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The limitations of Cultural Studies approaches to film
Artistic mountains and academic moles named Hill

Carney: There was this comical review of my Leigh book last year from a British professor named John Hill. I sort of felt sorry for him. He was clearly in over his head, unable to understand my approach. He alludes to his confusion in the review. He says that he picked up the book convinced he already knew what Leigh was all about. Leigh was a social satirist—in other words, someone who dealt with externals in what I call a sociological way. Then he read a few chapters, and his jaw dropped because I never mentioned any of that, but instead talked about all these tonal shifts in the moods of scenes, these changes of relationship between characters, and these emotional adjustments between the viewer and what is in the film. He said he was so baffled by what I was saying that he went back and watched one of the films again to make sure I was talking about the same movie.

I was in stitches reading the review. He was Antony and I was Cleopatra. I completely boggled him! Maybe Prof. Unrath and Lola-Lola would be a better comparison, since what I did to Leigh was not only bewildering but slightly scandalous. My writing gets that sort of response a lot of the time.

Interviewer: Well, at least he appreciated the originality of your approach!

Carney: I think I gave you the wrong impression. He hated and despised the book! He was jeering at it. Mocking it. As far as he was concerned Leigh was a social satirist. End of story. He hated the fact that I didn't ratify his pre-existing understanding. That's what I mean by the fact that academics don't want something new. They say they do, but when you give it to them, they cry bloody murder. They really want the same old thing applied to new works over and over again.

Interviewer: Why did you call his review comical a minute ago?

Carney: Because of the internal contradiction. Here is this “radical chic“ professor priding himself on his admiration for a filmmaker who questions established values and understandings, but who can't stand it when a critic puts his own understandings into question. When I suggested that Leigh was doing something far more radical than he imagined, he couldn't handle it. He had a nervous breakdown. He's a perfect imitation of a character in a Leigh movie—someone who thinks of himself one way—as a radical; but who is actually the opposite—a timid, intellectual conservative. He's Mr. Butcher in Grown-Ups. He's Barbara in Meantime. He's the social worker in Home Sweet Home. He's Keith in Nuts in May. But he doesn't know it. Of course people like this never do.

I was rolling on the floor laughing with tears in my eyes when I read the review because it was such a performance out of a Leigh movie.

Interviewer: So you're saying that Leigh is not a social satirist?

Carney: That's not what I am saying. Leigh's work has tons of social satire in it. It's obvious. Anybody can see it. Look at the characters I just mentioned. The satire is easy to see. But what would be the point of writing a book about something that Beavis and Butthead could get from the films without my help? Why would I waste my time doing that?

My goal is to deal with subtler, more interesting, more complex aspects of the films. To treat them as satire is too limited. It turns works like Nuts in May and Home Sweet Home into Saturday Night Live sketches. That's, in effect, what that Hill wants to do to them. Well, I wouldn't have devoted years of my life to films that are that obvious. My work deals with the difference between Leigh and a SNL episode. That difference makes all the difference in the world.

Interviewer: I don't understand.

Carney: The social satire is the trivial part of Leigh's work. It's there, but the films get to much more complicated understandings. Barbara is satirized, but she is not just satirized. She is treated more complexly than that. You might say that the satire is just a way for Leigh to work up a head of steam. It's an emotional motor to get the film up and running. It gives him a basic structure to organize the narrative around. But then the real film begins—which fleshes out the experience much more complexly than social satire can deal with. My Leigh is a lot more interesting than Hill's. But Hill can't allow himself to see that.

He isn't the only one to do this of course. Harmony Korine said something similar to me about Leigh and we had these long telephone conversations into the night about it last summer.

Interviewer: What did he say?

Carney: That he didn't like most of Leigh's work because he thought the movies were just bleeding-heart, liberal, anti-Thatcherite critiques of how the middle class didn't really understand or care about the poor.

Interviewer: What is your response to that?

Carney: That may be in the films; but that it isn't the important part of them. It's like the stupid symbolism in William Faulkner. Or the life-is-meaningless existential statements in Samuel Beckett. The real Faulkner and Beckett begin at the point these high school aspects of their work leave off.

My reply to Harmony was to say look at any of the films really carefully. Look beyond the surface structure. Take Meantime. At first glance it may seem to be pitting “fake” bourgeois characters against “authentic” underclass ones in a fairly formulaic and mechanical way. Barbara and her husband live in a nice house but are messed up emotionally; Colin and Mark and their parents are rough and uncultured, but are emotionally honest and real. OK. That's the Hill/Korine understanding. That's the abstract structure the film is built around. I agree it's there. But the thing is that that's not what an intelligent viewer is really paying attention to or most getting from the film when he or she is watching it. There is lots of more complex stuff going on.

Interviewer: Like what?

Carney: Emotional transactions between the various characters—Colin and Mark, Barbara and Maevis, Barbara and Colin, Barbara and Mark, Coxy and Haley, and between the viewer and the characters—all those sliding tones and shifting feelings that have nothing to do with the chunky jewelry structure. They take place underneath it, behind it, independent of it—and are much more interesting than it. The anti-Thatcherite stuff is just a device to organize the movie around. It's not the most interesting part of the movie.

It's the surface-depth thing I've written so much about. I find the surfaces of Leigh's and Cassavetes' and Noonan's and May's work amazingly complex—the slipping, shifting emotional transactions between the characters. While someone like Hill just blows past them in a search for the film's “deep” structures. The problem—as in life too—is that the depths are less interesting than the surfaces. But people like Hill are so blinded by their search for profundity, for messages, for social generalizations that they don't notice the surface stuff—the sliding emotions, tones, relations.

Interviewer: I know you have been in touch with Leigh. You told me he wrote you a nice note about the Cambridge book when it was published. Have you asked him about this aspect of his work? Does he understand it the same way you do?

Carney: I haven't asked him, but it doesn't really matter to me what he would say. Even if told me outright that all he was interested in was making a Thatcherite critique—even if he said that he was just showing the fraudulence of the petty bourgeois and the nobility of the poor in Meantime—I wouldn't care. Because that not where the real movie is moving me. As D.H. Lawrence said: Trust the tale not the teller.

But I don't think Leigh would disagree with me. In fact, that's why I think he feels really frustrated that critics approach his work in this narrow, tendentious, social-satire way.

And if that's what he were interested in doing, he wouldn't put so much time and effort into getting the acting into such complex, nonformulaic places. If all he was interested in doing was satirizing the middle class, the conversations in his films wouldn't be so tonally slippery. His work would be closer to Ken Loach's.

Anyway, look at movies like Kiss of Death, Career Girls, and Topsy-Turvy. They leave the overclass/underclass structure completely behind. What do you do with them if you are John Hill? You'd simply have to ignore them.

* * *

The big problem is that people like the Hill guy should have become sociologists or historians. They are in the wrong field. They just don't understand or have any interest in art or how are works.

Hill ridiculed me for even using the word “art.” It's out of fashion. To him, it's elitist and connoisseurish—Bernard Berenson and [doing a refined voice:] “strolls among the masterpieces” and all that sort of bosh—which only shows how primitive his notion of art is. The nutty yanking-around I described in Leigh sure ain't a stroll among the masterpieces! I'd expect my undergraduates to do better than that. He also attacked me because I talked about the “truth-value” of a cinematic experience. Hill and all the other cultural studies critics see the function of a text as at best “revealing codes” or “deconstructing the reigning social structures.”

Text Copyright 2002 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.