Film Writing Degree Zero: The Marketplace and the University

From the Autumn 1977  Sight and Sound. — J.R.

Perhaps it is time to study discourse not only according to its expressive values, or in its formal transformations, but also according to its modes of existence: the modes of circulation, attribution and appropriation of discourse vary with each culture. . . . [T]he effect on social relationships can be more directly seen, it seems to me, in the interplay of authorship and its modifications than in the themes or concepts contained in the works.
— Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?”

Movies and Methods

It seems likely that Hollywood Directors 1914–1940 and Movies and Methods[*] are the two most interesting anthologies of writing about film recently published in English. Each marks a substantial foray beyond the standard recycling operations of most anthologies, making available a wealth of helpful material that is otherwise hard to come by. An easy enough assessment, on the face of it, yet one that conceals a nagging question: what do we mean by “interesting” and “helpful”? In what way can both books be considered deserving of the same ambiguous adjectives? How far do they allow themselves to be considered within the same universe of discourse?

First, a few basic distinctions. All fifty of the selections in Koszarski’s collection were written between 1914 and 1939 by “Hollywood directors” — stretching that term to include such figures as Alice Guy-Blaché, Paul Fejos, Robert Flaherty, and Maurice Tourneur. Nearly all the articles originally appeared in mass circulation newspapers, magazines, trade journals, or previous collections: Breaking into the Movies, Careers for Women, Ladies’ Home Journal, Motion Picture Director, Moving Picture World, Photoplay Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Shadowland, Theatre Magazine, Travel, and so on.

Thus the form of these pieces is popular journalism, and Koszarski concedes in his introduction that some of them might have been ghostwritten: “Often the obsessions voiced under these bylines are so characteristic as to label their authors unmistakably. But if at times a ‘written to order’ piece has slipped in, the worst we can say is that it was issued as an authorised statement, and now exists as a puzzle for interested historians.” It is worth adding that Hollywood generally dictates the total view of cinema that the book projects. When, for instance, the editor reflects that “perhaps only Hitchcock approached the degree of pre-planning practised by Lubitsch,” one is clearly not being encouraged to think of Eisenstein or Ozu. As in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema — which Koszarski occasionally reflects in his discerning thumbnail sketches of Edmund Goulding’s visual style and the differences between Sennett and Roach comedies — the cross-references tend to be sui generis.
On the other hand, excepting only reviews by Osip Brik and Viktor Shklovsky from the late 20s, nothing in Movies and Methods was written earlier than 1948, and very few of the fifty-two pieces predate the 60s. And in further contrast, the articles chiefly come from magazines and books devoted to criticism: Cineaste, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, The Film Till Now, Movie, New York Review of Books, Screen, Sight and Sound, Velvet Light Trap, Women & Film, and so on. The mode of popular instruction about how to launch and sustain a film career is as conspicuously absent here as the mode of criticism is from the Koszarski collection; concern with film budgets is replaced by concern with intellectual and academic investments, and the issue of authorship is addressed quite differently. As Nichols remarks in his preface to the final section: “Most of these writers have little or no interest in preserving the Romantic fiction of the solitary and creative genius. . . . This project of ‘decentering’ critical study away from the individual, the author or point of origin, and towards processes and systems which in many ways can be said to ‘speak the subject’ is one shared by structuralism and semiology alike.”
Both books, one could note, explicitly alter the original purpose of their contents. Koszarski’s collection is chronologically ordered and put together with a kind of scholarly care that seeks to convert his findings into material that is historically useful: an aspiring movie actress today is not likely to read Marshall Nielan’s thoughts in 1922 on “Acting for the Screen: the six great essentials” for concrete advice. Nichols arranges his own selections under three main headings (Contextual Criticism, Formal Criticism, Theory) and various subheadings (Political Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Auteur Criticism, etc.) to illustrate different critical methodologies — contriving, in a more indirect fashion, to suggest a history and development of another sort.

Each anthology, then, is presented as a disciplined academic endeavor that seeks to affect existing film discourse, not merely duplicate or pay homage to it. Yet an almost immeasurable gulf seems to stretch between the books and their separate ponis of focus. They confront us with two different kinds of discourse that one might choose to identify, respectively, with the Marketplace and the University.


The mass-culture maker . . . is essentially a reflector of myths, and lacks concrete experiences to communicate. To him man is an object seen from the outside . . . To the professional of mass culture, knowledge is the knowledge of what is going on in other people; he trades his own experience for an experience of experience.
— Harold Rosenberg, “The Herd of Independent Minds”

Read in bulk, many of the pieces in Hollywood Directors tend to slide off the mind. Like much popular journalism, they seem designed to be read in a state of semi-attentiveness, a benign sort of stupor in which nice-sounding platitudes drum on the consciousness with all the dulling comfort of rain on a roof. A halfway house between talking and writing, they often fail to satisfy as either because the tone comes across as artificial and strained. Indeed, much of the material registers as slightly harried, impatient answers to eager, dimwitted questions that are not reproduced but are easily enough imagined: Tell me, Mr.  Borzage, what are the main qualities you think a director should have? “A Director should have some of the qualities of a leader, the ability to make decisions that are right most of the time, and the quality which inspires confidence in those about him.” Mr. Langdon, in your considered opinion, what is it that makes people laugh? “The four greatest stimuli to laughter are rigidity, automatism, absentmindedness, and unsociability.” What is the American film industry doing to flight fascism overseas, Mr. Tuttle? “A group of young cartoonists from Hollywood’s animated cartoon studios are preparing plans for cartoons to knife the dictators right in their Mickey Mice.” How do you go about directing a picture? “It is no more possible to dogmatize about the methods of work of a film director than it would be to lay down laws about how an author should write his books. In both cases generalization can go no further than the primary and superficial details of routine.”

The sensible response of George Cukor to this last hypothetical query — which virtually invalidates the thrust of most of these declarations — merely reminds one that most of these articles are necessarily treading water, trying helplessly to come up with certainties in a context where lack of secure authorship often characterizes the form and subject alike of their statements. Inevitably, all these efforts inhabit a Marketplace terrain where knowledge, in Harold Rosenberg’s words, “is the knowledge of what is going on in other people,” and this knowledge itself continually threatens to supplant the director’s own powers of expression — whether on the screen or on the page; the ostensible subject is movies, but the specter of money hovers in the background, virtually calling many of the shots. Thus “knowledge” in this framework often resembles the triumph of the ape cited by Vladimir Nabokov, who “after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”

When this knowledge is sufficiently provocative, the results can be entertaining and/or instructive: Maurice Tourneur adroitly running through a catalog of movie clichés in 1920 and bemoaning his failure to get his films shown when he tried to move beyond them; Keaton explaining in detail why an expensive rubber-fish gag in THE NAVIGATOR failed to draw laughs; William Cameron Menzies recalling how he had to scrap a replica of the Campanile of Toledo for a Mary Pickford vehicle after audiences asked what Madison Square Garden (which copied this campanile) was doing in a Spanish setting; Cecil B. DeMille solemnly noting that in film, unlike theater, “I have found that what is called acting will count for nothing beyond fifteen feet.”

Perhaps most rewarding is Mack Sennett recounting rules of decorum as dictated by the tastes of his audience circa 1918 — a list that conveniently matches some of the insights a “structuralist” critic might glean from a Sennett comedy fifty years later:

The copper is fair game for pies, likewise any fat man. Fat faces and pies seem to have a peculiar affinity. On the other hand . . . Shetland ponies and pretty girls are immune. It is an axiom of screen comedy that a Shetland pony must never be put in an undignified position. . . . You might as well show Santa Claus being mistreated. The immunity of pretty girls doesn’t go quite as far as the immunity of the Shetland pony, however. You can put a pretty girl in a comedy shower bath. You can have her fall into mud puddles. They will laugh at that. But the spectacle of a girl dripping with pie is displeasing.

All such concrete observations get down to the brass tacks of a commercial director’s trade. It is in the more nebulous realm of theory that these spokesmen (or their mouthpieces) tend to lose credibility. And one might even quarrel with the precise accuracy of F. W. Murnau’s description of his own work in 1928:

They say that I have a passion for “camera angles.” . . . To me the camera represents the eye of a person, through whose mind one is watching the events on the screen. It must follow characters at times into difficult places, as it crashed through the reeds and pools in SUNRISE at the heels of the Boy, rushing to keep his tryst with the Woman of the City. It must whirl and peep and move from place to place as swiftly as thought itself, when it is necessary to exaggerate for the audience the idea or emotion that is uppermost in the mind of the character. I think the films of the future will use more and more of these “camera angles,” or as I prefer to call them these “dramatic angles.” They help to photograph thought.

As evocation and explanation of what happens in the celebrated journey across the marshes near the beginning of SUNRISE, this is certainly up to the standard of what most reviewers were writing about the film at the time; in certain respects, it no doubt tells us more. Yet read today, it borders on the ingenuous. Thought indeed may be the substance that is photographed when the camera noses after George O’Brien and then darts suddenly past him, through a dense network of branches, before coming to a halt in front of Margaret Livingston, waiting for him in a clearing under the moon. But it is not clear whether the thought that is uppermost is the character’s or Murnau’s. Arriving at the clearing well ahead of the hero, and by a somewhat different route, the camera imposes a dreamlike fatality on O’Brien’s destination, as if he were being reeled in like a fish — a pawn not only of the City Woman but also of the director/spectator/voyeur who first perceives her. And it is the voluptuous experience of thought, one might add, that is being filmed, not its implied intellectual or emotional content — a thought that might include the Boy’s obsessions in its trajectory, but still moves independently of them.

From the vantage point of the Marketplace, such qualifications might seem like nit-picking. But Murnau’s method of description is certainly foreign to the way that Hitchcock would spell out the specifics of such a sequence today. Does the increased value of exactitude imply that Hitchcock knows more than Murnau did, or only that Hitchcock, unlike Murnau, has an audience that is interested in such fine distinctions?

In Hollywood, “knowledge of what is going on in other people” usually means a sharp eye for changing fashions, and a further point of interest in this collection is the degree to which other arts are valued in relation to film — an approach that probably would be less fashionable in comparable circles today.[**] “Slowly but surely,” writes Rex Ingram or his scribe in 1922, “the cinema is coming into its own, taking its place, if not beside sculpture and painting as an art, most certainly ahead of the spoken drama.” For Slavko Vorkapich in 1930, “A perfect motion picture would be comparable to a symphony.” Significantly, Paul Fejos’s own reference in 1929 is to fairy tales, pointing toward the construction of LONESOME and his still to be made MARIE, LÉGENDE HONGROISE, both of which belie Koszarski’s claim that “Fejos’ sense of narrative was weak.” And William DeMille — older brother of Cecil, and director of the neglected CONRAD IN QUEST OF HIS YOUTH — draws persuasively on Don Quixote in a side-splitting treatment in 1935 of Mickey Mouse as New Dealer and Popeye as Fascist, with “good old Pluto fulfilling the duties of Sancho Panza.”
Seen as a scrapbook, Hollywood Directors becomes itself a quixotic gesture in its noble efforts to preserve romantic fragments from a rapidly vanishing past. The disappearance or virtual unavailability of films directed by Maurice Tourneur, William DeMille, Ingram, Fejos, Murnau, and countless others makes Koszarski’s resurrections of their “authorized statements” doubly poignant. And these scattered ramblings, however limited in their range of detail and nuance, may ultimately have to serve as substitutes for works that the Marketplace has already absent-mindedly burned, buried, lost, or squandered.


The spreading influence of political and social facts into the literary field of consciousness has produced a new kind of scriptor, halfway between the party member and the writer, deriving from the former an ideal image of committed man, and from the latter the notion that a written work is an act. Thus while the intellectual supersedes the writer, there appears in periodicals and in essays a militant mode of writing entirely freed from stylistic considerations, and which is, so to speak, a professional language signifying “presence.”
— Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero

Retrieval work of another kind is to be found in Movies and Methods, a critical anthology that has the uncommon virtue of concentrating mainly on pieces that haven’t inundated other “textbook” collections. While an ideal anthology would go further and commission its own translations of important and unavailable texts — and correct those it reprints more carefully, so that Jean-Louis Comolli isn’t rechristened Jean-Luc and Straub isn’t credited with imaginary titles like THE DIARY OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH — the least that can be said of Bill Nichols’ mammoth assemblage is that it spreads its nets far and wide, and the language on display here is accordingly varied.
Polemically speaking, however, the editorial notes and most of the final section on Theory point this anthology in an unmistakable direction — and one that largely coincides with Barthes’s description of “typical” writing in Esprit and Les Temps Modernes in the early 50s. This is apparent from the first page of the introduction, where the simple use of a feminine pronoun (“methodologies intervene between the writer and her subject”) already announces a style ostensibly formed by political and intellectual allegiances, and is no less evident on the last page of text, the conclusion of a glossary explaining everything from “Analog/Digital” to “Textual System(s).”

This anonymous, collective style resembles that of Hollywood Directors, insofar as neither book can be read straight through without some mental calcification setting in; but the implications of authorial absence are quite different. In Koszarski’s book, it is characteristically a sign of the director’s defeat in letting his or her voice be heard — a problem reflected in many of the same directors’ films, and cruelly parodied when their various complaints, hopes, and axioms about this difficulty begin to sound more and more like each other’s. In Movies and Methods, conversely, it becomes a sign of apparent triumph: facelessness here is more prone to be a badge of authenticity, commitment, membership in a burgeoning community of common aspirations.

Within such a framework, language is taken to be a necessary evil more than a methodology of its own, and any notion of performance (as opposed to demonstration), which might include writers as dissimilar as Barthes, Manny Farber, and Jonas Mekas, is effectively rendered obsolete. Sontag barely scrapes in, and only after an editorial warning that her “vantage point is that of the solitary intellectual beholden to nothing so impersonal as a methodology.” Safety in numbers is the evident watchword; and much as an institution like the Academy Awards partially serves to offset the more cutthroat aspects of an industry by promoting an image of social cohesion, the “community of scholars” is a not entirely false myth that helps to ensure the preservation of a corporate image.

The solitary reader drifts through the thickets of this discourse in something like the way that spectators/ tourists get about in Tativille — on a kind of conveyor belt that guarantees distance, carefully chosen sights (and sites), and alternate options of attention. But if one should choose to depart from the planned itinerary and move about at will, one quickly enters a chaotic Babel; and if the tourist/reader occasionally slams into a glass door, the comedy isn’t always intentional.

Lincoln’s mediation also forces the film to crack open revealing the ideological function of his role. For example, Lincoln’s seemingly benevolent representation of the Law actually originates in a terrible, castrated, castrating operation which produces Law “as a pure prohibition of violence whose result is only a permanent indictment of the castrating effects of its discourse,” and which effectively restrains him from a full self- realization of the qualities he mediates (he is wholly other). Lincoln himself cannot be “had,” possessed, known. He frames the context.

This is Nichols himself, discussing the justly celebrated Cahiers du cinéma analysis of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. Stumbled into haphazardly, as an isolated patch of prose, it is likely to inflict bruises; approached more circumspectly and contextually, through the filters provided by other discourses, it becomes relatively lucid. For squatters in the Semiology-Structuralism settlement who have already set up shop, it is nothing more than the continuation of a discussion that has been long in progress. If you’ve stuck around and dutifully made the acquaintance of the Cahiers collective — who, in turn, might have helped introduce you to the local barber, Althusser, and funny Doc Lacan who lives across the way — you can listen to Nichols and find that he’s just talking horse sense.

Given the proper orientation, one can also make one’s own alignments among the warring factions in residence. This lends additional suspense to the confrontations as Rothman has it out with Dayan on “The System of the Suture,” Abramson beats Wollen to the draw while protecting Pasolini’s ranch, and Nichols himself — in a showdown finale destined to forge a legend, after nearly a hundred pages of contextual preparation — picks off Wollen, the Cahiers gang, Metz, and Eco, thereby establishing more space in town so that Bateson and Wilden might stake their own claims.

The metaphor is a deliberately vulgar and excessive one for an activity that might also, with justice, be called collective work. Yet the spirit of competition and potential usurpment is no more absent from much of this prose — particularly the portion coming from American sectors — than from the Western town in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, another privileged site in many of these debates. Even if the status of the individual author (“the Romantic fiction of the solitary and creative genius”) is partially undermined by the University discourse, the mood of contest within a forum of ideas remains very much in evidence. And the consequences of this attitude are worth considering.

Part of this is reflected in the treatment of history promulgated by this anthology’s categories and selections, which the section Formal Criticism makes especially evident. As Nichols admits elsewhere, “Many of the articles included here employ more than one method, and an element of arbitrariness enters into their classification.” Retrospectively, this can help to account for the fact that “Political Criticism” and “Feminist Criticism” occupy separate subdivisions of “Contextual Criticism,” that Russian formalist reviews are used to lead off the Political (and not the Formal) section, and that “Formal Criticism” is subdivided into “Auteur Criticism” and “Mise-en-Scène Criticism” (the latter of which includes a study of the abstract work of Paul Sharits).

But is all this as arbitrary as it might first appear? “Auteur” and “mise-en-scène” are both somewhat bastardized terms harking back to a specific historical juncture — the point at which they were culled from the pages of Cahiers (and, in the case of the latter, decked out with gratuitous hyphens that were never used in French) and then pressed into different functions, chiefly through the work of Andrew Sarris in the early 60s. An essential part of this juncture was the privileged status accorded to Hollywood, coupled with an almost systematic avoidance of the formal branches of filmmaking that lay outside the studio systems.
Coming at a time in Anglo-American criticism when such figures as Fuller, Hawks, and Sirk were being denied recognition as artists, these terms (however imprecise) proved effective as polemical calling cards. And, by and large, the major aims of the battle were won — to the extent that when Nichols in his introduction refers to Fuller and Nicholas Ray as “neglected” directors, one wonders what he could possibly mean by that adjective. But the fact that history is usually written by the victors can make recent events seem disproportionately important, while earlier happenings of arguably greater significance are all but obliterated from memory.

It is apparently within these conditions that the seminal sources of formal film study (Munsterberg, Arnheim, the Russian formalists, Eisenstein, Epstein, Balázs, etc.) can be either ignored or displaced — and contemporary inheritors of this tradition, such as Burch and Michelson, essentially bypassed — for a definition of formal criticism that begins with Truffaut and Sarris.

Other shortcuts are visible in the isolation of the YOUNG MR. LINCOLN analysis from any account of Cahiers du cinéma‘s history, and subsequent uses of certain terms in that essay. When “classic cinema” was provisionally defined there, the authors sensibly noted that “obviously in the course of these studies we will have to examine, and perhaps even challenge it, in order finally to construct its theory.” Now that the term has become a standard fixture in University prose, the necessity for such an interrogation has seemingly vanished, leaving the term free to reap ideological havoc as it continues to validate an object that has not yet even achieved theoretical status. This leads to such thrilling nonstatements as Daniel Dayan’s rallying cry — “The system of the suture is to classical cinema what verbal language is to literature” — and implies elsewhere an unspoken collective agreement which, like the hyphenated mise-en-scène, has grown overnight from a momentary expedient to an ill-defined dwelling unit where scores of professors can promptly take out leases.

The academic debates made possible by this kind of fungus growth, ranging from the purposeful to the pedestrian, are of course a very recent development; and, ironically, it is the strenuous desire to remain au courant that dates these texts most decisively. Many of Nichols’s most recent selections are already a mite rickety because of the contextual chains of reference anchoring them in particular stages of various debates. This is anticipated in a note explaining that most selections were made in 1972-1973, and a remark elsewhere that “this anthology is concerned with a process, a struggle for knowledge, not the enshrinement of certain approaches as timeless truth” — a form of openness that is clearly one of the book’s strong points.

This means, however, that the conscientious student who buckles down to “master” a 1971 lecture by Christian Metz in hopes of keeping abreast of the latest semiological developments, is bound to be in for some galling frustration when she discovers that Metz’s positions have since undergone substantial revision, making the focus of her mastery hopelessly dépassé . A useful clarification of this sort of problem comes in David Bordwell’s 1975 autocritique of a 1971 study of CITIZEN KANE, testifying to the methodological advances that criticism has made over a very short period.

In the course of this development, the calculated efforts of the University to shun the tactics and consequences of Marketplace criticism have been both a boon and a deception — welcome in the stance of scholarly disinterest and theoretical rigor, myopic in the apparent belief that such a pure division is possible. Who’s to say, after all, that Movies and Methods won’t affect the classroom rentals of YOUNG MR. LINCOLN? And in many selections devoted to other topics — the populist films of Capra, Borzage’s DISPUTED PASSAGE, CRIES AND WHISPERS, GODFATHER II — one can feel the tension of University methods vying with Marketplace superlatives, language that oscillates uneasily between the rigors of academic demonstration and the looseness of informal speech.

Stepping back from the specter of Marketplace and University prose, one begins to wonder whether other options are open to film writing. If, according to Pasolini, there is something called a cinema of poetry, can’t one also conceive of a poetics of criticism? The oblique critical content of Hollywood Directors often suggests that film aesthetics resemble mail-order recipes; the incomparably greater precision of most pieces in Movies and Methods seldom indicates that criticism can or should be anything but a sluggish, plodding process tracing methodical steps up theoretical ladders. Yet Eisenstein, Epstein, Barthes, and others offer substantial proof that critical writing need not be crippled by subservience to either faction. Most Russian formalist criticism remains to be translated, but a few of the tantalizing samples that have already appeared suggest that literature and criticism, art and science, lyricism and precision, rigor and imagination don’t have to be nearly as incompatible as these two categories imply.

Sight and Sound, Autumn 1977

[*] Hollywood Directors 1914–1940, edited by Richard Koszarski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976); Movies and Methods, edited by Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).

[**] It might be said that the social and physical sciences currently play an equivalent role for most directors and critics: Marx, Pavlov, and Laing rather than Rembrandt, Brueghel, and Doré.

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