Filmspeak: How to Understand Literary Theory by Watching Movies by Edward Tomarken

Philip Kemp wants more substance in the application of literary theory to popular cinema

March 7, 2013

In the 1970s, the higher reaches of film criticism were invaded by an insidious virus of jargon, stemming from the application to the movies of the terminology of largely French-based literary theories, such as Post-Structuralism and semiotics. This resulted in such opaque sentences as: “A movement from the film-maker’s observation to the audience’s seeing…at once permits a move towards a metalanguage which can engage with spectator-text relationships and the ways in which documentaries inscribe an audience in their mode of address.” (This is from the summer 1978 issue of the quarterly Screen, journal of the Society for Education in Film and Television and locus classicus for such solemn obfuscation.)

From its subtitle, Edward Tomarken’s book might appear to be a belated contribution to this unlamented trend; but in the event it aims to be something less hermetic and rather more accessible. Tomarken, an emeritus professor of English literature at Miami University in Ohio, tells us that his inspiration came from his own students who, finding literary theory impossibly abstruse, discovered that the ideas of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida et al. made much clearer sense when applied to popular cinema. Or, as one of his students memorably put it: “Dr T, Derrida sucks, you should see Kill Bill 2!”

Having followed that student’s brash exhortation, Tomarken now explores the primary theses of Derrida (deconstruction), Foucault (power-knowledge), Wolfgang Iser (reception theory), Lacan (post-Freudianism), Fredric Jameson (post-Marxism) and Hélène Cixous (post-feminism) via a selection of films released over the past 20 years - among them Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the aforementioned Kill Bill Vol. 2, Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and a range of other cinematic works including Shakespeare in Love, Lost in Translation, The Devil Wears Prada and The King’s Speech. His choices, he assures us, are all “blockbuster mainstays” and nothing “artsy”, although a few subtitled European films do slip through the net, among them Il Postino, Run Lola Run, Amélie and The Lives of Others.

Popular movies, or ‘blockbuster mainstays’, are rarely noted for the profundity or subtlety of their ideas

As Tomarken readily admits in his introduction, he’s no expert on cinema, merely using films “as a tool for teaching and learning”, so it would be unreasonable to expect any startling cinematic insights from his book. Some of his comments on cinema, indeed, betray a surprising naivety about the whole process of film-making. “We may be tempted to believe,” he remarks in considering Inglourious Basterds, “that a film with fast-paced action and clipped dialogue is largely improvised”. On the contrary, a moment’s thought would suggest that a film of that kind must, of practical and financial necessity, be scripted within an inch of its life. It’s the slow-moving, talky, ruminative movies, like the current US indie “mumblecore” school, that leave room for improvisation.

Still, misapprehensions of this kind hardly detract from the main purpose of the book, which focuses on the teaching of literary theory, not film studies. And if Tomarken finds that popular movies can make for a serviceable teaching aid, more power to his PowerPoint. But popular movies, or “blockbuster mainstays”, are rarely noted for the profundity or subtlety of their ideas; if they were, they probably wouldn’t be so popular. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that ideas drawn from shallow artefacts must themselves be shallow. But the risk is there; and when deconstruction, which Tomarken tells us is “used as a strategy” by all six of his eminent theorists, is defined as nothing more complex or radical than “questioning traditional assumptions”, we might begin to doubt whether we’re still swimming in the deep end.

At one juncture, the author seems about to address this point, suggesting that “the reader may feel that my interpretation of the movies goes too far, making more of them than is warranted, particularly considering that they are all commercial ventures”, and adding that his students once raised this same objection. He answered them, he tells us, by pointing out that Shakespeare also wrote for money. Whether they were satisfied by this shameless non sequitur he doesn’t say.

Film critics sometimes disparagingly refer to mindless crowd-pleasing blockbusters as “popcorn movies”. The cover of Filmspeak shows a candy-striped book with a mass of popcorn bulging out of the top of its pages. It would be unfair to characterise Tomarken’s book in such dismissive terms, of course, but one can’t help reflecting that, like the cinema-going public’s favourite in-house snack, it contains rather less nourishment than might at first appear.

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