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Last Words on Film Theory

August 31, 2003

David Weddle acknowledges that the UC Santa Barbara film studies department offers a wide range of production courses, as well as courses and guest lectures by a number of Hollywood professionals ("Lights, Camera, Narratology?" July 13). He also acknowledges the successes of our alumni and notes that the advisory board for the Center for Film, Television and New Media is "peppered with other Hollywood heavyweights."

Then there's the "But": "But film theory remains at the core." He goes on to detail his shock and disgust that students are required to take 14 units of film theory and analysis to graduate with a bachelor's degree in film studies (that's out of 180 units total, by the way). Somehow, Weddle reasons, such a requirement cancels out all of the historical knowledge of film and media, and any passion for the moving image our students have acquired during their four years in the program. Those three courses, Weddle argues, turn them into communists who hate Hollywood!

I wrote the final exam question that so perplexes Weddle. It would not be surprising if readers also were perplexed by the question because Weddle has taken it out of context. In addition, he has omitted one of the statements the question refers to and two parenthetical remarks clarifying terms and giving basic directions for formulating an answer that would compare two distinct approaches to studying film.

In Weddle's zeal to expose the insidiousness and danger of studying film theory, he has made his argument by distortion and selective omission. Worse, though, is his crude rejection of the value of a liberal arts education for students who go directly to work in the industry, as is the case for most of our students.

Constance Penley


Center for Film, Television and New Media

Department of Film Studies

UC Santa Barbara


Weddle has courage to analyze so acutely the history of teaching film theory, knowing that its less reputable practitioners are ever ready to defend themselves with the ruthlessness of a Mafia clan. Film theory has a useful function and some outstanding exponents. Worms only entered the bud in the 1970s, when the sudden insatiable demand to staff new university film departments inevitably attracted an influx of the less able. These people needed to create a mystique of obfuscation in order to aggrandize their indifferent qualifications and to impress academic faculties and colleagues.

The damage done by this half-world of academia is to subject students to a dogmatic tyranny somewhere between medieval theology and Stalinist cultural repression (nearer to Stalinism in that authoritarianism masquerades as idealist Marxism); to replace scholarly research with a cannibalist, pseudo-theological dependence on "authority"; and, worst of all, to demand the use of the kind of non-English jargon that Matthew Arnold described as "harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive."

The damage is not irreversible. The annual Collegium of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, which is made up of young film academics, is warned that it takes "a lot more effort to seek out the right English word than to seize a cliche off the shelf or even invent a word," and they are encouraged with George Orwell's definition of language as "an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought." We feared that students might resent this denial of all they had been taught, but they unanimously and joyfully seize the chance and the mental discipline of the language. "Rediscovering English," says one, "is as exhilarating as a successful detox."

David Robinson


Giornate del Cinema Muto

Pordenone, Italy

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