The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon. ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions. This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.
This review contains spoilers.
As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event. I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)! My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term… This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory. Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character. Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.
I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy. It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure). But I also enjoyed the novel hugely. Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.
- At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat. There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’ There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities. I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel […] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement […], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
- One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences. Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe. On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons? Why? Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’ (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children? They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
- This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood. For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’ The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
- Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying. Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic. Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised. It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured. As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
- This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters. These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end. It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice. In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy. And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel. Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable. Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot. One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse. In the end, this does not happen. Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side. (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.) There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
- Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration. In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
- I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either. This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement). Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.
I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it. The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative. Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult. The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well. The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at. Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.
(Next day update. The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time. Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little. My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening. I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot. Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below. ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right. However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)
What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme). In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed. I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years). On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.
What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack. It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.
I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late. My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon. 2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress). 3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television. 4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons. So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!
Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading. The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met. I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum. I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.
The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire. Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research. He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963! This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time. Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound. Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space. This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!). And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop! When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses). The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.
It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities. Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’. I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts. If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted). Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place. However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective. Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more. That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.
When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode. Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done. I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed. That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt. The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.
To the drawing board…!
…at the end of the ‘in-between’ scene that separates the numbers ‘I’ll Never Tell’ and ‘Rest in Peace’. There are no cuts in the scene. The camera tracks laterally, following Anya, Giles and Xander as they walk along a Sunnydale street, sharing information (and frustration) regarding the musical spell that the town and its residents are under. Whedon artfully modulates our attention: at first the main characters are the main thing we have to look at and listen to, but then, as well as tracking, the camera moves back to allow us to take in some amusing surrounding sights. We see a woman (producer Martin Noxon) protesting her parking ticket, in verse, and three street cleaners in matching boiler suits doing some choreographed broom work. (So much, in fact, is going on around the main characters that we might even miss some of their killer lines, like Giles’s ‘I managed to examine the body while the police were taking witness arias.’)
The characters come to a halt, and the conversation turns to Buffy, who has recently been brought back from the dead, and is behaving despondently and disconnectedly. ‘I’m helping her as much as I can, but uh…’ Giles says, trailing off. Then comes the moment I want to talk about.
In an attempt to comfort the downhearted Giles, Anya pats his shoulder. By this point in the series a regular viewer will have become used to the difficulties that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, has in understanding and participating in some of the more subtle and unspoken human social rituals. Sometimes, as in ‘The Body’, this is used to create pathos; usually, as here, it is used to create comedy. One can see that Anya knows that in situations such as these, one of the things to do is to offer reassurance and comfort to someone by patting their shoulder. The thing is, she is not yet particularly well-practiced in the delivery of the gesture, so its execution is comically mechanical. Emma Caulfield is excellent at delivering such moments. In this instance, Whedon’s framing lends a nice helping hand.
The broom dancers have just exited behind Giles and Xander, leaving the frame, for the first time in the scene (and just as it is about to come to its end) almost still. In the closing moments of the scene, the main motion is provided by Anya’s patting of Giles’s shoulder. This, as well as the fact that we cannot see the face of the person performing it, helps us to focus our attention on the gesture. The communication of the particular quality of the gesture is also supported nicely by the staging and framing. Anya is slightly too far from Giles for the gesture to be comfortable (even if she were more comfortable with it); she is forced to perform it with a straight arm. From our vantage point, we see the arm jutting out slightly awkwardly from behind Anya’s hair and across the frame. Our angle of view also means that the up-and-down motion registers well, and we notice the slightly too-rhythmic quality of the patting, and the way Anya lifts her hand slightly too high above Giles’s shoulder between pats.
It is a delightful grace note to a delightful scene.
Mini-spoiler alert: Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2012) is not a film particularly susceptible to being ‘spoiled’ by learning how it ends before one sees it, but readers should be warned that the below does talk about the film’s closing minutes and answers a question that viewers may well have been pondering whilst viewing.
I love the final scene of Frances Ha (along with the rest of the film). Frances, after sharing two different apartments with friends during the rest of the film, is moving in to her own place. The film ends with her in the hallway of the apartment building, making a name label for her mailbox. She begins by writing out her whole name (I can’t remember her surname, and can’t find it on the internet either!), but it’s too long to fit in the window. Instead of re-writing, Frances just trims (or does she fold?! I wish I could see the scene again, and apologise for any other falsely-remembered details contained here!) the piece of paper. The film ends with a close-up, held over the credits for quite some time, of the finished result: ‘FRANCES HA’.
This detail is lent some weight by being the last image we see, and also by finally explaining the film’s title. And its implications when it is treated as a symbol are a nice fit with the rest of the film, and a nice note to end on. Over the course of Frances Ha, we see Frances suffer embarrassment, financial hardship, insecure employment, and difficult friendships. In the film’s closing minutes, though, we see a series of small triumphs, which cluster around a dance recital that Frances has choreographed and put on. Frances achieves some measure of artistic and professional fulfilment through having planned and executed a short dance sequence featuring a small group of small (and very cute) children, shown to a respectable gathering of friends and acquaintances. At the same event, she receives the praise and approval of her former mentor, and appears to reach reconciliation and a new phase of friendship with her former room mate and best friend Sophie.
Structurally, then, after this event, the writing of a name tag feels like a coda. But it also marks a new beginning, and serves as a(n appropriately-understated) declaration. Frances does not have her name in lights, or even her whole name on display, but there is a label that tells people ‘I am here’. The apartment and all that goes with it may not be enough to accommodate or express Frances’s whole being, but they are a landmark on the journey.
On the module of my PGCHE focused on classroom practice, one of the first activities we were invited to participate in was to draw up a ‘teaching timeline’. We had to cast our minds back as far as we could remember, and map a chronology of our experiences of being taught, highlighting particular memorable moments, periods, or teachers. It was a great activity, which I would recommend to anyone. The first response it provoked in me, besides nostalgia, was immense gratitude. My feeling is that I’ve been particularly lucky to have encountered so many great teachers, of so many different kinds. (The first learning experience I remember in any detail is Mrs Reed, a semi-retired and quite elderly woman – or so she seemed at the time! – coming into one of my classes in perhaps my second year at primary school and teaching us some of the basics of grammar. Those lessons have never left me.)
The main thing that I soon came to recognise, though, was the primary importance within what I might somewhat loftily call my ‘intellectual formation’ of one method of inquiry: close reading.
The apex of my experience of this method during my days of being taught was my two years studying A-level English literature at Ridge Danyers College (now Cheadle and Marple Sixth Form College), principally by two truly great teachers: Julia Wilde and Tony Cassidy. We spent two years studying only a handful of texts: A Streetcar Named Desire, The Color Purple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello, The Tempest, and some Ted Hughes poetry (there may have been one or two others, but I don’t think there were). That works out at just over one text per term (although in practice there were overlaps – meaning, in fact, that we spent longer than a term on each text!). We were not given lectures, and I don’t remember much in the way of secondary critical literature (a point I shall return to later), though I do remember being chastised in the feedback to one of my essays for parroting a reading that I had found in a ‘Critical Guide to…’. What we did, for two and a half hours, twice a week, was sit in a circle with the teacher, read passages of the set texts together line by line, and talk about what they meant. It was amazing, and I still (that is to say in part, after a subsequent first degree in film and literature) count Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Othello and The Tempest as amongst the texts I know best of all, and admire the most (these two things of course being closely related).
University study (in my experience of the courses I’ve been on or looked into), and not just that of literature, tends to be very different from this. For an undergraduate, a more typical pace is to have one set text per week of term. Often, there will only be two hours of contact time per text, and one of those hours will be a lecture. And that is per module; depending on the institution, a student may be juggling between four and six modules per week.
Another key difference that I found (in my particular but I believe quite widely-applicable experience) between studying humanities at A-level and at undergraduate level was that in the case of the latter there was a much greater emphasis upon engaging, both in the classroom and in one’s essays, with existing academic material on the topics and/or texts one was studying. Again, this is a point I shall return to towards the end, after offering some thoughts on the issue of speed and depth.
The virtues of taking a ‘deep and narrow’ approach
I have offered above a general sketch of the way university teaching will often be conducted: one text per week, one lecture, one seminar. However, there are of course plenty of exceptions to this general trend, and plenty of eloquent and prestigious voices in favour of close reading. I’m not going to talk here about contemporary voices in educational theory that argue (correctly) that the pursuit of coverage is often at the expense of the cultivation of the skills that would allow students to stand back from the rapid-fire tour of modular copses the better to see the woods of the discipline. (This is one of the arguments of those who advocate ‘threshold concepts’ – the topic of a future blog, perhaps.) I am also consciously eschewing the ‘contemporary information overload’ argument (which re-emerges every time a new communications technology is disseminated, and is at least as old as the invention of writing). I find Nicholas Carr’s article ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ interesting and provocative, but that line of argument is not the one I am pursuing here. I take it that we live, as we always have, in a world where there is more information available than any one person can hope to become acquainted with, but that we also live, as we always have, in a world where there are a range of ways of responding to this fact.
In a previous blog entry I quoted a short passage from a great interview given by communications scholar John Durham Peters. Here is Peters again, in the same interview, advocating reading in depth as a vital accompaniment to attempts to achieve breadth of coverage:
Truth is robust. Though there is too much to read, many minds will light on common truths. So instead of angsting about how to encompass it all, find an angle and start digging and you will soon discover roots and branches that connect you with other perspectives. Dig into Weber far enough, and you’ll be able to figure out Marx and Durkheim. This is the wormhole principle: the key thing is to figure out how to access the network. So instead of dictating a canon of specific titles, I would encourage people to find their scripture, their text that can help interpret the world for them, and then read and reread it.
The main source of reflections upon this topic that I have been reading lately though, the one that prompted me to write this entry in the first place, is the introduction to Robert B Ray’s book The ABCs of Classic Hollywood Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2008). One thing that Ray cites there as a way of introducing his own method is an interview with Carlo Ginzburg, an historian whose work I admire enormously. Ginzburg is talking about the thing in his teaching timeline that led him down the professional path he chose:
I didn’t even consider history because I found it so boring. What changed my mind was a seminar in which [I] was asked to spend an entire week analyzing only ten lines of a book written by a leading 19th-century historian.
It was the slowness that fascinated me. Every phrase, every word had to be dissected for their possible implications. I came to understand that texts can have hidden, invisible meanings. It was not an easy lesson. In my speech, my writing, my judgments about people, I tend to be very quick. I learned the importance of reading and rereading one page, even a single passage, for days, weeks. (Qtd. in Ray, xviii)
Ray’s book itself abides strongly by the ethos of close reading. Not only this: it arises from Ray’s experience of teaching film to undergraduates not by presenting them with a new film each week, but instead by spending fourteen weeks studying four movies (he describes his book, brilliantly, as ‘a kind of lab report concerning what can still be done with four famous movies and a few basic critical texts’ [xxv]). His experience of this teaching was that, ‘[f]ar from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them’ (xviii-xix), and that his students ‘produced the most consistently interesting work I have seen in my 25 years of teaching’ (xxv). (I have, happily, experienced some measure of this closeness in my own university film education. The University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies, as a rule, screens each module film twice to its students, and expects them to attend both screenings. I found this to be a great discipline to cultivate, and looking back, I also see that it greatly enhanced the quality of discussion that occurred in the seminar room. V F Perkins in particular would often spread the study of a single film across multiple weeks in his teaching. One of my fellow Warwick alumni has since moved on to the University of Bristol, and has told me that there is a final year undergraduate module there on which students spend several weeks studying a single film from a range of perspectives. I am sure this list could be extended further.)
The (secondary?) place of ‘secondary’ literature
I agree with Peters that it is not worth having a passing acquaintance with a huge number of texts if one does not also possess intimate knowledge of at least a handful of favourites; indeed, that a lack of experience in close reading of some texts will condemn one to a superficial grasp of all texts.
I mentioned that as well as not being diluted by greater coverage of a larger corpus of literature, my primary focus upon a small number of texts during my A-level literary study also largely eschewed any engagement with secondary literature on those texts, or on literature more broadly. Looking back, do I believe that my engagements with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Tempest would have been deepened with the help of other critical voices, or that being taught, at that stage, how to stage a dialogue with existing sources would have made for sounder ‘training’ for the further studies in the humanities that I was about to embark upon?
I would answer each of those questions with a confident ‘no’. I should immediately add that I believe that engaging with other voices, among them existing academic literature, some of which sometimes goes under the name of ‘theory’, is a fundamental element of study from the undergraduate level onwards.
There was a stage in my university studies where I was a close reading ‘purist’. What I mean is that I, semi-unconsciously, measured the closeness of my reading by the extent to which I excluded references to ‘theory’. Theory dealt with the abstract; I was dealing with the particular. (I’m caricaturing slightly for the sake of clarity: my work was never ‘theory’-free; it was only during particular passages and for particular purposes that I would eschew secondary material. I still believe there are occasions where this is justified.) However, I do not see things this way any more. I still think that ‘theory’, when used badly, can lead to what Kristin Thompson (I think) called ‘cookie-cutter’ criticism: every text that the theory comes into contact with comes out looking the same. But not all theoretical writing offers its readers a reductive procedure for pigeonholing texts and their components, reducing them to deathly sameness. As Terry Eagleton puts it in After Theory (Penguin, 2004),
At their most useful, critical concepts are what allow us access to works of art, not what block them off from us. They are ways of getting a handle on them. Some of them may be more effective handles than others, but that distinction does not map on to the difference between theory and non-theory. A critical concept, even a useless or obfuscatory one, is not a screen which slams down between ourselves and the work of art. It is a way of trying to do things with it, some of which work and some of which do not. At its best, it picks out certain features of the work so that we can situate it within a significant context. And different concepts will disclose different features. (94/5)
I still think that offering alive, detailed, sensuous descriptions of individual texts and the experiences they offer is one of the most important and valuable tasks of work in the humanities, but I now have no residual guilt or qualms about using ‘theoretical’ material to help me achieve that goal.
We are what we read, and as Carr suggests in his article (quoting Maryanne Wolf), we are also how we read. I would go one further: we are the order in which we read. I believe there is a big difference between, on the one hand, watching Vertigo and then reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, and, on the other, reading ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ and then watching Vertigo. (The example is hardly random or innocent, but there are plenty of others I could offer, and I invite the reader to think of her or his own.)
I think, though (I recognise the possibility that I could be wrong about this), that without that crucial formative period of closely studying literature, largely untroubled by what others (beyond those others in the room discussing it with me) thought about it, I would not have the same respect for aesthetic texts and their autonomy (and what I am even tempted to call ‘rights’ in the face of hermeneutic endeavours directed at them), nor the same taste for losing myself in details and close analysis, nor the same primary reliance upon my own engagement with the text, as a first step, at least (to briefly invoke once again the ‘second screening’ system at Warwick: another part of its logic was that one would have the opportunity to watch a film once with only one’s own preconceptions, before hearing a lecture about it, and then again afterwards to allow one to measure the evidence of the text against the words of the lecturer, and to do so in light of one’s own initial response). This is why, although one of the leitmotifs of my life is to find myself saying ‘I wish I’d known that sooner’, and although there have been darker moments in my university life where I have cursed my greenness in the face of certain types of academic cut and thrust, when I look back at my teaching timeline I am glad that the encouragements to adopt particular approaches to my objects of study came at the times and in the order that they did.