- Indecipherable Films:Teaching Gummo
The idea of a "difficult" film implies a screening that is either formally challenging or potentially objectionable in terms of content—perhaps a European Art Cinema survey featuring Last Year in Marienbad (Renais, 1962) with Salo (Pasolini, 1976) as a chaser. But one could easily argue that all films have become difficult to teach, at least in terms of introducing undergraduates to what now has become the almost wholly occult art of textual analysis. Easy enough (in theory at least) to teach undergraduates how films are made and who made them when. But when it comes to teaching what films might "mean"—or even more problematically, how contemporary critical practices have made the entire question of "meaning" both unavoidable and yet wholly irresolvable—how is one to proceed in Film 101?
Such are the occupational hazards of throwing over the precise taxonomies of Bellour for the perpetual motion machine of Derridean indecision. But we are where we are, and there is little use in wishing for the return of lit-crit searches for figures in the celluloid carpet or auteurist psychobiography. Perhaps, as many educators already suspect, textual analysis cannot be "taught" at all, bound as it is to cultural pedigree and the lifelong cultivation of a filmic sensibility that can at best be shared but never really explained. If I have to teach someone why Henry Fonda's lazy chair-shuffling routine in My Darling Clementine (Ford, 1946) is a moment of blinding poetic brilliance in the studio western, then really, why even bother in the first place?
Given these circumstances, one option in teaching film analysis is simply to lie. For today at least, lecture number 7, I really do believe in psychoanalytic criticism and I really do think the femme fatale is now and has always been Hollywood's privileged vector of castration. At least such strategic belief in something like psychoanalysis as a model for textual criticism gives students the sense that there is still something in a film to be detected, latent meanings that require official Film 101 [End Page 112] certification to divine (although one must then be prepared to read one hundred papers on Psycho). Another option is to go in the opposite direction and finally put textual analysis out if its misery once and for all, provoking a final showdown between the cinema's aesthetic history and its more sobering future as a branch of materialist sociology. What's on the screen is what's on the screen—there are no secret structures or economies to be brought forward by Professor Necromancer and her dark army of graduate assistants. As for artistry—it is a phantom of historically competing discourses on art and authorship with no "there" there (but here one must then be prepared to read impassioned defenses of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith as real artists).
Perhaps the most honest strategy is to confess up front that there is no "science" or even shared techniques for textual analysis and that making sense of a film—either from 1907 or 2007—is an ongoing struggle between filmmakers, audiences, and critics for the right to define the terms of "art," "politics," and "meaning." While this inclination to dissolve media objects—their histories of production, reception, and analysis—into socially situated fields of discourse is a strategy associated more with television studies, there is of course no reason to avoid such approaches in film (other than memory, tradition, and vanity—SCS, after all, eventually became SCMS rather than SMS, because the cinema simply must not be thought of as mere "media").
One film I have found particularly useful to talk about this way is Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997). To be sure, Gummo is a "difficult" film even within the old familiar dialectic of form and content. A feature-length assemblage of scripted dialogue scenes, "candid" interviews, staged actualities, and stock footage, Gummo is ostensibly about life in the small Ohio community of Xenia a few years after a devastating tornado destroyed the town. The film has a rudimentary plot—a braided narrative organized around highly gendered investments in "pussy." On the boy's side, Solomon...