_Theorizing the Moving Image_
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996
ISBN 0-521-46049-2 Hardback
ISBN 0-521-46049-5 Paperback
'We must start again.' These words concluded Noel Carroll's 1988 frontal attack on contemporary film theory, _Mystifying Movies_. Starting again is indeed something he attempts to do in virtually all of the 28 essays gathered here. Apart from three essays written especially for the collection, the articles included have previously been published between the years 1979 and 1993, and they occasionally repeat arguments familiar from his earlier books. As is to be expected from such a vast collection, the essays vary in depth of thought and degree of importance, but all of them are unmistakably from Carroll's pen, forceful, consistent, witty, and always well-informed and thought-provoking. It seems to me that Carroll's biggest strength is his evident willingness to refute theory and think things through for himself. Ironically, however, in doing so he himself tends to resort to alternative, and only slightly less limiting, 'small-scale' theorizing.
The day when Noel Carroll is announced as the winner of the annual 'Bad Writing Contest' will surely never come. Indeed, as David Bordwell notes in his foreword to the book, his style 'lives by one precept: Let each sentence be impossible to misunderstand' (xii). Although routinely, and often prematurely, sent off as a purely scientific and analytical aim, such clarity arguably has the advantage of allowing the reader to focus on the problems discussed, rather than having her waste all her energy on trying to make sense of what is being said. The latter is unfortunately a problem haunting the majority of those writing film theory today, so Carroll's readily intelligible prose is always welcome as a relief. Also, when confronting his opponents, he has a notorious habit of reading them 'literally', treating them as if they really mean what they say -- which creates an entertaining ironical undertone -- and, by not interpreting them 'charitably', challenges them to state their case more clearly. For instance, in the long debated 'misunderstanding' of Jean-Louis Baudry's analogy between film screens, 'dream screens', and the mother's breast, which Carroll thinks is ill-conceived, he is often accused of viewing it too strictly as an analogy in the ordinary sense, for failing to see what was *really* meant. But why then was it presented as such, and not in that alternative fashion, he wonders, and his point is not unimportant (cf. 327-30).
In 'Questioning Media', the first of seven sections of essays, Carroll argues against the view that there is something 'essentially' cinematic, or 'medium specific', that distinguishes film from the other arts. He contends that we have no reason to look to the medium as such in order to pursue a 'Film Theory', but rather we should attend to 'the various devices, modes, genres, techniques, and mechanisms of film, even if they are not referred back to some conception of the essence of cinema' (2), in other words, we should theorize in a 'piecemeal' fashion. In discussing these issues Carroll reminds us that, among other things, we sometimes hastily confuse the history of movies with that of the medium ('the moving image') -- a distinction not dissimilar to the one between 'literature' and 'writing'. When, for instance, we say we enjoy watching films, we might want to explain this particular kind of enjoyment with reference to some common feature of film. But focusing on the specificity of the medium, and concluding for instance that whatever consists of moving images 'enchants' us, is obviously short-sighted considering that we do not experience that kind of enjoyment watching surveillance monitors, screensavers, etc. -- just as it would be foolish to put too much emphasis on the fact that we watch movies in the dark and on big screens, seeing as we experience no serious lack of enjoyment when watching them on television with the lights on.
'There are no muses' he proclaims (3), insisting that the notion that there is something uniquely cinematic is nothing but an illusion. However, surely we have no trouble understanding what somebody says when they call a movie 'cinematic', or, conversely, 'theatrical', 'literary' or just plain 'un-cinematic'. In the relevant sense, the historical existence of film makes up what we would call its essence. In other words, Hitchcock's films are not cinematic *by themselves*, but in relation to the history to which they belong they are regarded as *relatively* cinematic (rather in the way that certain character traits can be viewed as feminine or masculine without assuming that they are so inherently.) Carroll argues that the idea that 'each art form, in virtue of its medium, has its own exclusive domain of development' (25) is incoherent, namely that the medium itself does not suggest its use, and in a certain sense he is surely correct. But what would looking at the medium by itself, in isolation from its use, as it were, amount to? My contention here is that Carroll seems to regard medium specificity talk as though it were the result of considering the medium apart from its history, whereas it is better (or rather: only) understood as involving aesthetic remarks concerning a particular history. In opposition to Carroll, then, I would claim that any attempt to discuss the medium in isolation from its history is incoherent in a way that talk of something being 'cinematic' is not -- although, admittedly, such remarks are often presented in a confusing manner.
'Popular Film and TV', the second -- and probably most controversial -- section of the book, takes its cue from the above discussion, and, not surprisingly, has certain related problems. In 'The Power of Movies' (from 1985), which also appeared in a slightly revised form in _Mystifying Movies_, Carroll intends to show the power of cognitive science, as it were, in accounting for why movies (in contrast, for example, to novels, ballets and medical instruction films) are so powerful. Carroll suggests that 'pictorial representation, variable framing, erotetic narration, and the interrelation of these elements . . . will, at the very least, be constituents of any account of the power of movies' (92). Supposedly, this is because movies address certain 'cognitive faculties', i.e. 'fairly generic features of humans' (92).
The first thing to note is that there is something peculiar about this call for explanation. Usually, that is, we seek answers to questions that pose problems for us, such as 'why did the directors aiming for realism wait for so long after the introduction of color before they began to use it?', or 'how come so few people turned up at the showing of such a written-up movie?'. In such cases we are familiar with the circumstances yet something puzzles us, is not quite right. But why should we want to know why movies are so attractive? It is not as if we detest movies, yet find ourselves renting a video ever so often. The question would only arise in very diverse and special circumstances, and would require equally diverse and special explanations. Trying to put these difficulties aside, and proceed as if the question called for the sort of causal explanation that Carroll suggests, we might note that that is simply the way it is: the majority of people want accessible art (indeed a truism), and movies have proven to be more accessible than other art forms, which of course is something cognitive psychology presupposes rather than teaches us. In foregrounding formal and cognitive elements, Carroll treats the matter almost as if it were a natural phenomenon, and suggests a curiously uninformative partial explanation -- one that is not unlike answering the question why a glass breaks when it hits the floor by drawing attention to the law of gravity. There are still central questions left unanswered, such as what makes certain movies more powerful than others, and what the success of a movie like _Independence Day_ can tell us about the relation of our culture to film.
The cognitive account rests on the conviction that our minds (like computers) can be said to interpret information, to judge a situation, or to recognize certain cues, etc. These are not empirically observable 'states', however, but these words are borrowed from the language we use in explaining and describing human behavior. Thus, they simply constitute an a priori picture of the mind, not without its benefits perhaps, but no more scientific than the psychoanalytic one that Carroll is so dismissive of. His argument, stripped of its 'scientific' support, amounts to nothing more than the rather banal 'we find movies so accessible because we are able to find them thus accessible'. However, because of his faith in the accuracy of the model, he is prompted to go on to speculate about the extent to which this cognitive machinery is biologically, as opposed to culturally, rooted. Discussing point-of-view editing, for instance, he claims that the device 'is a ready source of communication because of the way in which it taps into or exploits biologically rooted, perceptual behaviors' (134). But is not this assumption another instance of armchair speculation posing as scientific observation? In a trivial sense, human activity can (usually) be conceived of as determined by both biology and culture. On the other hand, if Carroll's claim is not regarded in a way which makes it thus uninteresting, it cannot make much sense, except as a controversial 'guess', symptomatic of a specific intellectual fashion.
Carroll has, of course, been endlessly criticized for his scientific aspirations, which are usually identified as reactionary. He focuses on formal and cognitive aspects, when he should be concentrating on historical and cultural ones, it is said. Yet these accusations seem to me to miss the point. As Carroll rightly points out in 'Cognitivism, Contemporary Film Theory and Method: A Response to Warren Buckland' (and its twin piece in _Post-Theory_, 'Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment'), approaching the study of cinema with a preconceived view of what is worthy of consideration can be all too restrictive, resulting in the conservatism of a certain revolutionary aesthetics, so to speak. Thus, as long as the main problem with Carroll's scientism is simply thought to be its reactionary underpinnings, Carroll will be able to fend off his critics by replying that regardless of how it is received, the point of his scientism is not to be more or less revolutionary, but to illuminate more accurately than before certain aspects of film art, by thorough investigations of regularities -- sometimes (as in 'The Image of Women in Film: A Defense of a Paradigm') even to provide a more solid base for progressive criticism.
But the problem with his piecemeal theorizing lies deeper than that. Rather than there being something politically questionable about his approach, the problem is first and foremost philosophical. He ridicules the 'proponents of the Theory' for believing that '*every* level of cinematic reception is fraught with political and ideological repercussions', and for some reason he takes this to be an 'empirical conjecture' (Prospects for Film Theory, 50). Granted his point that not all aesthetic concerns must be political in any strong sense, however, I would argue that he goes too far in assuming that there can be aspects of our relation to film that have nothing whatsoever to do with beliefs and ideas, that are 'beyond politics and ideology'. It seems that he has painted himself into a corner when he tries to offer an example of such an instance: 'what psychologists call the 'startle response' an innate human tendency to 'jump' at loud noises and to recoil at fast movements' (Prospects for Film Theory, 50). It is true that this 'tendency' might call for a causal explanation, but the minute we are interested in its use in films is the minute we will want aesthetical accounts (such as when, why, and in what genres it is used, etc.) rather than a scientific one. In fact, conceptually, there is no such thing as experiencing a film without our experience at the same time involving a tradition of reasons, intentions, concepts, etc. If somebody failed to see these aspects, we would not say that that person actually was 'watching a film' (consider how cats and dogs sometimes 'stare at the screen', but never 'watch the news'.) This of course entails that the idea of there being a science of film viewing, based on formalism and cognitivism, is a philosophical impossibility, not unlike the idea that it is possible to recognize something as one's language and at the same time listen to it as pure sound. It simply cannot be done. Fortunately, Carroll only occasionally (primarily in section two of the book) follows his own methodological guidelines, the way he did in the 'positive' parts of _Mystifying Movies_.
If I have sounded rather critical in my comments so far, it is only because I have focused on the aspects of Carroll's piecemeal theorizing that I view as deeply problematic. Considering the overall intelligence of his oeuvre, I find them unfortunate. Except when he is negative, i.e. anti-theoretical, destroying houses of cards, Noel Carroll is at his best when he is the least theoretical, as when he discusses particular filmmakers (which by the way is something he has for a long time been doing splendidly on the pages of _Persistence of Vision_ -- it is a pity the book was not moulded to fit some of these more interpretive essays), or when he proposes taxonomies of specific narrational conventions, as he does in 'Language and Cinema: Preliminary Notes for a Theory of Verbal Images' and 'Notes on the Sight Gag'. (Interestingly, Carroll himself half dismisses the latter for being 'prototheoretical', a 'halting attempt' .) Furthermore, in 'Concerning Uniqueness Claims for Photographic and Cinematographic Representation', Carroll elegantly shows how the 'phenomenon of representation' is something relative to the discursive context, rather than something inherent in certain media, and proposes that we talk instead of 'nominal portrayal and depiction as well as . . . physical portrayal' (47), depending, for example, on whether we take the depictions to be fictional, or whether we perhaps talk of them as documenting an actor in action, or whatever. Also, in the impressive 'From Real to Reel: Entangled in Non-Fiction Film', he questions the meaningfulness of dubbing all cinema subjective. In his better moments, Carroll is indeed quite an insightful language philosopher.
Carroll himself is fond of referring to his own work as dialectical, reacting against earlier reactions, and anticipating future ones. Disregarding the relativistic/('post')positivistic spirit underlying this description, this is probably a fruitful way of approaching the book. The essays directly point out certain shortcomings of 'Continental' film theory, and indirectly, through Carroll's own misguided attempts, the absurdity of a scientific aesthetics. The book, in effect, points to the need to escape the temptation to theorize when we should in fact constantly keep our eyes open to the diverse ways in which film art can help us perceive the world anew.
University of Stockholm, Sweden
_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 5, September 1997
Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997
Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle
Join the Film-Philosophy salon,
and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here
Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)
PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England
Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage