Sunday, 24 October 2010

Of interpretations, Hitchcock and misogynism

In the Guardian the other day Bidishia wrote an article about women in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The argument was that Hitchcock was a misogynist, and that women are treated deplorably in his films, while the men are "innocent folks, acting up because they got caught in a tricky situation".

Now, there are so many problems with this article it is difficult to know where to begin. But I will not debate Hitchcock's alleged misogynism (it is after all a topic that has been discussed for several decades now). Instead I will treat the article as a perfect example of common flaws when talking and writing about films, and other art forms as well.

The first flaw is that Bidisha is only using six films, from the 1950s and early 1960s, for her example. Hitchcock made some 60 films. Do they all treat women the same way? Does the treatment differ from his film in Britain versus his American films? Does the treatment differ depending on which decade they are made? Such questions are left out of the discussion, despite the fact that they are relevant if you want to discuss Hitchcock and women.

The second flaw is that Bidisha only talks about the women. But what of the men in the films discussed. How are they treated? Men are being ridiculed, killed, maimed, taunted and fooled, and often shown as being lying, homicidal and devious. Maybe Hitchcock was a misandrist? Bidisha writes that "Hitchcock's women are outwardly immaculate, but full of treachery and weakness." but does that not describe the men equally well (or equally wrong)?

The third flaw is that Bidisha doesn't see any nuances or make room for different interpretations. Surely there is more ways of interpreting a film than just one. And if there is room for several interpretations, then maybe we shouldn't accusing filmmakers for having this or that opinion. Her readings of for example Lisa Fremont in Rear Window (1954) and Eve Kendall in North By Northwest (1959) are just too simplistic and narrow minded to be really meaningful. To say that Lisa Fremont is "full of treachery and weakness" goes completely against my own reading of the film, and that she's reading a fashion magazine in the last scene is hardly evidence of treachery or weakness, as Bidisha seems to imply.

At one point, with regard to Eve in North By Northwest, Bidisha writes "Only in the mind of a true hater can these contradictory qualities come together in the nasty piece of work that is Woman." That is auteurism in absurdum. Even if every single film by Hitchcock was blatantly misogynistic (if such a thing was possible), we would not be able to deduct that the director himself was a "true hater". It's tempting here to quote Hitchcock's famous line "My dear, it's only a movie." What I mean is that a film cannot be read as a diary. The work and the man behind it are two different things. Besides, there are also script writers to consider, among other contributors.

To sum up, by doing simplistic readings of a few films, Bidisha is trying to make an argument about a man, his views of women and his complete body of work. But it's a ridiculous endeavour, and the result is by default without merit. And yet, how common it is, this approach.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

In the Mood for Love

Maggie Cheung, Chris Doyle, Wong Kar Wai and Shigeru Umebayashi. This is cinema.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Theory canon

In About a Boy, Will (in the film played by Hugh Grant) had the good fortune of having a father who wrote a popular Christmas song, and Will has been able to live well ever since on the royalties of that song.

Sometimes in the world of film theory, there's occasionally something similar going on. Laura Mulvey wrote the essay Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema, Tom Gunning wrote the essay The Cinema of Attractions, Roland Barthes wrote (admittedly not in film theory, but it's still used there) The Death of the Author. And they're forever deeply connected with these essays, despite having written a lot of other things. These three examples are just a small sample. One thing about this is that what they wrote in those essays is not necessarily something that they later felt was really accurate, or something they had really thought through. I'm not saying that Tom Gunning is wishing his essay was removed from the market, he might still swear by it, but it's only reasonable that as you progress and expand as a scholar, you get new ideas and new impressions, and perhaps even feel that the essay you once wrote is today somewhat embarrassing.

Another such essay is François Truffaut's A Certain Tendency in French Cinema. Truffaut wrote it when he was 22 years old, and needed to make a name of himself, so he tried to be as provocative as possible, and not really writing what he actually believed, but rather what would get people's attention. And attention it got. And still gets. And it's basically just a young guy harassing two older scriptwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, blaming them for what ills French cinema, and for making French cinema vulgar. Yet two years later Truffaut wrote a review saying that Aurenche and Bost were indispensable.

But still all the world's film students have to read these essays. There's a well established canon of film theoretical texts, even among scholars and departments that deplores the very idea of a film canon. There's something contradictory here.

And these texts are not only read, indiscriminately, but they are also quoted and references ad nauseum. Probably since they and their fellow canonical texts are the only texts people have read to any large extent, so not only do they know it themselves, but they also know that everyone else will know about it, so it's a safe thing to quote. I recently read an anthology about cinema and nation but when the fifth essay used the phrase "as Benedict Anderson argues in Imagined Communities" in the first paragraph I throw away the book in desperation. I've got nothing particular against Benedict Anderson but surely there's been something else written somewhere, at some point, on the subject. That book (Imagined Communities) is 27 years old, has nothing happens since then?

Robert Ray at University of Florida once wrote, in 1988 to be precise, that since everybody in film studies, from graduate level and onwards, are pushed to publish as much as possible "the inevitable happens: a catchy malleable idea like Lacan's 'mirror stage' suddenly crops up as the basis for hundreds of articles and conference papers, only to be replaced by a new fad, the race/class/gender template". (Reprinted in "How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies") When I studied Film History and Theory at Stockholm University in the 1990s I made a solemn promise not to quote Foucault in anything I wrote, since that was the only person everybody were quoting, or so it seemed at the time. Now I've mellowed a bit, and he is actually quoted in my thesis. But very briefly.

So what is the problem then? Well, it is that the study of film theory so often is monolithic and canonical, that many theoretical texts are read and re-read even though they either are well past their sell-by-date, or were bonkers to begin with, and that it so often happens that those that read the theoretical texts, be they essays or books, somehow becomes absorbed in this or that theory, and treat it as gospel. Whenever I happen to meet such a person I'm reminded of what John Maynard Keynes said after a meeting with some other economists: "I believe I was the only one in that room who wasn't a Keynesian."

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A lot of the theoretical stuff also happens to be written by either French Marxists or by writers very much inspired by French Marxists, and occasionally psychoanalysis (i.e. Jacques Lacan). That is another conundrum (or spectre) which we can discuss some other time.