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June 1994


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John R Groch <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
John R Groch <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 16 Jun 1994 12:02:45 -0400
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On Wed, 15 Jun 1994, Alison McKee wrote:
> Ambivalence and even intense dislike are understandable reactions to *Birth of
> a Nation* -- for all the reasons that John Groch (and others) have mentioned.
> My question is only tangentially related to this thread, but it's inspired by
> John's self-description  . . . how do you negotiate the gap between being
> "someone with limited interest in the formal aspects of film" and being a
> "cultural historian" of film?
Your question is a good one, Alison, and certainly I would not want to
suggest that an interest in cultural history can or should exist separate
from an interest in film aesthetics.  In drawing the distinctions I did, I
was trying instead (perhaps clumsily) to distinguish an approach to film
which privileges context, especially social and cultural context, over an
approach which privileges textual analysis or the study of film for film's
sake (what I think of as 70s film studies).  Each is, for me, inseparable
from the other, and the division between them is a division of emphasis
rather than absolute object of inquiry (though cultural studies has had
the salutory effect of validating a wider range of texts as worthy of
study).  I may be fascinated by _An Apartment for Peggy_ because of its
relationship to postwar social conditions (the GI Bill, the housing
shortage), but I still have to read it as a film.  That point has
sometimes been lost in the rush to embrace the new paradigm, and that's
unfortunate.  (And I have to wonder if it gets lost in part because the
drive to call everything "discourse" eradicates the specificity of textual
That being said, certainly BOAN can be taught with regard to context,
especially given the good work that's been done on it in this regard (I'm
particularly fond of Janet Staiger's chapter on it in her _Interpreting
Films_).  My problem is a narrowly pragmatic one.  In a course called
"World Film History" which meets only once a week for 15 weeks (and this
in itself is somewhat ridiculous, but curriculum change comes slowly
around here), I don't want to spend at least two full weeks on BOAN -- one
for context, one for aesthetics; that would only serve to give the
impression that BOAN is singularly important in the international history
of film, a notion I reject.  The course as I teach it focuses on film
styles and trends rather than individual "masterpieces"; the moment when
BOAN might be taught is important because it marks the beginning of the
feature and of the classical style, which are the things I want to discuss
with my students at that moment; and since I try very hard not to valorize
any single text but to focus on broad trends, I think I should be able to
find a suitable alternative to BOAN.  That was what prompted my original
question, as well as some very helpful answers.
Now back to our regularly scheduled humidity,
John R. Groch <[log in to unmask]>            |  "Work!  FINISH!  THEN sleep."
English Department/Film Studies Program    |     -- The Monster,
Univ. of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15260  |        "Bride of Frankenstein"