Filmspeak: How to Understand Literary Theory by Watching Movies

By Kemp, Philip | The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, March 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Filmspeak: How to Understand Literary Theory by Watching Movies


Kemp, Philip, The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE


Filmspeak: How to Understand Literary Theory by Watching Movies. By Edward Tomarken. Bloomsbury. 208pp, Pounds 55.00 and Pounds 17.99. ISBN 9780826428929 and 8936. Published 22 November 2012

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 Helene 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, Amelie and The Lives of Others.

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. …

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