Collier's and Saturday Evening Post.) But this cultural beacon seemed positioned at a remove near the horizon of my everyday life (what pants to wear to school, who to ask to the weekend party, hoping to earn a letter in tennis, wanting to be curious but not the teacher's pet).

By the time I graduated from Duke University, I had become intensely curious about this disparity between a horizon of immanent possibilities and a surround of immediate necessities (and anxieties). I began to wonder why and how aspects of the everyday — family, peer group, popular culture — provided the necessary measure of direction for so many. The articulation or expression of value and purpose in philosophy, religion, literature (all of which I studied while doing a pre-med major) seemed at a remove, a tangent to these guiding rhythms of everyday encounter. What might close the gap, what obscured the perception of any gap at all?

I remember the intense feeling that there was a gap, that some form of betrayal hung, like an invisible cloud, in the air. History compounded this impression. I entered Duke in 1960, left in 1964. In between the sixties had begun. My instinctive, non-theoretical response to the Civil Rights issues (Marx was then still another dim figure on the far shore of immediacy) joined up with a longer-standing desire to bring ideals together with action. I became involved in sit-ins and other forms of non-violent protest. Then I headed west in the summer of 1964 just in time to participate in the first stirrings of a distinctive counterculture in the Haight-Ashbury district. I became caught up in, first, the Free Speech Movement emanating from Berkeley and then, the teach-ins that brought home to still somewhat idealistic youth like me the political and ideological realities of the war in Vietnam. I left Stanford Medical School after a year, deciding it was not the right arena for me, taught in the Peace Corps for two years in Kenya. There I became heavily involved in antiwar activity and only escaped being "expelled" when my Draft Board tried to induct me. I returned in 1968 and successfully side-stepped the draft (with the help of numerous people and groups). Subsequently, I found work as a social worker in Harlem where I was active in the union and began a local newspaper, meanwhile moonlighting as a free-lance writer and photographer for The New York Free Press. Later I moved to California and became involved in the use of film as a tool for social change. I was influenced by the women's movement as a determined attempt to make clear connections between the personal and the political. All these elements provided an essential motivating energy for the conceptual framework of the introductory film course I now teach.

These events and experiences do not stand in any direct causal relationship to a course in film study. But they did confirm or establish patterns of commitment and preoccupation to which this course, like all other subsequent activities, responds. The course does not impose thoughts or values, but neither is it neutral in its stance. Its purpose corresponds to the thread I see running through my life — to act correctly; to live aright; to change, not simply understand, the world; to fathom how these goals require an inevitable merger of the personal and the political. Contradictions abound; our social system tries to mask them. My purpose is to expose the masks that make things other than what they might be, especially what makes us less than what we might be — the diminishing undertow of ideology.

The first year film course, designed for majors and non-majors alike, attracts well over one hundred students. (This year there were 190 enrollments, up 40 from last year, and eight tutors.) We have our screening on Monday night, lecture Tuesday afternoon, and a tutor-led discussion on Thursday. Students have two or more individual conferences with their tutor or myself to go over written work when it is submitted. They also break into groups of three or four to do practical projects (discussed below). The course absorbs a great deal of the Department's financial resources. Rentals (for 24 weeks, a full academic year at Queen's) amount to $2000 or more, about twice any other course's budget. (Many films are borrowed from other universities.) Since we have no graduate program (nor does anyone else in Canada, in critical studies), tutors are, for the most part, undergraduates or former students who remain in the area for a year or two. Teaching assistants at Queen's are not unionized and earn the usual atrocious wages. For this course the range goes from $1100 for a first-time undergraduate to around $2000 for an experienced person with a B.A..

The course is followed at the second year level by courses in Film Criticism, Film History, and Film Production. Upon this foundation third year courses explore more discreet areas in detail: U.S. cinema, European cinema, documentary, experimental, women and film, film and society, the popular arts in Canada, and advanced filmmaking. At the fourth year level, course are organized as seminars and pursue selected topics in depth: film theory, ethnographic film, the work of the NFB of Canada during a particular period, studies of directors like Buñuel, Godard, Eisenstein, and so on.

Several general problems confronted us, in planning a first year course. We wanted to use recent theoretical work in film as a basis for the course, especially those writings attempting to link ideology and cinema through its work as a system of signification. Such work signals a substantial shift in the terms of reference for film study. It promises more subtle ways of linking film and society than more traditional approaches. Much of this work, though, is highly sophisticated and presumes a far more extensive knowledge than fourth year students might have, let alone beginning students. It is also tendentious. We needed to exercise great care lest some of the more far-fetched theories or methodologically unpromising demonstrations burrow into the foundations of our curriculum. Nonetheless, we all felt convinced that those semiotic, psychoanalytic, structural and Marxist currents represented a set of critical approaches that could contribute usefully to a student's knowledge, not only at advanced levels but from the very outset.

Yet we also felt that much of this recent work is exceedingly, sometimes intentionally, obscure. When students do not have a background in 19th and 20th century aesthetics, and Marxist cultural theory, this film theory often appears to be tilting at windmills, announcing "ruptures" and carrying out "interrogations" where the basic issues and larger implications remain difficult to see. Furthermore, for the most part, students do lack a background in 19th and 20th century art and its criticism, especially in regard to popular culture. The cafeteria style undergraduate program at Queen's (there are no required courses or areas of studies except as set by one's major department) only intensifies a problem that begins in primary and secondary school. The academic problems continue on in the politically and educationally disastrous ways in which sixties liberalism became translated into curricular reforms (de-emphasis on writing, critical inquiry and rigorous argument, to name a few).

A film department cannot be a student's primary source for modern history, politics, art and literature, aesthetics, semiology, structuralism, critical theory, systems theory, phenomenology, Marxism and feminism, let alone film theory, criticism, history and production.  Yet in many cases students' first exposure to these areas of thought comes via film study. In terms of the attitudes toward film studies exhibited by some members of the more traditional humanities departments, it is ironic that the present-day student is often ill-prepared for a successful encounter with the kind of work carried out in film study today.

(Turned around, this can become an argument for making film study a specialized graduate program to pursue after acquiring more basic forms of knowledge. There is some logic to this. An undergraduate major in film may be somewhat limiting, at least from an historical perspective, but the general study of film is far too crucial to an understanding of our contemporary world to be relegated to a graduate specialty entirely. Besides, what would we do with all the humanities professors who teach the odd film course or two, often to good effect?)

Our remedy is more than a band-aid but less than a complete solution. The latter requires considerable revision to our entire educational system, including the questions of who goes to university and why. Partly, our remedy requires patience. One course cannot redress myriad deficiencies, but a well thought-out departmental program can come a great deal closer to this goal. Hence we give considerable attention to the interrelations between our courses and the overall perspective a student concentrating in film study will gain. (For example, the first year course stresses U.S. film, the second year history course stresses European film, and at the third year level half courses in U.S. cinema and European cinema allow for a more detailed look at one or two aspects of these two major founts of cinematic production.)

The emphasis here, though, is on our first year course. Its current structure began to emerge through a series of Department Seminars in 1975-76 prompted by Guy Gauthier's article, "The Semiology of the Image," obtained from the BFI in photocopy form and its accompanying slides. Gauthier tried to apply semiology to the still image and questions of ideology in a non-reductive but readily understandable form. Working with his paper and slide illustrations led us to a series of questions that seemed fundamental to our task: What is a text. How do we read or speak with images. How do we read or speak with motion pictures. Where does aesthetic pleasure come from. What is narrative, exposition, poetics (fiction, documentary, experimental film). What relations pertain between art and ideology, between self and other in art and ideology. And how do we address the paradoxical need to show that there is to film more than meets the eye? How, in other words, do we link systematic formal analysis with questions of social context and ideology?

It also became clear that much of the recent work found in the major film magazines (Film Quarterly, Screen, Jump Cut, Cine-Tracts, Quarterly Review of Film Studies, Cineaste, and while active, Women and Film), together with related material in non-film magazines and writings in ideology, cultural theory, Marxism, structuralism and psychoanalysis and systems theory could effectively provide the necessary conceptual framework for the course. But it would almost always need considerable recasting so that its origins and basic principles could be clearly presented to a beginning audience. This work of reformulation and integration has proved a major preoccupation for the last several years.

One grave danger of which we have become increasingly aware is the ideology of the textbook. We regard the films screened as the primary texts and textbooks as virtual inoculations — doses of denatured analysis liable to produce an immunity to the dis-ease of rigorous and relentless criticism. Textbooks assume a non-tendentious body of knowledge, of "givens" to be assimilated. (Low-angle shots "mean" power, heroism or dominance, for example.) They are usually comfortably reductionist, the Rolaids of cultural consumption, in which parts all "add up" harmoniously, naturally. This is not knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge — a practice inevitably involving a series of indefinite but purposeful approximations. It is ideology in the guise of the natural and obvious.

(Nonetheless, student discomfort in the absence of a textbook is great. We have tended to use a text but to deemphasize it and to encourage a skeptical distance from its generalizations. The most successful one so far, to me, is Giannetti's Understanding Movies, with Thompson and Bordwell's Film Art: An Introduction a more precise but somewhat narrower contender. Monaco's How to Read a Film most closely approximates the course's overall structure but seems too superficial and fragmented — it lacks both the rigor of a genuine text and the imaginary unity of a "successful" textbook, though its attempt at open-endedness can only be applauded.)

As an alternative to a central textbook, our introductory course stresses lecture material and selected, supplementary articles. We choose writers who are tendentious, who mark out central issues, who set the terms of debate, who openly take their stand and invite (even incite) us to argue for (or against). Examples of such materials used include selections from Barthes' Mythologies, Sontag's On Photography, Dziga-Vertov's writings, Sarris' defense of American cinema and the auteur' theory, Bazin's praise of neorealism or of photographic ontology, Lesage on feminist film criticism, Biskind on ON THE WATERFRONT, Place and Peterson on film noir, Michelson and Kleinhans on the avant-garde (in separate articles, of course), and Robin Wood on Hitchcock and the horror film. The greatest problem with either a textbook or articles arises from the beginning student's reluctance to read about films at all and the limited time available for discussion. At times I think we might eliminate readings altogether, but this would probably be most harmful to the students who are also the most eager to explore.

In developing the course we have tended to isolate a few key foci of attention in recent critical work, namely:

1) Ideology-in-general — those forms of social representation that support our lived, everyday experience of the world (an alternative, broader definition than ideology as doctrines or rationalizations). Ideology-in-general involves those images we come to have of ourselves and our place in the world. These images are often produced for us; we grow attached to them. We invest something of ourselves, of our sense of self in images which circulate to "place" us in the world. In this sense, "image" can be either a specific representation — the image of the convivial, jocular, just-one-of-the-boys male presented by Molson beer ads compared to the adventurous hero of Miller beer ads, for example — or a more generalized conceptualization — the image many Anglo-Canadians have of themselves as North Americans for whom Quebec provides their "difference" from Americans (U.S.). Needless to say, the mass media and popular culture have a heavy involvement in the production and circulation of such images from the 6 o'clock news to THE SILENT PARTNER. Examining the nature of these images and their ideological function, then, becomes a central aspect of the course.

2) The imaginary. This is a realm not limited to but nonetheless inhabited by ideology-in-general. The imaginary centers on relations of opposition or identity, of either/or choices between self and other (and the hopeless oscillation that underpins the slogan that the ego is a paranoid construct, depending on others, from which it must distinguish itself, for its sense of apparently autonomous identity). It is an identity always subject to recall, and it is constantly in need of reconfirmation through the recognition accorded by others. Imaginary relations are a necessary form of relation and support the emergence of the self-as-subject and its capacity for speech.

But ideology couples with the imaginary to lock us into the antagonistic relations characteristic of racism, sexism, national chauvinism or anti-Semitism. In these cases, our sense of self solidifies in opposition to an "other" that bears all those characteristics we dare not acknowledge in ourselves. We attach ourselves to false images of others to create a false, but reassuringly solid sense of self. These attachments become natural, obvious, automatic. (The gut level of sexism as learned establishes habitual assumptions and responses by men to women as inferiors, for example, versus any clearly articulated doctrine of male supremacy). Such relations tend toward reification. (A learned, ideological process, an abstract image of women, is made into a concrete, material fact about women's nature). They tend toward the stereotypic, and toward reducing relationship itself into the measure of a thing, a general equivalent such as, in our society, the phallus or money.

Imaginary relations reduce self and other to falsely solid images to which one may cling fanatically. Those who see themselves in the dominant position have an image of superiority automatically conferred on them. It goes unquestioned. And contradictory evidence can be dismissed as anomalous. Superiority becomes an unearned fact of life; it is obvious. The (ideologically produced) images we learn to grow attached to assure it. Blacks, women, Jews, gays, and others in the position of the "monstrous other" clearly do not have what it takes, can never have what it takes. Color, phallus, race, heterosexual identity (or their lack) — these are part and parcel of the images we have of our self (in the domain of ideology and the imaginary). By such means, the hegemony of the dominant class asserts and reproduces itself.

These are difficult concepts but they can be explained and used, especially with the aid of copious examples. (Questions of sexism and nationalism work particularly well in the context of Queen's. Sexual difference and national identity are issues that touch the center of middle and upper class Canadian students' lives as readily as related issues do in others'.) In fact, I introduce these ideas early in the course so that their application can be repeatedly demonstrated as we take up varying aspects of film. A summary of the lecture which does this, beginning with the psychology of perception and then moving to ideology, follows, stripped of the various examples that accompany this conceptual core.

Summary on Lecture on "Perception and the Visual World

1) Perception is a function of an active, purposeful, socially governed activity. How does it work and how does it relate to ideology?

2) We translate a sensory array spread across the retina into a meaningful visual world. This becomes automatic; we come to recognize familiar objects in a familiar world. We may think this world is always already meaningful. But this is a deception, a function of the process' automatic nature.

3) We recognize figures against a ground extending in depth. There are Gestalt "Laws of Organization" for figure recognition, and "monocular depth cues" which are also used by artists and filmmakers. Ambiguous figures or depth relationships remind us of our own active involvement in making things meaningful.

4) Through these processes we begin to formulate theories or hypotheses about how the world is, what is in it and what significance these things bear.

a) Once formed, these theories are difficult to falsify. We make an emotional investment in how we see and tend to reject anomalous impressions rather than reject our theories or way of seeing. These theories are largely unconscious.

b) In this regard, perception is similar to other learned, sequential activity (e.g., typing, sports, speech, courtship, role-playing generally). Since large components of such behavior occur automatically, we can infer the existence of an unconscious program (or theory, or code, or habit, or way of seeing) guiding this behavior. Conversely, we can understand such behavior in general through what guides it in general — the unconscious program (the word we'll use most often is "code").

5) This situation has value.

a) It affords an economy. We need not consciously repeat routine procedures over and over.

b) It achieves selectivity. The variety of meanings derivable from a sensory array are reduced to more singular meanings. These meanings usually reflect a cultural consensus and allow for shared perceptions and values.

6) What holds an unconscious code in place? How is it rewarded for the value it provides? Answer — that which "tells" it it is working smoothly, i.e., recognition. Recognition confirms our theory, code, way of seeing. Recognition is a pleasurable experience, and this pleasure is like a dividend paid on our original emotional investment in a code, habit or way of seeing. Such pleasure is akin to aesthetic pleasure which tends to oscillate between recognizing the familiar and discovering the new.

7) Perception is like ideology if we consider ideology as a way of seeing the world in which we have made emotional investments. Ideology is how a society represents itself. Ideology represents "views" that rationalize the vested interests of a society and its constituents. These "views" may be explicit statements. But they are more generally (representational) images, images of who we are and where we fit in the world. Ideology is the realm of imaginary relationships. As such, these views rest upon theories or codes or habits that are largely unconscious. We can't afford to question who we are at every moment.

8) For this reason, ideological "views" are also difficult to falsify. They are at the root of our lived, customary relations to the world — of what sort of objects and other people fill it, of what relations they have to one another, of what meanings they bear for us.

9) In this sense ideology is necessary and inescapable, and necessarily unconscious. But at all times we will want to gain a perspective on it, to not only live inside ideology but to understand what world this is in which we think we live.

10) What holds ideology, our life within a realm of imaginary relationships, in place? What rewards it for its consistency? Answer — the pleasure of recognition. Recognition is a dividend paid on our emotional investments in imaginary relationships. What we gain the greatest pleasure from recognizing is an image of our self.

11) Most films and other socially produced images also represent a way of seeing the world. We often make emotional investments in them. In this sense they too are ideological. They help us recognize who we are and where we belong in the images, the views presented to us. We take pleasure in this recognition. But aesthetic pleasure also involves the discovery of the new. We may discover new possibilities for being in the world as well as recognize familiar ones.

12) One thing we will seek to discover is how films involve more than meets the eye. We'll try to appreciate the new possibilities they sometimes open up. We will also seek to understand the codes that guide their organization — those invisible, abstract, largely unconscious rules of procedure that make films what they are, just as our way of seeing makes the visible world what it is.

13) We can now say that image making (film, painting, photography, television) is an active, purposeful, socially governed activity. We can say that ideology proposes an image of who we are and what the world is like. Art, including film, does this too. Yet art is not identical to ideology. Discovering what relations exist between art and ideology will be one of the main goals of this course.

At a more specific level, this introductory course asks how sounds and images form patterns of communication and how different patterns promote different ways of seeing (different ideological positions). What tools can the course provide to help reveal the work of film to uproot old assumptions or habits that obscure both the aesthetic and ideological effects of visual communication? The focus is upon recent, mainstream cinema: feminist, avant-garde, Third World, or Godardian cinema often elicit hostile, defensive responses at first. Exposing some of the ideological implications and aesthetic subtleties of films closer to most students' previous experience provides a more comfortable starting point. Arguably this approach is also one of greater value to those who take no further film courses. At least they have some tools for considering the kinds of films they are most likely to see along with some awareness of the alternatives that exist.

In chronological sequence the course has the following structure:

Introduction (2 weeks): responding to popular film (I often use SINGIN' IN THE RAIN) and exploring a large, provocative idea like violence and the media or the phenomenon of the spectacle.

Perception and Ideology (1 week): See lecture summarized above.

The Still Image (2 weeks): Our positioning vis-à-vis Renaissance painting, the importance of linear perspective for the "other scene" (the place of the viewer), anchoring the potentially ambiguous meaning of images via paradigmatic, syntagmatic and contextual relationship [i.e., the relation of what is present to what is absent but available to replace it — e.g., a fedora versus a Stetson; the relations between elements present — e.g., a man and a woman, or person and commodity; the relation of one image to another or of words (caption) to image].

John Berger's film series, WAYS OF SEEING, has proven an invaluable aid since we began using it in 1976, even though he is probably weakest on sexism and the ideological implications of how he himself structures discussion of the nude in oil painting. (Berger's argument demonstrates the sexist assumptions behind the tradition of the nude, but the form he adopts repeats at another level the very sexism he exposes.)

The Moving Image (1 week): The perception of apparent motion (which is not based on persistence of vision, contrary to most textbooks), the major cinematic forms (narrative, exposition, poetics), the relations of form and content, characteristics of the cinema versus other arts.

Narrative Structure (6-7 weeks, plus 7-8 weeks in second term on selected directors, genres, national cinema): Concepts of closure; of narrative codes (actions and enigmas particularly); of narrative lure and desire; the work of resolving contradictions through mechanisms like condensation, displacement, secondary revision; realism, narrative and style (via feminist filmmakers, soap opera, melodrama); the aesthetics and ideology of identification and distanciation; "post-classical" narrative.

Expository Structure (2-3 weeks): Direct address, rhetoric — the art of persuasiveness or courtship (including documentary, photo-journalism, television news with a comparison of Canadian and U.S. broadcasts); indirect address (observational cinema) and the merger of narrative and documentary forms. As with most aspects of the course, frame enlargements and extracts are extensively used. Placing material in a new context helps disclose some of its implications and encourages a sense that images can be confronted actively and not simply absorbed passively.

What follows is a portion of a lecture devoted to television news which illustrates this point. The tutors and I developed the content of the lecture collectively and then recorded it on videotape. It was played back during class. (Normally, lectures are live. This was an experiment which proved a success but which I would not recommend as a regular tactic in place of live encounter.) The speaker during this portion of the videotape is Maaret Koskinen, a tutor and former graduate student in English.

[Here an image/audio presentation of that tape has not yet been prepared for ejumpcut.]

Poetic Structure (2 weeks): The experience of form; experimentation with form; cinematic analysis of the cinematic experience (e.g., Paul Sharit's and David Rimer's work); formal qualities of motion pictures as sources of content and form.

The Cinematic Context (7-8 weeks): Genre (one selected from Western, musical, gangster, film noir, which I do not consider a genre but related to that concept in interesting ways); auteur (usually a European like Bergman or Bertolucci and Alfred Hitchcock who receives three weeks' attention as a place from which to summarize much of the course's content); national cinema (Hollywood, Canadian cinema and the "North American" syndrome); the Third World cinema.

Because one goal is to invite students to become active, engaged, critically aware users of visual communication, there is a necessary integration of film theory and practice. Written papers are set (and evaluated in individual conferences), but so are visual-aural exercises. These provide a "hands-on" component that erases the sense of passive consumption and introduces a feeling for what the actual fabrication of patterns of sounds and moving images is like. No technical skills beyond using a simple Super-8 camera are taught. Our total supply of equipment is six Super-8 cameras. Students supply whatever else is needed on their own. These exercises include:

Super-8 Film Project: Choose a subject, then using one cassette shoot half the roll in a long take and the other half by editing in the camera. Projects are shown to the entire class and discussed in tutorial. Helps give a sense of screen time, the frame, mise-en-scene, composition, associations between shots, etc.).

Slide Project: Study the films of Alfred Hitchcock shown in class (e.g., SUSPICION, NOTORIOUS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, THE BIRDS, PSYCHO) and the storyboard examples in Focus on Hitchcock. Using a 36-shot roll of slide film, shoot a series of stills to represent the shots that would form a narrative sequence in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. (These are shown and discussed the same way as the film projects. Certain tendencies, e.g., misogyny, are often discussed in advance to encourage careful consideration of a theme. Helps give a sense of story boarding, narrative structure, continuity editing, emotional impact in relation to formal or stylistic choices.)

Sound Project: Prepare a 2-5 minute cassette investigating some aspect of Canadian culture and exploring the possibilities of sound. (Helps students explore possible relations between words, music, sound effects. Projects can explore any aspect of culture and frequently take students into the field for research, e.g., interviews. This also proves the most difficult project in as much as many students have trouble seeing what they can do with sound that is imaginative.)

This gives some general impression of how we try to introduce film study. Discussion of the individual films shown each week plays a crucial role, but lectures and discussion also try to make clear the common elements to various forms of visual communication (painting, photography, television, film) and their uses. They especially try to elaborate upon the complex set of relationships pertaining between ideology and the image — riot only in the general way which such a summary necessitates but in exacting detail as we examine specific images and particular films.

We must ask in relation to particular films or types of films how they promote imaginary relationships (via the cinematic apparatus to some degree and all it hides as well as reveals, via narrative or expository structure, its techniques for displacing, condensing and apparently resolving contradictions). How do films offer a perspective on ideology; to what degree do they put on display both the form and content of ideology? In this sense the course is clearly purposive. Its shape is guided by its purpose. Other questions could be asked, but these are the ones that seem to me most crucial for our lives, ones we need to answer when we confront the cinema. It is asking a lot, but to ask less may amount to asking very little at all.

The sense of purpose sketched out here places the course within what Paul Ricoeur calls the school of suspicion (founded by Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche) versus the school of revelation (where he tends to locate hermeneutics and phenomenology). Exposing the ideological component to perceptual and social habits related to the cinema becomes crucial. It is often not the "Good News" motivating hermeneutics that we discover, but the mystifications and reifications of ideology, the motivation for suspicion. Yet suspicion does not mean constant detachment or emotional indifference. Films captivate and move us, not only ideologically, but sometimes politically and aesthetically. They sometimes offer instructive pleasure that is truly revelatory and revelatory of ideology as much as anything else.

They can prompt a search for alternatives to real, existing conditions and for reasons why such alternatives are absent. Films can suggest that what there is is not all there might be. But this revelation occurs within a context where aesthetics and politics cannot be fully separated. Pleasure is not innocent. Revelation is not pure. It is precisely our fascination, our captivation with and by films, that necessitates suspicion.

This is not to pit reason against emotion but to recognize that aesthetics do not exist entirely apart from ideology, on the one hand, and that our rigorous analyses are not based on experiences that fail to move us, or most of us, on the other. How we are moved — in what direction, to what end — becomes the overriding question. Without acknowledging our own captivation, for better or for worse, suspicion risks sinking into an elitist dismissal of inferior "entertainment" (as it did for most of the Frankfurt school or, more recently, most of Screen's contributors), or into the cynical detachment of the unaffected academic. We do despite our best intentions — and for many, without full awareness of alternative possibilities — invest in the circulation of images that propose imaginary relationships along class, racial, sexual and national lines. What we need ask is why do we settle for less than what we might imagine possible? This is not a rhetorical question. Answers are available. Marx, Freud, feminism provide many of them. These answers revolve around questions of power — materially, economically, sexually, and ideology's contribution to the maintenance of power and the relations of production requiring its perpetuation — and why, even when correct analyses are available, we may continue to live within the bonds of ideology.

Creating an awareness of these bonds, identifying them so that they may be broken, is, finally, what this course seeks to do. It is a course which, from the available indicators, has worked well in its context at Queen's, and which, I hope, may stimulate thought along similar lines elsewhere.


1. The faculty at that time consisted of Nick Kendall, Jim Kitses, Joyce Nelson and myself.