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Film Quarterly (1986) - The Critic as Consumer: Film Study in the University, "Vertigo", and the Film Canon




The relationship between film aesthetics and the ideology of criticism is examined in a discussion of the American film, "Vertigo." Alfred Hitchcock's work in creating the film is detailed.


The Critic as Consumer:

Film Study in the University, Vertigo, and the Film Canon

The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane, everyday world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy. – Pierre Bourdieu[1]

Though critics customarily consider themselves disinterested observers, their activities are shaped by concrete historical processes. The recent development of a group of film intellectuals within the American academy can be examined as an example of this interaction. Given the body of radical theory produced by many members of this newly constituted intellectual group, one might well assume that the function they have served has been a progressive one. However, these progressive goals operate in a far more limited way than is generally understood. Because the work of film intellectuals leads to practical valuations of film texts, one can view current scholarly practices in the light of these valuations. Why are certain cinematic texts chosen for special attention? Which elements in these texts are singled out for critical discussion?

Film studies, with its fluid and shifting canon, lends itself particularly well to this kind of sociologically oriented inquiry. The past ten years have marked a change in Sight and Sound's decennial listings of the ten greatest of all time, suggesting that values held by contemporary film scholars and critics are historically shifting.2 In 1982, four films appeared on the Sight and Sound list that had not appeared on the 1972 list: Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Seven Samurai (1954), and Vertigo (1958). The appearance of the three American titles may be partly accounted for by the continuing vitality of the auteur theory. Also, the growing interest in film's status as cultural production entailing a complex industry and elaborating generic models has certainly influenced such preferences-as well as the lower regard for films like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Persona. Neither of these trends, however, account for the fact that three of Sight and Sound's newly canonized films were made in the United States during the cold-war period of the fifties. An analysis of the politics of contemporary film scholarship must take such historical specifics into account.

Of the three American films on the list, Vertigo is the text that says most about the relation between film aesthetics and the ideology of criticism. Of the three films, Vertigo most owes its preeminence to the opinions of cinema scholars rather than the enthusiasm of less "committed" film fans. Moreover, unlike Singin' in the Rain and The Searchers, Vertigo has generated a sizable body of conflicting critical writing that can be revealingly classified according to ideological positions. In terms of evaluation, what is noteworthy about this critical writing is the centrality it grants to this particular film. The film is canonized even by those who argue against it. As Janet Staiger has pointed out, "Some films will be chosen for extensive discussion and analysis, others will be ignored .... As ideal fathers, these select films are given homage or rebelled against."3

Critics of Vertigo can be broadly divided into two groups. One line of approach, inaugurated by Robin Wood's pioneering 1967 study, speaks to the issue of Hitchcock as an artist, claiming that Vertigo masterfully manipulates the codes of "pure cinema," thereby revealing the creative genius of its director. By contrast, for another group of critics Vertigo's value rests on the way it reveals-or enacts-an objectif...

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  1. Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nere (New York: Cambridge University Press), p. 197.
  2. For the 1982 list, see Sight and Sound 51, no. 4 (Autumn 1982): 243. In a 1978 survey of critics conducted by the Belgian Film Archives regarding important American films, Vertigo was ranked only eighteenth. See The Most Important and Misappreciated American Films Since the Beginning of Cinema (Brussels: Royal Film Archives of Belgium, 1978). This jump in popularity preceded Vertigo's re-release in 1983.
  3. Janet Staiger, "The Politics of Film Canons," Cinema Journal 24, no. 2 (Spring 1985): 4.
  4. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hore and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 11.
  5. Donald Spoto, The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Ballentine, 1983). The making of Vertigo is discussed on pp. 425-35.
  6. See Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1967), pp. 325-31.
  7. Christine Gledhill, "Developments in Feminist Film Criticism," Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams (Baltimore, MD: University Publications of America, 1984), pp. 18-48.
  8. François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 227.
  9. Michael Rogin, "Kiss Me Deadly: Communism, Motherhood, and Cold War Movies," Representations, no. 6 (Spring 1984): 1-36.