Why Film Now
I’ve been learning to read film, and if there’s a better way to do it than trying to watch more John Ford films than the departmental film guru, I don’t know what it is. I’m reading some film theory too, intermittently, but reading about film isn’t nearly as good as reading films, lots of films (nor can you do the former without also doing the latter anyway). It makes me think about what it is that makes one the right kind of crazy to do a degree in literature. I’m addicted to narrative (or narrative has become a necessary habit) and film offers a kind of dense concentrated blast of narrative that books can’t compete with. I read about thirty pages in an hour (less if I’m taking notes, and I find it hard not to take notes), which means that I can watch about three movies in the time it takes me to read a two hundred page novel. Three narratives for the price of one. And as poor as a graduate student is, time is always the real limiting factor.
One of the hardest things for me is putting in the kind of time and care necessary to really and adequately do justice to a book. There’s just not world enough and time, or rather, there’s a whole world out there to be charted and not nearly enough time to do it in. So I bounce from book to book, sometimes half-reading and always not reading deeply enough (but when can you read deeply enough?), drawing tentative lines between them, rubbing them out, then redrawing them. And everything seems to find its way into what I’m doing, from the most bizarre places. Maybe its because there just isn’t enough excess narrative to waste. And in order to get more fuel into the fire, more raw narrative to be stored up and molded into something later, I commodify the number of pages I read in a day, and give myself a baseball box score as measurement. 100 pages is a solid day, maybe a one for four with a base on error; 180 pages is a HR and a walk. 45 pages is a GIDP and a couple K’s. Silly, but it works.
Film, though, doesn’t fit into the equation so neatly. I watch films slowly, sometimes, if they’re rich enough to savor. It took me about 5 hours to watch Ran because I kept needing to get up and cleanse my palate. And sometimes when I’ve watched a movie, I’m not done with it. I need to watch it again. Johnny To’s Exiled was like that.
One of the revelations I’ve had–no, not revelation, maybe disillusionment–has had to do with how tricky a concept genre is, and how badly so many of the tools I have for reading books work when applied to film. Which makes me wonder how well they really work on books in the first place. For a start, films are so over-determined, so phenomenological, that the kind s of psychologizing one does (even if one, a good Foucauldian, talks about the “author-effect” rather than of a real author) just doesn’t take. How can you take the idea of an auteur seriously, even so powerful a director as John Ford, when someone else wrote the screenplay, when someone else did the editing, when someone else produced it, when someone else spoke the lines? Even directors who embrace the idea of the auteur, who micromanage and write their own scripts and so forth, can one really afford to believe the fiction that all things flow out of a single source? An auteur is no unmoved mover. And neither is an author either, I guess. But more importantly, “genre” seems like a way of theorizing the relation between form and context in a way that doesn’t fall victim to either, managing to do much of the work of both formalism and historicism without making them into an opposable dichotomy. It isn’t portable back to literature, of course (the power of genre having so much to do with the specific infrastructures of the cinema industry) but it’s a useful counterexample, should we lit types start to think we’ve got it all figured it out.