I See Dumb People: In Defence of Film

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I read something the other day about University Admissions department ‘black lists’ for A-level subjects. Some are laughable: Leisure Studies, Media Studies, Sports Studies – pretty much anything with the word ‘studies’ in it. After making this observation, my mind immediately jumped to Film Studies. As I will explain, this immediate association is a symptom of something I have come to hate. Bear with me now…

I don’t take Film studies, but I feel bad for people who do. I don’t mean that patronisingly at all. I’m assuming that you love films. So do I. I’m assuming that you are interested in how they are made. So am I. I’m assuming that it hurts your feelings when people look down on your subject as being somehow ‘un-academic’, or ‘a skive’ or something of the sort. It hurts mine too.

 Perhaps you just think it’s rude to say something like that, but perhaps you feel more deeply about it. I certainly feel more deeply about it; in this post I am going to explain why I consider Film to be high art, and why its study should not be shunned in any way. I think people who say nasty things about Film studies are not just rude, but dumb. And yet I see them all the time. By the end of this post, it is my hope that you will see Film as high art. I will be really chuffed if, like me, you consider its potential to be the highest art of all.

People rarely claim that it is pointless to study Literature. The ones who do are quickly branded as stupid. Some people who definitely aren’t stupid say that although it is not pointless, it is easy. Even this is misguided. Some people find Mathematics very easy, some Chemistry. Anything is easy if you are good at it, and difficult if you are bad.

So why is Literature given a golden pedestal, but not Film Studies? What confines Film to the status of a ‘low art’ below the high arts of poetry, prose and drama? I think that this question is misleading. In categorising Literature as being different from Film Studies, we ourselves have performed the confinement. Film is Literature. And Art. And Music.

This may be both obvious and baffling. It is obvious because Film is the audiovisual recording of the written word. Hence, there is potential for great works of visual Art, Music and Literature. The fact that this potential even exists is reason enough to hold its production to as high a standard as possible. The Literature on its own must count as Literature. Ditto the Art, and the Music.

Is the Literature of On the Waterfront or Casablanca not arguably some of the best writing of the twentieth century? Is the Literature of The Departed not arguably some the best of the twenty-first? Is the photography of Out of the Past or City of God not some of the most beautiful of all time? And the Music of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Dangerous Moonlight or Taras Bulba? The narrative technique of Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? The narrative twist of The Usual Suspects? The moment of cathartic tragedy of Crash? If you answer no to these questions purely because ‘they are in films’, then you are missing the point.

Furthermore, Film is capable of revealing qualities of Art than no other medium can accomplish. Consider the terrifying conjunction of sound and sight in the Shining, or the sumptuous visual metaphors of Michael Mann’s films. My personal favourite of this variety is a sequence towards the end of the Insider, in which the colour and texture of the different characters’ environments allude to how each are internalising the same event. This is magnificent, and simply could not be achieved in any other medium.

It should be fairly clear by now that I consider Film high art. It may be becoming clear that I believe, due to its innovative potential, that Film could stake a reasonable claim to be the highest of the arts. And yet I feel I am in the minority on this. Why? Is everybody else stupid? Although that is somewhat the theme of this blog, I do not believe it to be the case in this instance. I think people are misguided by several of Film’s more unfortunate elements. I will do my best to explain the position we have reached in the modern world.

In order to create Literature, you needs a pen and some paper. The same strictly goes for Music, although an instrument may also be helpful. Normal visual arts can be a bit trickier, and drama requires other people who are willing to give up their time. Film, however, is a gigantic pain to actually produce, at least in relative terms. A great deal of highly technical stuff is needed, along with highly proficient people who know how to use it. This takes money, and the more the better.

Note that this does not mean that good films are necessarily expensive to make, or that expensive films are necessarily good. But it is difficult to argue against the idea that any one film could always benefit from a higher budget. Because of the sheer complexity of the medium, there is always something that can be improved. The same argument could be made for Literature, Music and Art, but improvement for the first two is totally free, and for the last is of minimal charge. With Film, it can get seriously expensive.

But why does that affect how people view it as an art form? Well, because it requires a commercial investment on a scale that is unprecedented for any other art form. Sure, the raw materials for some form of sculpture may cost a bit of money, but truly nothing like a modern day motion picture. And unlike the olden-timey days, there are no patrons of Film; nobody is willing to splash a cool $50 million on a personal film dedication. Films therefore must make money.

In the most part, this is ensured beforehand by the financiers, who will make certain decisions regarding the film’s artistic integrity that will typically follow one of two paths. Either they will limit the budget on elements of the film that they do not deem will make a difference towards the film’s profitability. Or they will insert elements into the film because it is deemed this will make a positive difference towards the film’s profitability. Nothing like this happens with Literature, or Art, or Music, and is the main reason for there being so many artistically poor films.

Note here that this does not mean poorly made. Almost every major production is ‘well-made’ in the sense of efficient use of the necessary resources. But in the artistic scheme of things, this is like pointing out that an author has used excellent punctuation, or a composer has kept to the same time signature throughout. It does little, if anything, for the artistic integrity of the work. This actual, practical effect that invariably haunts directors, combined with the general distaste for profiteering in the modern public consciousness, contributes significantly to the public perception of Film.

A final practical point is one of unfortunate pragmatics. It is possible to attempt to adapt any work of art from its original medium to another. Some transitions would be rather obscure, but others are entirely natural and obvious. As Film is a conglomeration of Literature, Art and Music, almost any individual piece of Literature, Art or Music could be conceivably adapted into a film. There is no fundamental reason why any form of adaption could not lead to a superior work of art in a different medium. It would not at all be the same, as different media have different modes of expression, but it will not necessarily be worse.

The most common practice of this variety is the adaption into Film of the novel. However, the aforementioned financial constraints will apply to any film, and, almost without fail, the film adaption will be artistically poorer than the novel. The Godfather is the only thorough breaking of this rule that I can think of. The Lord of the Rings does a reasonable job too, and I think it comes close. If that comparison is utterly offensive to you, consider for a moment the scope of the cinematography and the resplendence of the soundtrack; these are not present in the work of Literature, and certainly add a great deal to the overall work of art. Granted, much else is lost; like I said, they cannot be considered the same.

It happens this way around more often than any other method of adaption for much the same reasons; it is a reliable way of making money. Since films need to have the potential to make money in order to be made in the first place, this is a reliable technique. Unfortunately, however, it leads many to assume that Film cannot compare to Literature. This idea is understandable in context, but hopefully you can now see through it.

So where does that leave us? We have established that Film is wonderful, and magical and true and sweet and pure. Let’s return to the very first issue then: Film Studies and our confinement. What should we do about that?

The answer is clear to me. Since Film is Literature and Art and Music, it should be taught as all three. Its Literature should be taught in Literature classes, its Art in Art classes and its Music in Music classes. I would imagine that currently, very little of this actually takes place. It should though; it’s a bloody brilliant idea.

Its not much use leaving them separated though. That’s almost like pretending they don’t exist as a whole. It would be like teaching Grammar in one class and Stories in another, instead of just teaching Literature. We need a class in which we explore all three. Thankfully, we have one.

Damn, I wish I took Film Studies now.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’ve been wanting to write a defence of film studies too for a while now, but I guess you pipped me to the post! This article is pretty great in defending film as an art form and your argument for this makes a lot of valid, interesting points. However, I think that as a film studies student I should point out that not only do we study the artistic aspects of film, but we also study the social, political and economic contexts in which films were made. This means that film studies covers aspects of modern history and social anthropology. A friend of mine recently had to write an IR essay on British colonialism and I found that I already knew a lot about the subject because in film we’d studied the way colonial film was used to enforce British rule.

    St Andrews is an institution that offers degrees in a lot of archaic subjects, and I’m not questioning that this is a good thing. But what is even better is that our university also offers students the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge disciplines which have a bigger impact on modern society. How many normal people regularly think about Renaissance painters, Latin or the philosophical relation between cause and effect in their everyday lives? And how many people watch and are influenced by films? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought twice about eating fast food after watching ‘Supersize Me’.

    Film is a subject through which the privileged or the intellectually minded can connect with contemporary society in a useful, direct, modern way. I think that can only commended.

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