Saturday, July 19, 2003

LIGHTS, CAMERA, MARXISM!

There was an article in Last Sunday's L.A. Times that is garnering a lot of buzz here in Hollywood. Written by David Weddle, the piece lambasts film theory programs in many universities as being (in Roger Ebert's words), "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented in which only the adept can communicate."

You have to register to read the whole article. I recommend going to the trouble, especially if you have any kids or young friends who are contemplating plunking down $30,000-$120,000 for film school.

Weddle describes examining one of his daughter's textbooks. His daughter, a student at UC-Santa Barbara, happens to be enrolled at one of the most radicalized film study programs in the U.S., but reading the article, her experience was not too far from my own at Northwestern University, "the heartland Ivy League school."


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.

"Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' "

"We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.' "


Weddle goes on in the article to be amazed at the fanatical dogmatism of the film criticism professors in his daughters Department at UCSB. (Where has this guy been for the last thirty years?! It is always funny when a liberal finally starts to see the oppressiveness and errors of long cherished theories. It's as hard as admitting your own child is, well, a rotter.) This is my favorite citation from the article, because it reveals a latent bigotry against conservatives which keeps the writers from having a keen sense of the obvious as to the problems in their creed, such that they could completely abandon it.

From Kevin Brownlow, the world's leading silent movie historian, author of "The Parade's Gone By . . .," and co-producer, with David Gill, of acclaimed documentaries: "You would think, from this closed-circuit attitude to teaching, that such academics would be politically right wing. For it is a kind of fascism to force people practicing one discipline to learn the language of another, simply for the convenience of an intellectual elite. It's like expecting Slavs to learn German in order to comprehend their own inferiority. But they are not right wing. They are, regrettably, usually left wing‹quite aggressively Marxist‹which makes the whole situation even more alarming."

I found this article to be DEAD ON in terms of my own experience in graduate studies in film at Northwestern. My professors were either proudly out Marxists, or else, closeted fearful non-Marxists who didn't dare raise their voices in dissent against the raging of the Party faithful in the department. Few of our professors had any real experience in the commercial film industry. In fact, they loudly derided and disdained Hollywood as being a capitalist tool of oppression. And believe me, they weren't bemoaning the excesses of graphic sex and violence in the biz. One of my professors told me she had to be very careful talking about her past, because she had actually made a living in the business at one time, and her colleagues considered her, therefore, a sell-out to capitalist oppression.

We were required to take one of two film theory tracks, our options being either a) Queer Theory, or b) Feminist Film Theory. I took the latter and then had to sit through a whole quarter of absolute propaganda garbage in which our lesbian/feminist professor wailed against patriarchal power-brokers in Hollywood ad nauseum infinitum. She kept referring to herself as part of the proletariat. (Hmmmm...I used to think. You are probably making more than any two hundred Russian peasants who were oppressed by the Tsar...) We had to study the work of any one of a small group of minor female film directors -- not because of their contributions to the art form, but JUST BECAUSE they were women. We had to watch film after film made by famous male directors, looking for anti-women patriarchal , oppressive "coding.'

I remember that we spent nearly a month watching the mind-numbing colorless drudgery of Soviet montage cinema, but only one day on the work of D.W. Griffith, the "Father of Cinematic Technique." I got a B in that class, because I actually challenged my professor one day. "If Soviet cinema was so great, than why did Stalin used to ship in Hollywood movies to watch in his private screening room?' The professor sputtered with rage something about Stalin taking on the burdens of his people by subjecting himself to the evils of Hollywoodism. Yeah, right, Mack.

I remember being amazed at how, day after day, our professors managed to get whatever the topic of the class was around to Marxist rhetoric and anti-religious/anti-capitalist/anti-American railing. The funniest was on Day One of our research studies class with one professor, who was a particularly frustrated Marxist whose life seemed to be a tortured rationalization of his own very non-proletariat salary. Dr. "Call Me Jim because PhD's are just Part of Bourgeois Power Structures" was giving us a tour of the stacks when he all of a sudden turned on us, a group of twenty-something kids mostly from upper-class backgounds or else the intellectual top percent of their highschools of colleges.

"How many of you have ever even raided a library?! Huh!!! How many of you have ever even been arrested in a protest?! What is wrong with you people???!!"

I could write a book about some of the stuff we had to put up with just to get a degree. But maybe I don't have to as Mr. Weddle has done it already here.

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