at usc cinema school a quarter-century ago, one of the most popular teachers was Drew Casper, a young, untenured professor with an unbridled love for movies. Casper didn't lecture, he performed: jumping on a chair to sing a song from the musical he was teaching, covering his blackboard with frenetic scrawls as he unleashed a torrent of background material on the filmmaker's life, the studio that produced the movie, and the social forces that influenced it.
Casper, and most other film studies professors at USC, approached film from a humanist perspective. He taught students to focus on the characters in the movies, the people who made the films, and the stories the movies told and what they revealed about the human condition, our society and the moment in history they dramatized.
Yes, students read theoretical essays and books. But they were about the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Aristotle's "Poetics" laid out the basic principles of dramatic writing. Sergei Eisenstein explained the intricate mechanics of montage editing, which used quick cutting to provoke visceral emotions from audiences. And Andre Bazin described how directors Orson Welles and William Wyler used a "long-take" method of filming scenes that was the opposite of montage, the camera and actors moving poetically around one another in intricately choreographed shots.
Students also studied the first French cinematic doctrine to reach American shores, the auteur theory. It held that directors were the primary creators of films and that they, like novelists, created bodies of work with recurrent themes and consistent world views. At the time, the auteur theory seemed revolutionary, and in Hollywood--particularly among members of the Writers Guild--it remains controversial because many argue that movies are created not by a single auteur but by a complex collaboration of hundreds of craftspeople, beginning with the screenwriter.
Whatever its merits, the auteur theory remained solidly within the humanist tradition Casper once taught. Perhaps he knows what happened to film theory in recent decades.
He does. "Unfortunately, film studies has moved away from humanist concerns," says Casper, who now holds the prestigious Hitchcock Chair at USC's School of Cinema-Television.
The change began in France in the late 1960s, he says, offering explanations echoed by other film and English professors interviewed for this article. French theorists of the New Left pushed their own liberal social agendas. They discredited the auteur theory as sentimental bourgeois claptrap. Auteurists, they believed, had constructed a pantheon of great directors, almost all them white males, whom they worshiped as demigods. Moviegoers passively allowed the genius to spoon-feed them his interpretation of their socio/political system, and they never dared question the validity of those perceptions.
New Left theorists decided film viewers should liberate themselves, bringing their own thoughts, interpretations and responses into the process. Moviegoers should look at films not as the product of a unique creative spirit, but as cultural "artifacts." Films could be analyzed as a series of Rorschach inkblots, providing insights about the collective unconscious of the society that produced them. Thus it was no longer the artists' views of the world that counted. They were merely channeling the zeitgeist. Theorists became the new high priests of culture, and they followed their own concrete, left-wing social agenda.
By the '70s, film theory was spreading to the United States, and moving beyond simple politics. A kind of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of cinema was underway. Discussions about movie characters, plots and the human beings who created them were on the way to being replaced by theories such as semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalytics and neoformalism.
Film metaphysics, to use an Edward Branigan-style analogy, is like looking at a statue of a man and instead of asking what it expresses about the human psyche, wondering what it reveals about the nature of marble. Or studying a painting to find what it says about the meaning of the color red.
Hershel Parker, respected author of a two-volume biography of writer Herman Melville, says the transformation of film studies mirrored that in many college English departments. "There's no room for anyone in English departments who wants to talk about author intention," says Parker, who goes into Old Testament rage at the mention of the subject. When the New Left theories invaded American English departments, Parker believes it all but wiped out serious scholarship. "I was a freak for wanting to go into the library manuscript collections."