Losing the syuzhet Film theory

Losing the syuzhet
Film theory — part academic gibberish, part Marxist gibberish — doesn’t have much to do with movies, writes David Weddle, who resents the money he spent so his daughter could earn a film studies degree at theory-heavy UC-Santa Barbara. (It’s in the Los Angeles Times, so you have to register. I think using “la examiner” for sign-in and password works.)

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

“Neoformalism posits that viewers are active—that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, ‘The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.’ ”

Then came the question itself:

“What kind of pressure would Metz’s description of ‘the imaginary signifier’ or Baudry’s account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?”

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. “Welcome to film theory,” she chirped.

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. “Tell me where I went wrong,” she said.

The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as “diegetic,” “heterogeneity,” “narratology,” “narrativity,” “symptomology,” “scopophilia,” “signifier,” “syntagmatic,” “synecdoche,” “temporality.” I picked out two of them—”fabula” and “syuzhet”—and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. “They’re the Russian Formalist terms for ‘story’ and ‘plot,’ ” she replied.

Students are marked down if they use “story” and “plot.” It’s just not right unless it’s in Russian.

One UCSB student proclaims his love of film theory.

We learn how film psychologically manipulates us, and the power inherent in the language of cinema. It can be two things, a useful propaganda tool in a communist revolution, or part of the capitalist superstructure, a way of lulling the working class into a haze to subdue them and give them an escape from the pressures of reality.

Weddle also sits in on a lecture by Professor Edward Branigan.

“The nature of the photography: Benjamin says the camera strips people who are in front of the camera lens—like actors—and alienaaaates them from their labor! Alienaaaation! False coooonsciousness!”

. . . “Benjamin says the camera does not show the equipment that’s used to make the film. It obscures or hides or masks THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION! Now in Marxism if you hide the process of production, you are obscuring and further alienating the labor that goes into that, the BOOODILY labor that yoooou are contributing to that manufacture. OK? Which is a bad, bad fact. . . .”

Fortunately, few film theorists will experience this alienation, because who’d want to hire them?

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