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Book: Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice

Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice PDF

Edited by Clive Myer

Critical Cinema: Beyond the Theory of Practice purges the obstructive line between the making of and the theorising on film, uniting theory and practice in order to move beyond the commercial confines of Hollywood.

Opening with an introduction by Bill Nichols, one of the world's leading writers on nonfiction film, this volume features contributions by such prominent authors as Noel Burch, Laura Mulvey, Peter Wollen, Brian Winston and Patrick Fuery. Seminal filmmakers such as Peter Greenaway and Mike Figgis also contribute to the debate, making this book a critical text for students, academics, and independent filmmakers as well as for any reader interested in new perspectives on culture and film.



1      Theoretical Practice: Diegesis is not a Code of Cinema

Clive Myer


2   Cinema, Theory, Women

 Noel Burch


3   Theory and Practice

 Peter Wollen


4   Passing Time: Reflections on the Old and the New

 Laura Mulvey


5   Sublime Acts: The Fate of Resistance Between Film Theory

 and Practice

 Patrick Fuery


6   Rancière and the Persistence of Film Theory

 Nico Baumbaum


7   Behind the Mask of the Screenplay: The Screen Idea

 Ian Macdonald


8   The Theory-Practice Interface in Film Education:

 Observational Documentary in India

 Aparna Sharma


9   The Student Author, Lacanian Discourse Theory and La Nuit Américaine

 Coral Houtman


10   Just Because You Have Eyes Does Not Mean You Can See

 Peter Greenaway


11   Theory For Practice: Ceci n’est pas l’ Épistémologie

 Brian Winston



Part Two: Conversations


12   An Interview with Mike Figgis: Film and Philosophy

 Clive Myer


13   An Interview with Peter Greenaway: Playing with New Toys

 Clive Myer


14   An Interview with Noel Burch: Playing with Toys by the Wayside

 Clive Myer



Clive Myer


This book is derived from and influenced by the Film Academy[i] conference BEYOND the Theory of Practice which I convened over three days during the Cardiff Screen Festival in Wales in the UK in November 2003. However, the chapters here are either extensions of a small selection of the papers, pieces that make connections with the theme, or, interviews with filmmakers that contribute towards that connection.


The conference was the third in a CILECT[ii] series called to consider what aspects of theory might be imperative for filmmaking students today to consider as integral to their film practice. It was supported by the UK’s association of film schools NAHEMI[iii], the British Academy, Sgrîn (the Film Agency for Wales) and the University of Glamorgan. The title of the conference was a reference to the work of my former tutor Noel Burch’s seminal 1973 book Theory of Film Practice, first published in Paris in 1969 as Praxis du Cinema. This conference, more so than its two predecessors, was oriented towards the history and future of reflexive and critical practice and as such approached perhaps somewhat apprehensively by some of its benefactors. But the questions to be raised would not be held down and some thirty papers were presented in total. What had happened, since the last thirty years, to the relationship between film theory and film practice that was emblazoned by the Nouvelle Vague and championed by new academia? What sort of films and practices are filmmaking students engaging with today? Are they challenging audiences, extending the language of practice and raising issues both social and aesthetic? These questions, doubtlessly of interest to lecturers and students alike, often not only do not get answered, they seldom actually get asked. With an increasing number of film schools and film courses evolving worldwide, what new questions are being raised for and by our graduating students? Are we providing the relevant insight for raising complex issues on the relation of theory to practice or are we simply, inadvertently, or in some institutional cases even purposely, stretching the divide?


The theory of film practice and its discursive relationship with filmmaking can too easily be mistaken for cinema studies or cinema history and many film schools today still separate theory from practice, knowledge from craft, and art from skill. Both inherent and explicit theoretical practices of the moving image have been prevalent from early cinema to postmodern film, television, video, art gallery and internet screenings. Each medium has, in turn, impacted upon, changed and developed its own parameters and in effect crossed the barriers of their sister media. Consequently the cinematic image has produced a very distinctive yet eclectic and embracing relationship with its audience, evolving an attitude of innovation. But, globalisation and postmodern commercial aesthetics have devoured these innovations and now we must ask what are these innovations for? We are told by industry professionals and academic pragmatists alike, that the films and media practices we make and teach, whether fiction or nonfiction, are primarily forms of entertainment and make (and they say we should make) little demand on their audience. On the contrary, I would suggest, the seemingly little demands already made are omnipotent, subliminal, tacit and spurious.


This book is addressed to those daring to reopen the fundamental question of the relation between theory and practice for moving image students and independent film practitioners interested in the language of cinema that shapes the production of knowledge through the now broad categories of the cinematic apparatus. In so doing it aims to contribute towards an investigation of the moribund status of both the independent feature film in the West and its subsequent mirroring in the production of the narrative-based short film culture (both fiction and nonfiction) emanating particularly, but not solely, from film schools across the world. Why are the majority of these film school films so unchallenging and unconcerned to recognise the acquiescent role they play in uncritically supporting the status quo of both the film and educational industries? When such an important relationship surely exists between the imaginary potential of the filmic discourse and the social imaginary of the viewer, why are the majority of filmmakers and film students still locked in to the production of representational fantasy unknown in its powers since the advent of the Hollywood star system and its diversionary role during the Great Depression?


Why, in perusing reading lists on so many films school programmes, courses and modules are there so few books which would help students in film schools around the world with the inspiration that practice itself can be equal to theory and that theory itself can also be practice. This book is trying to reassemble and project into the future the related question of how we might still find a relevant critical practice for film students and independent filmmakers. It has often been said that filmmakers need their own theoretical language. This may be true or else a veiled humility or a disguised avoidance strategy and a preference for the desire to make rather than to think. Industry practitioners have been known to query the relevance and very existence of film schools and in particular media schools, whose graduates, they fear, will be intent to enter a brittle industry without any experience of what the industry refers to as ‘the real world’. Well, the education ‘industry’ is a real world too and probably employs more film industry practitioners in part-time lecturing than the film industry employs graduates. Film schools can also be the largest resource bases of equipment, facilities and short film production. If we are not to fall foul of the film industry’s prejudices then what kind of education and training should film schools provide? This book is not, I am afraid, a matrix for a series of course structures or programmes. That is the work for the individual schools and colleges and hopefully there will not be a national or international curriculum. Rather, it is unabashed at situating where these questions come from, how they may be redefined within the theory of practice and where they may go from here.


The first half of the book opens issues of reframing – a term derived from both the theory and the practice of cinema. In my opening chapter ‘Diegesis is Not a Code of Practice’ I suggest that this terminology, once at the critical edge of radical film practice, has now become static and the very language used to explore the imaginary realm of the ideological impact of film is either ignored or used like some form of political correctness. I re-examine the notion of diegesis which I consider to be a key to understanding the pathway between representation and the social world. This leads to the opening of questions on the role of the nonfictional diegetic and I advocate optimism for the continued value of discursive practice in reference in particular to the recent practical work of Jean-Luc Godard and theoretical work of Jacques Rancière.


Noel Burch’s chapter ‘Cinema, Theory, Women’ is from his most recent book, a critique of Modernism, published in France, De la Beauté des Latrines : Pour Réhabiliter le Sens au Cinéma et Ailleurs (On the Beauty of Latrines, 2007). The chapter is the first work of his to be published in English for some time. The title of his book is taken from Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), the French poet and writer who impressed Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde and has been claimed by Romanticism, Symbolism and the Decadent movement as well as Modernism. In the Preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), Gautier deliberates on art for art’s sake ‘Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the lavatory.’ Burch’s chapter outlines his respect for feminist theory, his distaste for the male-centrism of cinephilia and, perhaps startlingly for readers of his earlier work, his now strongly formed distrust of the politics of aesthetics. The most important thing, he says, is about the coherent way films speak to us of social, moral and political issues.


Peter Wollen’s chapter ‘Theory and Practice’ was a keynote speech at the conference. He discusses the perceived separation of film theory and practice but through a return to the ideas of Lev Kuleshov reminds us that many celebrated filmmakers have been engaged in exploring the conceptual and therefore theoretical and practical implications of perhaps the most important aspect of cinema: montage. What may have begun as a Soviet methodology and aesthetic was championed by Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott. The theoretical aspects of their varied practices, he contends, are connected with a Tense–Mode–Aspect model of narrative drawn from linguistics.


Laura Mulvey examines the politics of change in the context and materiality of cinema in the third chapter in this book, ‘Passing time: reflections on the old and the new’. The old technology of cinema at 24 frames a second transforms, she contests, not dies off (as suggested by Peter Greenaway in a later chapter), as it becomes the container of its own history. New technology becomes an intermediate between the old, the present and that which has not yet become. Cinema participates in its own slowing of time to enable the release of the new.


In the next chapter Patrick Fuery observes the resistances between theory and practice in ‘Sublime Acts: The Fate of Resistance Between Film Theory and Practice’. Theory and practice engage in the unknown, reinvent themselves and meet in the sublime. They mirror each other as do the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (McCarey 1933) until the third brother or in theory a third term of resistance appears – and the entrancement is broken.


Nico Baumbach in ‘Rancière and the Persistence of Film Theory’ questions the dissolution of the relation between theory and practice and discusses the work of Louis Althusser’s student and later critic Jacques Rancière. What is at stake, he argues, is the relationship between aesthetics, politics and theory. This chapter is based on a paper he presented at a Rancière symposium at Roehampton University in London in May 2008 at which Rancière was present.


In the chapter ‘Behind the Mask of the Screenplay: the Screen Idea’ Ian Macdonald interrogates the screenplay as a transitional, partial and allusive document. Like Burch he makes reference to Roland Barthes notion of the ’readerly’ text and like Fuery calls upon resistance as a creative act as described by filmmaker and theorist Pier Paolo Pasolini who in 1966 described the screenplay as a ‘structure designed to become another structure’. The transformative nature of the screenplay makes it a difficult object to study and an unknowable object made known in the hands of the professional script reader. In invoking the work of Andrei Tarkovsky he differentiates between standard commercial practice and that of the author/filmmaker to show that the screenplay is not a fixed, final or unambiguous object.


In her chapter ‘The Theory-Practice Interface in Film Education: Observational Documentary in India’ Aparna Sharma moves beyond the context of Western centrism to investigate the potential for a revision of praxis. She reminds us that formalism and the decoding of cinema invoked as a mode of self-reflexivity in its own right within modernist avant-garde film work, including documentaries, was and remains an inadequate mode of intervention within the context of maker/viewer interaction. In citing two filmmakers working in the Indian subcontinent, avant-garde artist Kumar Shahani and ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall, she highlights the relationship between cultural context and theoretical practice. Consequently she regards the potential for student filmmakers to consider their own context in the process of the development of a thoughtful and interventionist practice.


Leading on from this perspective, Coral Houtman asks what are the ways in which we might enable voice and agency in filmmaking? In her chapter entitled ‘The Student Author, Lacanian Discourse Theory and La Nuit Américaine’ she uses François Truffaut’s film, Day for Night (1973) to illustrate the dilemma of the working process and the instability of discourse. She suggests the potential of the conceptual nature of teaching, rather than the prescriptive – epistemologising the teaching of film crafts leading to the discursive interrogation of students’ own and refreshed work.


In June 2008 Peter Greenaway wrote an article for La Republica newspaper in Italy and it is published here for the first time in the UK, with a new short preface. ‘Just Because You Have Eyes Does Not Mean That You Can See’ reminds us that seeing might be natural but understanding what we see is another matter entirely. Painters have been our professional seers for eight thousand years. He appeals to us to take stock of post-filmic technology and use it to transform ourselves from text-masters to image-masters and for a new millennium of visual literacy.


Brian Winston has written ‘Theory for Practice: Ceci n’est pas l’ Épistémologie’ to address the issue of theory’s often hostile reception by practitioners through the fear of what might be (mis)understood as abstraction and outside the realm of practice. He argues that the conventional wisdom of the pragmatic approach to filmmaking includes in its denial the very essence of theory itself. He throws down the gauntlet at the Academy and the educational institutions and challenges them to remove the theory/practice divide and prejudices that disable rather than enable student intelligence, talent and creative endeavour.


In the second part of the book I converse with three interesting and radical filmmakers whose work varies from Hollywood mainstream films to art gallery installations and television documentaries. I have attempted to reflect the conversational nature of these interviews, rather than try to transform them into academic texts, though I have removed some of the more obvious verbal repetitions. I am aware of an ongoing debate concerning the readability of such interviews, their transcription as apparent immediate and spoken text as different to discursive written text and I trust that the reader will accept these chapters in the spirit of verbal discourse (reflecting perhaps the notion of film school masterclass and seminar) in which they are intended.


Mike Figgis came out of alternative community theatre in the 1970s to become one of the UK’s most interesting filmmakers. He weaves between his own interests in sound and image and the freedom of spontaneity gleamed from Godard’s early to middle period work to big American films where he now gets the freedom to imbricate these films with his own methodologies. His interest in experimental music and his experimental theatre background meld in the live VJ-ing (shared unknowingly with a similar interest by Peter Greenaway) with four-screen film work such as Time Code (2000).


Peter Greenaway continues in conversation where his article left off. His commitment to painting and the still image echoes the thoughts of Laura Mulvey as a debate ensues regarding the relative importance of the moving image to the still. Crossing between questions of education and questions of philosophy and aesthetics, uncompromisingly he calls for the primacy of visual communication over text-based communication. He moves from an initially pessimistic view on the death of cinema to an optimistic vision for the use of new technology and the internet. Ultimately, the contradictions and paradoxes involved in auteur filmmaking set the artist filmmaker aside as lone voices, in a predicament for the place of the individual, if not the elite.


When I visited Noel Burch in his Paris apartment in 2003 I had not seen or spoken with him for many years. What transpired was a great difference to what I had expected from his perspective on the politics of representation. He was now diametrically opposed to his earlier formalist approach in favour of what one might ironically call ‘contentism’ as his position appeared to be a reversal of his earlier stance on film form as a potentially radical ideological tool for the production of a conflictual knowledge-based cinematic and social dialectic. In the early years we were all concerned about what Raymond Williams had referred to as ‘incorporation’ and what Burch had signalled as ‘recuperation’. But in the interceding years (as Laura Mulvey suggests in her chapter) we had all but lost the fight, everything had become a part of the dominant ideology. In fact it was no longer a question of a dominant ideology, in the West there was only one. In order to continue the political struggle in any way Burch had turned to Feminist and Green politics – though his Marxism was showing on his sleeve after three and a half hours of videotaped conversation. A 17-minute version of that recording was edited and screened as the video keynote speech at the Cardiff conference and published in a special version of the Journal of Media Practice (5: 2 – 2004) along with a small selection of other papers. Here the conversation is printed more-or-less in full.


Cynics may ponder on the relevance of the issues raised in this book for filmmaking students, suggesting that students might better occupy their time training for a career. I do not take issue with them training for a career – I take issue with what a self perpetuating industry considers the nature of the form and content of the mainstay of that career, the film itself. In a world where the notion of careerism has also dramatically changed, where jobs are not for life and security of income and position belong to a time passed by, we should consider moving beyond its entrapment within an educational system that in plain language has often been referred to in general as a ‘sausage factory’ or more recently as producing ‘oven ready’ graduates for the film industry. At a time when the internet allows and encourages a new physical and intellectual space for the development and procreation of work and thought, it may be useful for us all and in particular those in doubt of the importance and indeed function of critical knowledge to reconsider the notion of studentship and move towards the idea of ‘scholars of film practice’. If these ‘scholars’ do not inquire then who will? When the most basic question of ‘why make films at all’ has now been boldly asked by Noel Burch, film schools and universities must rise to the challenge and offer a discourse that illuminates a pathway for film practices that this and future generations can embrace and interrogate.                                                            



[i] The Film Academy at the University of Glamorgan, 2003–2007.

[ii] Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinéma et de Télévision. Kalos K'Agathos – theory for practice project Chaired by Igor Koršič.

[iii] National Association for Higher Education in the Moving Image.




$25.00 / £17.50 paper 978-1-906660-36-9

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APRIL 2012 224 pages



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