Academics vs. Critics

Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why can’t cinephiles and academics just get along?

In most arts, academic study isn’t considered the enemy of journalistic criticism. A newspaper’s music or architecture critic likely studied the discipline in college and applies that training to reviewing current work. When it comes to cinema, though, the relations are cool, even adversarial. When I started grad school in the Seventies, I was startled to find that my new friends looked down on essays I’d written for Film Comment and other magazines. Academics didn’t indulge in what one in my seminar cohort called “film buffery.”

On the other side, cinephile critics, though bona fide intellectuals, were hostile to the developments in academe. As Grand Theory took over the humanities, it seemed that academics were suffocating the art of film under a fog of incomprehensible ideas and tortuous prose. True, some scholars wrote for FC and other cinephile magazines, while some critics, like Manny Farber and Raymond Durgnat, became professors (and at least one, Robin Wood, eventually embraced a version of Grand Theory). Yet the split, cast as one between mandarins and philistines, remained.

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David Bordwell is professor emeritus of film studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of several books, including Poetics of Cinema and most recently, with Kristin Thompson, Minding Movies: Observations on the Art, Craft, and Business of Filmmaking. He maintains a website at www.davidbordwell.net.

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