A Conference Held at the University of Reading, March 17-19, 2000
Two figures loomed large over proceedings at the Style and Meaning conference. The first was that of keynote speaker V.F. Perkins. Perhaps still best known as author of the influential and too often disregarded Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (Penguin, 1972), Perkins was present in almost every session – either figuratively or literally. Andy Klevan, whose book Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film (Flicks Books, 1999) was launched at the conference, enthusiastically described his delight at having a ‘little Victor’ on his shoulder throughout the writing process. Respondents during a session on teaching film style quoted paragraphs from Perkins’ recent BFI monograph on The Magnificent Ambersons to exemplify their points. And Perkins himself was a tireless contributor over the weekend.
On the conference’s other shoulder sat a different figure, not physically present but a nagging reminder of the program’s self-imposed boundaries. David Bordwell was repeatedly invoked to exemplify the type of anti-theory position that many at the conference sought to distance themselves from.
As Stella Bruzzi put it in the opening plenary session, the prevailing rationale behind the conference was that close analysis should be more than the ‘top gear school of mechanical appreciation’. One after another, conference panellists were at pains to describe their speaking position as one that lay somewhere between abstracting acts of dismemberment (overly close analysis) and exhausting acts of exemplification (looking through the text and finding its meanings behind it).What was called for was a relaxation of the boundary between theory and close analysis that dogged film studies in the 1980s, an opportunity to take textual analysis beyond formalism and to bring home to film studies the act of watching films.
The conference featured an impressive cast list with some sixty speakers (Charles Barr, Laura Mulvey, Steve Neale, George M. Wilson, Douglas Pye being only the tip of the talent) on topics as diverse as performative style in the Carry On films (Pamela Robertson Wojcik) and the impact of new technologies on textual readings (Laura Mulvey). Analytic methods ranged from statistical style analysis to the old staple of ‘contrast and compare’. Papers didn’t always live up to the grand claims of the opening plenary and the odd presentation lapsed into the kind of mundane and myopic descriptiveness that has given close analysis such a bad run in the recent past.
Additionally, the evident diversity of papers and purposeful momentum of the conference was tempered by an underlying sense of returns and repetitions. If the panellists’ preferred choice of film clips could be read as an index of the sorts of things textual analysis is concerned with, then we should all be standing up close to a handful of canonical Hollywood classics and removing almost everything else from view. Not only did the same films and auteurs repeatedly turn up (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Citizen Kane, anything by von Sternberg and so on) but different speakers deployed the exact same scenes and moments from these films. Experimental films, non-Hollywood cinema (and even more so, non-Hollywood, non-European cinema),’bad’ or cult films rarely rated a mention. Some attempt was made to mount a case for the discussion of ‘popular’ cinema at the conference (Alan Lovell was particularly outspoken on this topic). And although this debate represented a welcome call for further diversity, too often its argument seemed fuelled by the belief that in simply performing a close analysis of non-canonical texts the entire elitist order of university film studies programs would be undone and the world itself would be enormously improved.
These criticisms of a too often cosy relationship between style and its meanings did however reveal several key underlying concerns which became apparent through the question and answer period at several sessions:
1. What is the role of context in film analysis and where might it be best positioned in relation to the text? How might formal and industrial issues be understood in relation to each other without simply being collapsed into one another? For example, how might the practice of film history find a footing in a conference on textual analysis that is not simply a chronology of film style? Or how might socio-cultural issues be spoken of in terms that don’t always see it as occurring beyond the text?
2. Does textual analysis always involve close readings – what might be the best way to attend to larger matters of style? How can discussions which centre on preferred readings be accountable to the spectator and audience preference? Or put another way – is there a role for the figure of the spectator in the practice of close analysis?
3. How might textual analysis work outside the classics, with texts that might be found to be without depth for instance, beyond simply proving their ‘badness’ or alternatively transforming warts into beauty spots? Or even better, how might close analysis be brought to complicate the arguments with which the mediocre or trashy are positioned?
Given the resurgence of interest in publishing on individual film titles (witness the BFI classics and new classics series) matters of Style and Meaning are back on the best-seller lists. This conference went some way to providing a ready environment in which to think and sometimes argue about the scope and limits of approaching the cinema with a view to its glorious (though not always in its gory) details.
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Deb Verhoeven travelled to the Style and Meaning Conference with the support of the School of Applied Communications, RMIT University.