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The Dangers of Systematic Explanations
(and the imaginative movements they leave out)

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It is one of the continuing disgraces of American film studies that the most important body of cinematic work of the past three decades has still not been given the critical attention it deserves. Beginning in the late 1950s, a small group of independent filmmakers, working outside of the Hollywood system with newly available and affordable portable equipment, rejected the notion that film had to be designed for mass-consumption. They invented American art film. Their works (which include John Cassavetes' Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Love Streams, Paul Morrissey's Trash and Flesh, Barbara Loden's Wanda, Robert Kramer's Ice and Milestones, Mark Rappaport's Local Color and Scenic Route, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, Claudia Weill's Girlfriends, Sara Driver's Sleepwalk, and Rick Schmidt's Morgan's Cake—to name only the most important examples) define the great tradition in recent American film. Yet, given the terrifying economics of film distribution and promotion in our culture, combined with the appalling neglect of these artists by critics apparently still in thrall to Hollywood forms of mass-entertainment, it is not surprising that it is a lost tradition. The major works of post-war American film remain unknown and undiscussed.

David James' Allegories of Cinema is a long-overdue attempt to redress that situation. His book (notwithstanding its misleading subtitle, which suggests that its subject is mainstream sixties movies) is a detailed critical history of the first two decades of the independent movement. However, James' analytic methods fatally doom his attempt. James is an unapologetic Marxist, and his book suffers from the limitation of much recent politically and socially engaged criticism (unfortunately including most feminist analysis of art, literature, and film): Interpretation becomes a matter of subjecting the works under examination to a series of ideological purity tests for politically “correct” social, intellectual, and sexual values.

The problem with such an approach is its hopeless reductiveness. The political and social categories employed to parse the texts being discussed are inadequate to appreciate their expressive subtleties. Flat-minded formulas about what is or is not ideologically acceptable or socially progressive substitute for nuanced analysis of artistic expression.

James' book is symptomatic of some of the most disturbing tendencies in recent criticism. In the hands of critics of James' stripe, authors are no longer regarded as being powerful, distinctive makers of meaning, and artistic texts are not approached as special, enhanced uses of language distinguishable from its ordinary uses. Rather, both authors and their works are treated as more or less direct expressions of the culture that surrounds them. Once that conceptual shift has taken place, criticism becomes a form of intellectual history or sociology (only the objects of its attention are different). The seduction of this approach is obvious—which is undoubtedly why it has won so many converts in the past two decades. It offers what seems like an enormous enlargement of the scope and importance of criticism. The critic is no longer a connoisseur of “irrelevant” and superficial aesthetic effects, but is transformed into an analyst of “deep” cultural structures of understanding.

It is an intoxicating vision of the function of criticism; the only problem is that, in the rush to significance, the actual ways artistic language operates get forgotten. Works of genius are not explainable in terms of a series of generic cultural meanings. Shakespeare is not synonymous with the Elizabethan world view; in fact, the power and wonder of his work begin where cultural descriptions of it end. Great artists inflect and comment upon the systems of expression into which they are born—they do not merely repeat them in their work.

That might be said to be the basic difference between strongly authored works of art and weakly authored (or unauthored) manifestations of mass culture. Star Wars and The CBS Evening News are reducible to a set of cultural myths and expressive conventions, but the films of Cassavetes, Loden, and May (like the novels of Hawthorne and Faulkner) are not. The greatest texts punch imaginative and emotional holes in the very systems of understanding that semiologists, sociologists, and Marxist critics describe. It is this appreciation of the path of creation as an idiosyncratic, eccentric swerving away from systematization that ideological critics lose sight of.

It is not that there is no value whatsoever in the sociological approach, but it is clear that the necessary next step in criticism is to begin to recognize how the strongest authors and texts defy ideological understanding and resist cultural codification. The great task facing the next generation of critics will be to explore the mysterious movements of the individual artistic imagination against the expressive structures that always threaten its freedom....

—Excerpted from a review of David James, Allegories Of Cinema, printed in American Studies (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas), Volume 32, number 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 123-124.

To read more about fads and fashions in academic criticism, click on “Multicultural Unawareness” in the Carney on Culture section, the essays “Sargent and Criticism” and “Eakins and Criticism” in the Paintings section, “Day of Wrath: A Parable for Critics” in the Carl Dreyer section, “Capra and Criticism” in the Frank Capra section, and all of the other pieces in this section.

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text as well as the complete texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.