by Ernest Callenbach
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1
Looking back over fifty years of anything is bound to be sobering—especially through the fog of an erratic memory like mine. But as a tangible reminder, there on the shelves is the full set of Film Quarterly issues, now measuring more than five feet overall. It starts with the original small, squarish format and ends with the present full-magazine-size one, with its gloriously flat-backed binding, even a color cover. Each issue is a book’s worth of hard thinking about our beloved art; the entire collection reflects the handiwork of a legion of wonderful writers so numerous that I cannot possibly mention them all.
In the beginning, the world of film thought was without form, though not quite void. As happens in human affairs, a tiny band of crazed people undertook a possibly hopeless task: to create and maintain an American forum for intelligent discussion of a then largely despised art. It was an accident of academic history that created the opening, and an accident of cultural history that enabled us to exploit it. The magazine played a part in the evolution of a level and volume of serious thinking about film which seemed inconceivable at the outset.
Please indulge me in a succinct summary of the situation in early 1958. In London, the august journal Sight and Sound, already decades old, seemed to have a monopoly on top-level English-language writing about film. In New York, Film Culture fiercely devoted itself to independent, avant-garde cinema. In Paris Cahiers du cinéma, inspired by André Bazin and a legion of ciné-club people, brought a unique kind of polemical intellectual energy to film, nagged on the left by the lively Positif. In the U.S., we had Films in Review, a tiny magazine featuring lengthy filmmaker career summaries and many brief reviews. (It had printed my earliest article, on comedy, written when I was still an undergraduate in the Documentary Film Group at the University of Chicago, a country kid newly smitten with cinema.) On American campuses, although student film societies were becoming common, the extant departments at UCLA, USC, NYU, and Iowa focused almost exclusively on production courses, with only passing glances at film history or criticism. Newspaper reviewers, with the solitary exception of Bosley Crowther at the New York Times, tended to be failed crime or sports reporters, or relatives of publishers, and magazine reviewing was mostly either supercilious or superficial.
The nearest thing to American film scholars at that time were people such as Lewis Jacobs, who was especially good on documentary, my first love; Jay Leyda, an authority on Soviet films; Arthur Knight, who wrote a solid and serviceable popular history of film and also wrote for the general-interest magazine Saturday Review; and Parker Tyler, who approached film, mostly avant-garde film, from a Freudian perspective. We were aware of Paul Rotha through his huge and hugely useful British-published history of film. In Europe, Rudolf Arnheim had written Film as Art in 1933, and later Raymond Spottiswoode in England contributed his pioneering Grammar of the Film. Less than a dozen serious books altogether! Nowadays Film Quarterly, in its dedication to reviewing English-language film books, however specialized, may cover fifty or sixty in one year.
But we did have, obscurely, a journal: the Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television, published by the University of California Press and descended from the earlier Hollywood Quarterly. That journal had been born from an unlikely union of the Press with the post-war Hollywood Writers Mobilization—a group of smart Hollywood reds who thought the post-war American film deserved intelligent discussion. (The connection ultimately got the Press listed on the California legislature’s subversive list.) As the blacklist took its toll in Hollywood, Hollywood Quarterly‘s writers mostly went underground and left the journal to evolve in a sociological direction, focusing on mass media studies under the new title. However, social scientists had other publication venues, and the Quarterly Review gradually declined to a circulation of a few hundred, mostly libraries. Its managing editor resigned.
At this point August Frugé, the director of the University of California Press, decided to let it die. However, the journal had some money attached to it in the Press budget, and the ever-thrifty Frugé was reluctant to see this disappear. Luckily, he had a friend, the Dutch filmmaker Andries Deinum, who had been teaching film at USC until unwise attendance at a student Marxist study group got him fired. Deinum, though an eloquent partisan of documentary, was neither a native English speaker nor a writer, and he declined Frugé’s offer to start up the journal anew. But he pointed out to Frugé that there happened to be on the Press staff, employed in writing jacket blurbs and catalog copy, a fellow named Callenbach who had published several pieces in the Quarterly Review.
Frugé asked me whether I thought the journal could be revived. I replied that while there seemed no point in doing that, maybe one could envision an alternative: a film counterpart of American literary “little magazines,” but taking from Sight and Sound the model of a magazine with stills, reviews, and interviews, along with articles—and aiming at a substantial circulation. Frugé was at home in the art and literary worlds, often went to films, and liked the idea. But, I said, there’s a better person here in Berkeley to do it: Pauline Kael. At that time, Pauline had a popular radio program on listener-sponsored KPFA and had written several impressive articles. Like many others, I much enjoyed hanging around at the informal film salons she hosted. But when she came to see Frugé, she made it plain that she insisted on total editorial control, and Frugé made it plain that in university publishing, using public money and working within a complex bureaucratic structure, there was no such thing. After Pauline marched out of his office, he asked me to prepare a plan for a trial year of publishing what became Film Quarterly. He proposed that we do a journal that was “intellectual but not academic.” A bit daunted, I accepted the challenge.
Of course, despite years of immersing myself in film at Chicago, and spending six months at the Sorbonne’s Institut de Filmologie listening to lectures by Georges Sadoul (and attending innumerable film society showings, some of them presided over by André Bazin), I had no idea what I was doing. But I sought and was given much good advice. Gavin Lambert, who had edited Sight and Sound for a time, was now a scriptwriter and novelist in Los Angeles and agreed to join our editorial board, as did Andries Deinum, the instigator of the whole enterprise. Albert Johnson, who lived in Berkeley, was an expert on Hollywood production, particularly musicals and black cinema, and he agreed to serve as assistant editor. At UCLA, I found Colin Young, then a lowly assistant professor interested in Japanese films and in documentary. He proved a fountain of organizational and critical energy, and served both on the board and as our Los Angeles Editor. We also persuaded Hugh Gray, from the UCLA film department, to join us; he was one of the few people then teaching film history, but he had also worked in the industry.
Since I was a new and potentially loose cannon, Frugé had installed the editorial board partly to keep an eye on me. But from our initial cognac-fueled board meeting was born the collegial editorial process that was used by the journal for many years. To secure relations with the faculty Editorial Committee that controlled the Press imprint, Frugé got one of its members, Paul Jorgensen of the UCLA English Department, to join us; he soon contributed a pioneering article on the TV series Divorce Court, initiating our attempts to reach out beyond a narrow definition of “film.” For many decades, nobody ever resigned from the Film Quarterly board, despite a heavy workload of reading and reviewing manuscripts; our unpaid meetings evidently offered an irresistible opportunity for informed and sometimes heated discussion.
Our goal in 1958 was to collect a team of knowledgeable and ardent people who could energize an American film magazine on a reasonably high intellectual level. We wanted to cover narrative features and also documentaries and experimental films, new trends in style and structure and content; we wanted to keep in touch with film history. In our debut issue Christopher Bishop tried for a definitive treatment of the greatest film comic of them all, Buster Keaton—an interview and an article. As we scoured the world for good writers who might give us something, rather than going to Sight and Sound, we found Donald Richie in Tokyo, Vernon Young, Eugene Archer, and others. We covered some experimental films, and even lured James Broughton into writing a review. We paid continued attention to Ingmar Bergman’s career. We sought substantial film criticism and what was not yet called theory: we printed some André Bazin. We took the measure of innovative sci-fi films, as we did over the decades. We revisited classics, reevaluating Children of Paradise (1945) and The Gold Rush (1925). We analyzed the early work of Alain Resnais. We ran long articles on Luchino Visconti, on Ozu, on Fellini and Antonioni, on the new Paris directors (Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Varda, Godard). We were, in short, auteurists in our fashion, but we nonetheless welcomed the proposal by Pauline Kael, then still living in Berkeley, to do an article attacking “auteurism”—the Cahiers auteur policy imported to the U.S. as auteur theory by Andrew Sarris. We had “Films of the Quarter,” brief notes on current works contributed by Kael, Sarris, Dwight Macdonald, Stanley Kauffman, Jonas Mekas, and Gavin Lambert. We almost always had an in-depth interview with a director, and a number of substantial film reviews.
In our first decade it became normal for educated people to take film directors as seriously as they took novelists. Film won acceptance as a kind of visual literature, part of a vibrant political-cultural life, something urgently talked and argued about, and Film Quarterly plunged into this pool of energy. We managed to mobilize a sizable and far-flung group of early contributors, including journalists and some film-crazed academics, usually from literature departments and often with experience of foreign cinema. It was an enormous privilege to work with a brilliant band of writers that included, among many, many others, William Johnson, Richard Corliss, Stephen Farber, Joseph McBride, Paul Warshow, Nick Browne, Michael Dempsey, Joan Mellen, Jackson Burgess, Gideon Bachmann, Marsha Kinder, Leo Braudy, Alan Williams, Bruce Kawin, Paul Schrader. Sometimes the recruitment process happened by mail and phone, or by wonderfully random referrals. Sometimes it was very personal, as when then undergraduate Linda Williams picked through my library of film books while she baby-sat my son, and got hooked.
Over the years, as film study steadily infiltrated the academy, more bright and perceptive writers turned up in colleges and universities, and the level of thinking in the magazine correspondingly became more sophisticated and at the same time frequently more esoteric—a problem with which all three Film Quarterly editors have wrestled, since narrowness of focus leads to declining readership. The mission of the journal since its beginning has always been to create a broad universe of discourse accessible to people who take film seriously, but who may not themselves be scholars. One component of this enterprise is to remain surprising, so over the years we have swum against various tides. We interviewed Clint Eastwood long before anybody else took him seriously as a director, and Dušan Makavejev when his W.R. – Mysteries of the Organism (1971) was a new scandal. We printed a confessional piece about porn-watching in the days before porn became a suburban-wives market. We liked to publish writers who defended films that almost nobody liked. We even produced an impressive critical round table on Showgirls (1995) perhaps proving that no film is beneath discussion.
As it became apparent that the journal had established an editorial presence, found an audience, and showed a miniscule surplus in its budget, the Press agreed that we would continue indefinitely. Trying to cope with the entire intellectual evolution in which the journal participated would be tedious, so here I will only touch briefly on several of our eight or ten continuing emphases and concerns.
Now that documentary has rebounded into perhaps the most dynamic of current cinematic forms, it’s particularly satisfying that early on we not only published an ambitious special feature on Humphrey Jennings, but were lucky to be involved in the exciting epoch when new light cameras and compact sound equipment opened up possibilities for “direct cinema,” also termed cinéma-vérité. These films had stories of a sort, and some of them were feature-length, but they were heavily informed by anthropology, not only in the ethnographic work of Jean Rouch, but also, for instance, in the Leacock–Maysles–Pennebaker documentation of the American primary election ritual. They opened up new subject matter for film, they posed novel structural problems, and they seemed to fulfill some of the promises of long-ago documentary enthusiasts that film could enable us to see our society in new and useful ways. (They also posed issues of point of view, authorial presence, and transparency which were adumbrated in our pages by Bill Nichols, David MacDougall and others, and which have remained relevant ever since.) The style, so shocking at the outset, gradually became the standard for news reportage; it also provided the platform for Frederick Wiseman’s magisterial survey of American institutions. Now, when tiny and versatile digital equipment is ubiquitous, it’s hard to remember how exhilarating it was for filmmakers to escape the tyranny of ponderous studio cameras and sound-recording equipment. But the wealth of innovative and penetrating documentary that we are now enjoying was pioneered by the direct-cinema people.
From the beginning, we wanted the magazine to be lively and miscellaneous. We looked for interesting work from the ends of the earth, but we also maintained a strong interest in American film of all kinds, and we were lucky to find knowledgeable writers who repeatedly contributed pieces on new films and thematic or structural trends they manifested. Scott MacDonald gave us a long (and ongoing) series of canny interviews with often quirky experimental artists—many of which, like Andrew Horton’s thoughts on screenwriting that first appeared in Film Quarterly, ended up in books published by the University of California Press or other leading presses. In some sense, Film Quarterly was a school for writers. In those more leisurely times, I was able to write many three-page, single-spaced letters back to would-be contributors, aiming to turn their drafts into publishable articles—and deeply offending a few who later became dear colleagues, as well as some who found more sympathetic editors elsewhere. From my perspective, it was an intimate and profoundly enjoyable process; my dry University of Chicago training in taking apart and assessing argumentative structures proved unexpectedly useful. It was work that I loved, and to this day I am touched when people tell me they benefited from it.
From the beginning, Film Quarterly hosted writing from different critical perspectives; we described ourselves as an arena journal, not a journal like Cahiers with a programmatic editorial “line.” This was of course appropriate to our public-university sponsorship, but it was also temperamentally agreeable to me; I have always liked to foster the blooming of many flowers, and do not blanch at being called a bourgeois liberal. We were eager to publish film thinking based on a wide variety of ideas, so long as they seemed both defensibly argued and readable by a more than an academic audience. We tried to keep somewhat current with new releases of importance, and we tried to reflect and refine the intense currents of thinking that swept the film world.
As the theatrical film industry struggled to stave off the inroads of television, CinemaScope arrived. A good deal of critical derision greeted the format, but we were happy to publish a thoughtfully iconoclastic piece by Charles Barr on the aesthetic implications of the wide screen. Following up on this opening, we continued to deal with the formal, stylistic consequences of technological developments: the transformation of films’ audio space through ADR and Foley techniques; the undermining of image veracity through digital manipulation (and now creation). Later, these issues were attacked with critical acuity and technological savvy by writers such as Stephen Prince and Jean-Pierre Geuens.
Film Quarterly‘s position on the fringes of academia was not a bad place to be. After Nixon escalated the Vietnam War and the campuses exploded with protests, film radicalism and political radicalism became inextricable. It seems that new energy for cultural matters erupts from deep, tectonic pressures in the society, when masses of people have begun moving. New questions get asked, and sometimes answered. New possibilities become visible. At any rate, during this great period of intellectual excitement about film, from the 1960s into the 1980s, writers in Film Quarterly and elsewhere pursued two main new branches of film thinking. One was to look anew at the formal side of film, its organizing principles, as Brian Henderson did in his striking first piece for us, “Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” which focused mainly on Godard. The philosophical basis of Bazin’s thinking was closely reexamined, and later the ideas of the structuralists. The other trend was to try and link film innovations to the political turmoil around us. Godard’s unsettling features drew the canny and devoted attention of Berkeley writer James Roy MacBean, who also wrote on Rossellini and radical Latin American filmmakers. In those years, other publications also addressed political issues in film, often from revolutionary perspectives: for example, Cineaste and Jump Cut. Specifically feminist issues began to be addressed in Women in Film and Camera Obscura. There was a hunger for new ideas, new critical tools, new theoretical ideas.
Theory of a scientific sort depends on quantification, so when a former physicist named Barry Salt sent in an article called “Statistical Style Analysis of Motion Pictures,” it seemed intriguing. Salt had doggedly compiled figures on average shot length, shot scope, and camera movement for hundreds of films. He could demonstrate clear historical trends in these figures, and relate them to interesting stylistic questions. We printed his piece, to the outrage of some humanities people (though statistical analysis had by that time become familiar in linguistic and comparative-literature work). In time, Salt’s innovation became a familiar analytic method.
But we also faced the invasion of largely French semiotic and psychoanalytic “theory,” which seemed to promise to transcend political-cultural struggles. As it happened, I had some background in science and was favorably disposed to the notion that one might conceivably devise testable general hypotheses about film. The ideas offered, however, were on another level, initially attempting to describe film as a kind of language or set of codes. This thinking so greatly excited its proponents that they sometimes neglected to apply it to real films, even going so far as to invent scenes or shots in which it might apply. Finally, as a kind of delayed-onset Freudianism was also brought to bear, I felt the need to draw a line about submissions having to deal with real films, not just theoretical formulations: in my “Editor’s Notebook,” I pleaded that theory and praxis needed to be treated together. In time, the theoretical pieces got more concrete; also, as years passed many writers began to appreciate the attractions of history and its theoretical implications.
We also had to come to terms in this period with structuralism and deconstruction, which usefully undermined simplistic auteurism and traditional stylistic analysis, but also tended to dissolve films into a kind of anonymous cultural-social-historical stew. We continued to print some auteurist pieces, but mostly turned away from the “national cinemas” approach. We also tried to offer space to writers with a phenomenological perspective: film as experience. And we tried to remain open to the thinking of experimental psychologists trying to study how viewers actually experience film images.
As I look back over the hopes, achievements, and shortcomings of this period, it seems to me that what can make film theory truly interesting and productive is its attempts to make systematic sense of how films are constructed, how they work on viewers, and how they relate to the surrounding society. There is no real border between criticism and theory. Luckily, many brilliant writers have learned to do the excruciatingly hard work of bringing general ideas productively into critical analyses.
I will venture a few words about the academic evolution of which Film Quarterly was a part. In the beginning, only a handful of people with university posts wrote about film from a critical or historical perspective. So we cultivated younger minds. We turned up graduate students, often from language departments (including English) who cared about film—Stephen Farber, for instance, who went on from Berkeley to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. David Denby, who ended up at The New Yorker after Pauline Kael’s reign, was a graduate student at Stanford when he gave us several pieces. Gradually, more submissions to the magazine came from academics, at first junior or adjunct professors then people in established film departments, many of them wise and passionate writers. But as the field became more specialized and academy-based, boasting a scholarly society with its own learned journal, it inevitably also contained more careerists—people who wrote about film to get promotions and tenure rather than because they loved the art. Film Quarterly‘s editors have struggled valiantly against the tendency toward more boring and academic pieces, but the historical paradox is that as the intellectual level of discourse in the field rose, its appeal to nonspecialist moviegoing readers declined. Without the electricity and energy of the 1960s and 1970s behind it, the journal moved, both under my guidance and Ann Martin’s, and in step with the nationwide consolidation of Film Studies in universities, toward a more sober, scholarly, and limited-circulation form. This was, arguably, appropriate to the field’s evolution. But we are now, I suspect, at a new juncture. There is a great proliferation of small and in their various ways specialized journals dealing with film, TV, and related media. We do not have a publication arena in which all this new thinking comes together and contends. But the new editor, Rob White, is determined to seize this opportunity by using the journal as a site for more short, sharp pieces that can appeal not only to a wide audience of moviegoers but to specialists of all kinds. A livelier, broader conversation is visibly in progress. Moreover, if we are on the verge of a new outpouring of social energy, as many suspect, this new Film Quarterly will have an exciting part to play in articulating new connections between film and the society it inhabits. From my fondatore viewpoint, it is enormously encouraging that so many smart and articulate and perceptive people are eager to write for the magazine, which, I am still told, is taken to be the most critically important of American film publications.
Journals are exceedingly fragile organisms, dependent upon the acuity, eloquence, and goodwill (not to forget ambition) of contributors, the faithfulness and generosity of subscribers, the commitment of publishers, and the stamina (and diplomacy) of editors. In 1958, had our hardy band of founders taken a moment to consider the likelihood that our little project would endure for half a century, we would have laughed, and had another drink. Yet here Film Quarterly is today, eager to make sense of the prolific globalization of cinema, the constant innovation of documentary, the perpetual reevaluation demanded by the past, the perplexing interfertilization of film and electronic technologies for both production and dissemination, and the evolving and metamorphosing of visual style. Film has ever been a commercial art, existing precariously in a tumultuous industry. Like the theater, it is perennially dying and being reborn. But if our society does indeed open up again to new ideas and new possibilities, filmmakers (including the people who work in electronic media) will be there to refract, transmit, and exemplify what’s happening, and we will need good critics to analyze and critique their work. The uniqueness of the cinema is that it is at once relentlessly concrete and specificity-bound (despite being in some ways coded), and yet able to contain and manifest ideas. A great film holds reality and meaning in magical suspension. So we, entranced, enraptured, ensorcelled, will keep watching, thinking, and writing about that magic.
Ernest Callenbach edited Film Quarterly from 1958 to 1991.