"How did you do on your final exam?" I asked my daughter.
Her shoulders slumped. "I got a C."
Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?
"It's not my fault," she protested. "You should have seen the questions. I couldn't understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds."
She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: "Here, read the test yourself and tell me if it makes any sense."
I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor's degree in cinema. I'd written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.
On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:
"Neoformalism posits that viewers are active--that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, 'The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.' "
Then came the question itself:
"What kind of pressure would Metz's description of 'the imaginary signifier' or Baudry's account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?"
I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. "Welcome to film theory," she chirped.
Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. "Tell me where I went wrong," she said.
The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as "diegetic," "heterogeneity," "narratology," "narrativity," "symptomology," "scopophilia," "signifier," "syntagmatic," "synecdoche," "temporality." I picked out two of them--"fabula" and "syuzhet"--and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. "They're the Russian Formalist terms for 'story' and 'plot,' " she replied.
"Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' "
"We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.' "
Forget for a moment that if Alexis were to use these terms on a Hollywood set, she'd be laughed off the lot. Alexis wants a career in film. She chose UC Santa Barbara because we couldn't afford USC and her grades weren't lustrous enough for UCLA. Film programs at those schools have hard-core theoreticians on their faculty, as do many other universities. Yet no other undergraduate film program in the country emphasizes film theory as much as UCSB, and the influence of those theoreticians is growing. We knew that much before Alexis enrolled. In hindsight, we had no idea what that truly meant for students.
I flipped through more pages and landed on this paragraph by Edward Branigan, the premier film theorist at UCSB: "Film theory deals with basic principles of film, not specific films. Thus it has a somewhat 'abstract,' intangible quality to it. It is like looking at a chair in a classroom and thinking about chairs in general: undoubtedly, there are many types and shapes of 'chairs' made out of many kinds and colors of materials resulting in different sizes of chairs. What must a 'chair' be in order to be a 'chair'? (Can it be anything? a pencil? a car? a sandwich? a nostalgic feeling? a ledge of a building that someone sits on? the ground one sits on and also walks on? Can a 'chair' be whatever you want, whatever you say it is?) Here's another question: what must a chair be in order to be 'comfortable' (i.e., what is the 'aesthetics' of chairs?)?"
My daughter was required to take 14 units of film analysis and theory before she could graduate with her bachelor's degree in film studies. That's the equivalent of going to school full time for one quarter, which made it relatively easy to crunch the numbers. Including tuition, books, school supplies, food and rent, it cost about $6,100 for Alexis to learn how to distinguish between a chair and a nostalgic feeling. I don't like to complain, but that just didn't seem like a fair return on my investment.
Is there a hidden method to these film theorists' apparent madness? Or is film theory, as movie critic Roger Ebert said as I interviewed him weeks later, "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in"?