Interviewed on April 3, 2012 by Jonathan Haynes, Film Studies, UC Berkeley
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the participants and do not reflect the views of Intellect Press or its employees or affiliates.
HAYNES: I'm already a De Palma person, as you might say, so I'm predisposed to accept your thesis, or at least I was when I first read the manuscript in its earlier form as a doctoral dissertation. Now that it's a book and it's about to encounter the public, what do you think is going to happen? Do you think that the book will get a reaction from the anti-De-Palma people that you talk about, like David Thomson or Andrew Sarris?
DUMAS: Well, I'm not particularly concerned about either of those guys. I'm actually much more curious about how Carol Clover will react to the book, or Zina Klapper – feminist scholars who obviously don't have much patience or sympathy for De Palma, as opposed to the auteurists who already don't like him and never, ever will. I assume that Carol Clover is capable of giving the book an open-minded reading, whereas I don't know that I'd assume that of David Thomson.
HAYNES: In that respect, it seems to me that one of your main theses is that Film Studies as a discipline is convinced of its own rationality, but sort of continually acts out these irrational, symptomatic behaviors–
DUMAS: Yes, that's exactly right. For example, look at someone like Stephen Prince – who obviously loathes De Palma, by the way. "We must banish irrational thought from the discipline! There is no place for the unconscious!"
HAYNES: Are you going to send him a copy of the book?
DUMAS: Stephen Prince? I might. But what would be the point? I mean, what's he going to do, hold a tearful press conference? "I just read this guy's book and I'm sorry for rhetorically positioning Brian De Palma as a thief and a rapist!"
HAYNES: That would really be something.
DUMAS: Yeah, well… I think there are more productive things to wish for.
HAYNES: Seeing the book with the frame grabs finally in place, I'm struck by just how many gauntlets you throw down, as you'd put it; not only in the text itself but also in the way you juxtapose the images to one another.
DUMAS: Right. Like Tippi Hedren vs. Jerry Lewis. That's my favorite page in the book. I just got Ethan De Seife's book about Frank Tashlin, and I was pleased to see that we've both got stills of Jerry Lewis looking back at the audience. Yeah, good frame grabs really make a difference.
HAYNES: In the text, the first big provocation is the idea that Film Studies, as a discipline, is founded on a mistake --
DUMAS: The Rear Window error.
HAYNES: Yes, Rear Window and the question of Hitchcock's self-knowledge. And the second is in the very last paragraph of Chapter Two, where you claim that Film Studies can't see De Palma because Film Studies IS De Palma.
DUMAS: They occupy the same position. Yes, those are two shots across the disciplinary bow, I guess you'd say. That's also the last paragraph of the Cinema Journal article.
HAYNES: Did you set out with the intention to be provocative?
DUMAS: No, of course I didn't. Well…. No, I'm being disingenuous – I always intend to provoke, more or less, that's my commitment to Surrealism – although when I started out I didn't have any idea where the De Palma question would lead. I don't even really remember what sort of inquiry I was going to make when I first proposed De Palma as the subject of my dissertation. I just knew that there was a certain blindness about him and his films, a kind of double-vision or contradiction that seemed constitutive. I'd read academic treatments of De Palma, what few of them there were, and most of them seemed to be reacting to, or describing, films that don't exist. As if De Palma were a screen upon which some other set of anxieties was being projected. And that was the starting question: why does Stephen Prince hate De Palma so much?
HAYNES: Why Stephen Prince, specifically?
DUMAS: Oh, he's just an example. But he's typical. Actually, all of his work is conservative and symptomatic, this sort of harrumphing, hands-on-hips kind of writing. "Freud is not a science and using him to talk about cinema is not good scholarship!" And of course there's always a set of contradictions – Sam Peckinpah is a progressive director who uses violence in a thoughtful way, whereas De Palma is a rapist and a jerk. David Thomson's the same – he admires Jacques Rivette for exactly the philosophical qualities or quasi-nihilism that he loathes in De Palma. That was where the inquiry started, for me, trying to figure out why it was acceptable to project all of one's loathing onto De Palma in particular, both for old-style auteurists as well as for feminist film scholars in the wake of the Mulvey article. I mean, Hollywood was full of misogynists, and doubtlessly it still is! Why not Scorsese? I mean, if we're talking about the 1980's. Do we really think that Raging Bull is any less anti-woman than Blow Out?
HAYNES: Well, but that's not really a good comparison, is it? Because Blow Out, as you argue, is specifically concerned with feminism, or I guess with issues that were important to feminists at that moment, like pornography and violence against women, whereas Raging Bull is about the degenerated male ego, and the scale of De Niro's performance as well.
DUMAS: Right. And of course I suppose you could say that Scorsese, having made Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, made a film that feminism could find acceptable or uplifting –
HAYNES: Despite the sort of capitulatory ending.
DUMAS: Yes. Whereas I'd argue, as Robin Wood previously argued, that Sisters, which is more or less contemporary to Alice, stages a scenario in which feminism is powerless, indeed the Left in general is powerless, and he asks you to understand why it is that political engagement is always going to run aground. I mean, not that that's a position I agree with, but it is a position.
HAYNES: Well, when you look at the reactions to Blow Out in, say, Jump Cut, which you excerpt in the book, you see that feminist scholars felt that De Palma was actually speaking directly to them, and they're trying to understand his voice – "Is De Palma just trying to provoke us, or is he saying in images what we're trying to say in theory?"
DUMAS: That's right. The question of voice, or of tone, becomes paramount, especially when you can't trust the manifest content of the films themselves to be the sum total of what they're trying to communicate. Dressed to Kill isn't primarily about a murder in an elevator, it's about the spectator's reaction, or what De Palma imagines the spectator's reaction to be, when confronted with a remake of Psycho set inside An Unmarried Woman. And Blow Out is nearly incoherent, in the old Robin Wood meaning of the word; it's very tricky, tonally. You really can't take any of it at face value.
HAYNES: And it's also because De Palma works in genre, specifically a genre that's built around questions of violence and vulnerability.
DUMAS: Sure, that's a big part of it. I talk about the [Michael] Ryan and [Douglas] Kellner book ["Camera Politica," Indiana University Press 1988], and the way that they position genre itself as reactionary, so that De Palma is a fascist for working in the Hitchcockian thriller mode and Robert Altman is a progressive for working in this or that other generic mode, the film noir or the musical or whatever. So if you pastiche a genre of the past, you had better do it sloppily so that you'll be seen as progressive, because if you actually pay attention to the technical requirements of whatever genre you're working in, then you're demanding a return to the past and are therefore a neanderthal. Which is, of course, an idiotic way to think about how films get made and why.
HAYNES: So the basic question you asked, I guess, was: why did both feminists and auteurists hate De Palma? And your answer is that these two opposing styles of film study had to come together around a bad object.
DUMAS: Sure, absolutely. In order to coexist within an academic, university context, they had to choose a common bad object: that's the thesis. The balancing act is delicate, in regards to those two opposed groups of scholars. There aren't many auteurists of the old school left –
HAYNES: You took classes from Andrew Sarris, is that right?
DUMAS: One class, at Columbia. Yes, the ultimate auteurist. That was twenty years ago, and I hear he's still at it, although Molly Haskell has apparently retired.
HAYNES: But I know also that feminism had a significant impact on you.
DUMAS: Not just in the academy. I grew up in an explicitly self-identified feminist household; my mother was an activist, both of my parents were very political, and still are. I grew up swimming around in those ideas. So when I encountered the psychoanalytic-Marxist feminism of the Screen variety, as an undergraduate, it wasn't really a shock. "The gaze is male, and all imagemaking is rape? Yep, I don't have any problem with that formulation." I mean, I'd say that I have a more nuanced view of how those formulations work now, and of course there are a thousand feminisms, not just the Mulveyish version from undergraduate days.
HAYNES: And of course your father is a journalist, and your book has a certain muckraking, reformist quality.
DUMAS: That might be stretching it a bit. But maybe I would say that both of my parents value the search for truth, and maybe in some sort of broken way I'm also on that quest, maybe. I really don't want to try to claim that the book is noble or that it could reform anything or that it compares to the kind of journalism my father practices. I mean, it's an academic book about abstract disciplinary questions and it's got a limited readership – it's not like I'm writing about Orval Faubus.
HAYNES: But you can't say the book isn't a political gesture.
DUMAS: Oh, no, of course it is, it's very political.
HAYNES: So are you afraid that people will decide your book is reactionary, because it interrogates the discipline and its relationship to the political through the figure of De Palma, whom they already see as reactionary?
DUMAS: I'm not afraid of it, because it's already happened. You should see some of the reader comments, peer reviews I got back. My God.
HAYNES: You read a couple of them out loud to me. I know you and I don't think you have a conservative bone in your body, but I think I can understand why some readers would have that reaction.
DUMAS: Sure, of course. It's the tone. Yes. Male readers, especially – they get upset on behalf of feminism, which again is a very Stephen Prince kind of move. One reader who was looking at an article distilled from the book called me "angry and hectoring" and another one, who again I assume was male, based on certain clues in the review, said that the book's conclusion was deeply offensive and ought to be dropped entirely, and that the whole book had something like 20 pages of worthwhile material in it and the rest is just inchoate shouting, basically. But that's the whole point. It's as if the polemical tone has been banished once and for all. There's a reason why the Mulvey article hit like a bomb, 35 years ago.
HAYNES: It had that tone.
DUMAS: Exactly, it had that tone. "We must destroy all pleasure, now, right this very instant!" And these days – it's like, if you read anything by anyone that has gone through the Bordwell mill, Christ! The writing is dull and the scholarship… Dude, it's just sand. The more that Film Studies fears its own loss of legitimacy, the duller it gets.
HAYNES: I know you well enough to know that you were also influenced by the rhetoric of the ACT-UP movement.
DUMAS: To an extent, yeah. That and queer theory in general. But I wouldn't say that the De Palma book is a work of queer theory, exactly. I mean, you can use queer theory on Hitchcock and he just opens up like a flower, but it doesn't get you very far with De Palma. You have to kind of proceed from the idea that his work is heteronormative, OK, and it's misogynist as well, OK, and now what?
HAYNES: Early on in the book, you ask the "Great Director" question, and then you don't actually answer it.
DUMAS: Right. Very sneaky of me! Well, but it's because I'm not sure of my answer, and also because it's not an important question, at least in terms of the discipline of Film Studies, or maybe I should say it's a loaded question. Certainly someone like Bordwell appears to want to shut down both the evaluative question, such as matters of canonicity, as well as the theoretical question; you can't talk about which films are good, and you can't talk about films as symptomatic formations – so let us enthrone the typical! When I was an undergrad, my first experiences of film study were strictly evaluative: "Ingmar Bergman's a genius! John Ford is an ARTIST!" and so on, so I have a healthy disrespect for that kind of thinking at some level, at the same time that I indulge in it without reservation. At the very least, I can say without hesitation that John Ford is the most disastrously overrated director of all time.
HAYNES: Now that's a bold statement.
DUMAS: Well, but seriously! John Ford never made an interesting film, not one.
HAYNES: Okay, I'm sorry, I have to push back against that. My Darling Clementine is a beautiful film, one of the most beautiful films ever made.
HAYNES: And maybe there's a similarity to De Palma too. Ford's subject was "America," in the broadest possible sense, and I think that's true of De Palma as well.
HAYNES: It seems to me that maybe De Palma is what John Ford would be if John Ford had Godard and Hitchcock on his conscience. He has that Fordian "innocence" – he sees corruption everywhere but he looks at it in a very uncorrupted way. Whereas Godard and Hitchcock are not at all "innocent."
DUMAS: Right, that makes some sense. It's that John Lennon comparison again.
HAYNES: Right, that ingenuousness. Also, The Untouchables is as close to John Ford as any American director has gotten since the late fifties. More so than [Spielberg's] War Horse, for example.
DUMAS: Yes, that's true. I think maybe The Untouchables is closer to Anthony Mann, at least in the moral ambiguousness, but yes, there's a sort of serenity to the filmmaking that I guess I do associate with John Ford. But on the other hand, they're always talking about Clint Eastwood as if he's the reincarnation of classical filmmaking, which means that he's just as dull and tedious as John Ford. Talk about overrated! God, I hate Clint Eastwood, and Michael Mann too. Heroic virility cinema.
HAYNES: Actually, I bet your dislike of Ford has a lot to do with your antipathy towards Peter Bogdanovich.
DUMAS: Oh, yeah, almost certainly.
HAYNES: Well, there's something to think about. Also, I know you don't like Truffaut either.
DUMAS: That's right. Terrible director. Disastrously overvalued.
HAYNES: And yet it's clear that Truffaut's version of "Hitchcock" is central to De Palma's own understanding of him – he confesses as much in Greetings, doesn't he?
DUMAS: Oh, sure. But you could also argue that Truffaut himself doesn't really have much idea of what Hitchcock's about on a technical level. You look at something like The Bride Wore Black and you don't see much evidence, or any evidence really, that Truffaut actually understood a single thing about the manifest technique that you see in your average Hitchcock film. And conversely, it's clear that De Palma understands what's at stake with Hitchcock's technique far better than most scholars.
HAYNES: What about the people who will hear about your book, or encounter it in a store or whatever, and who then assume that it's an argument for De Palma as a "great director"? You raise the "great director" question in order to neutralize it, I think –
DUMAS: Yes, exactly, to neutralize it.
HAYNES: And yet most readers might still see the book as offering that kind of argument.
DUMAS: Yes, it's inevitable. Film scholars who spend more than five minutes with it will probably recognize that it's actually a book about American politics, but whenever I describe it to family and friends outside the discipline, they always assume that it's some kind of celebratory book, maybe hagiographical – "Why I Love Brian De Palma, a monograph by Chris Dumas!" And of course that's not the book I've written. I mean, I do think that films like Blow Out and Body Double are important films, central films to the understanding of the Reagan era, films you can't ignore, some of them masterpieces I think, but again, it's not really a book about De Palma, it's a book about Film Studies as an American institution that uses De Palma as a focal point or case study. I'm definitely not trying to say that De Palma is a Tarkovsky figure or anything like that – although I'm not trying to shut down that idea, either. I'm just trying to get De Palma out from under all the received wisdom that the last generation of film scholars have piled on top of him. That's how it's the opposite of the [Eval] Peretz book ["Becoming Visionary," Stanford University Press 2006], which wants to convince you that De Palma is the equivalent of Carl Theodor Dreyer. I mean, why would you want to convince anyone of that? I don't think De Palma himself would make that kind of claim. Polanski, maybe, but Dreyer? Or Murnau? You've really got your priorities turned around if that's the kind of argument you're driven to make.
HAYNES: And again, I've got to push back against that. I agree that the Peretz book maybe isn't the greatest, but there are correspondences with your book – first of all, he's trying to write his way out of the same disciplinary impasse, and he's trying to find a new way to do theory with images. Now, he's not as polemical as you are, and he's coming out of a Comp Lit background, but I'd say that an implicit argument in his book is that you can't do this anymore with Dreyer, because that would be a disciplinary cliché –
HAYNES: Because from the very beginning, Dreyer has been a constant touchstone for Film Studies when it tries to ask philosophical questions, along with Bresson and whomever and, say, Malick and Haneke these days. So when Peretz tries to position De Palma in that lineage, he's asserting that De Palma isn't just political, but quote-unquote "visionary." Peretz may not do justice to De Palma as quasi-object, but that's not his project, is it? He begins with the assumption that there's always been more to De Palma than meets the eye, then goes directly into close readings.
DUMAS: Right. Yes, you're correct, that's not his project; he basically says exactly that, that he didn't set out to write a book about the De Palma controversy. I guess my objection is that, when you read the Peretz book, there's nothing about it that really connects with the De Palma I know; it really does sound like he's talking about Stan Brakhage or some other abstract filmmaker, and all the contexts that De Palma's cinema occurs in, the unrest of the 60's and the conservative rollbacks of the 1980's, all of that just disappears, and you get this very abstract consideration of eyes and looking and subjectivity. It seems that that's the only way that Film Studies could actually get behind De Palma, to drain away everything that makes his movies upsetting – the Stanley Cavell move, which I really don't find very useful. I mean, you could do that with Hal Needham.
HAYNES: Could you?
DUMAS: Sure, couldn't you? The climax of Hooper as an exploration of subjectivity. Or you could do a Stephen Heath-type close reading, with diagrams.
HAYNES: I want to ask you about James Schamus's observation in his blurb, about the Oedipality of the book, or its love-hate with Film Studies. You've written an extremely polemical book, one which will make a lot of scholars extremely uncomfortable – a professionally dangerous book, in other words. Yet it's also fixated on the "discipline" to a greater degree than any other Film Studies book I can think of, including "Reinventing Film Studies," which you cite.
DUMAS: Sure, I guess "fixated" is the right word. I don't mind being a little bit pathologized.
HAYNES: And few contemporary scholars, especially the younger ones, seem to be interested in the quote-unquote "discipline" itself beyond their place within it. I'd say this is even more pronounced as the rhetoric of professionalization overtakes humanities departments. And those that do think about the discipline as a whole tend to think in terms of trends, like – what are film and media scholars thinking about now? Or in terms of institutional pressures, like how can we incorporate production into our classrooms so that we're training our students for the workforce? Whereas you talk about film studies as though it has or had some kind of sacred mandate.
DUMAS: Sacred mandate, yes, that's true. Well, this is a very non-professionalization kind of statement to make, but yes, to me the cinema is a church, and when people stomp around in it like it's a tourist attraction, like Fisherman's Wharf, I can get a little reactive. I know that scholars of literature can feel the same way. That's why the scientistic approach rankles me so much. Now, I do think that anyone who wants to teach the cinema had better know not only how the industry works, but also they had better know how eyeline matches work, what lighting's all about, and so on. And you really, really need to have a sense of twentieth-century history. As for the professionalization problem – well, let's face it, the vast majority of people who go through film school expecting to work in the industry, they won't get in. How many working film directors can there be at any one time? Two hundred?
HAYNES: In the USA, you mean.
DUMAS: Yes, in the USA. Even with YouTube. So if I had to stand up in front of students and justify the real-world utility of a Film Studies major, I'd say, "okay, maybe if you want to be in the industry you can bust your ass and end up as an assistant in the marketing department for Pixar. Maybe you'll even get health insurance. But we're moving into a service economy, and most of you will end up working at Wal-Mart, and the way that Film Studies will be useful to you will be when you try to pick up someone in a bar, you'll have something to talk about, because everybody likes to talk about movies."
HAYNES: I don't think students would find that logic very appealing.
DUMAS: Well, but that's how it is, isn't it? If I'm trying to pick up a dude in a bar and he says that his favorite film is The Shawshank Redemption, that's the easiest way for me to know in advance that there won't be a second date. And I suspect that little gradations of aesthetic judgment like that are the primary way that Film Studies, as a discipline, has a real-world impact, right? "Oh, not only is this chick hot, but she knows who Humphrey Bogart is!" I'd say that Film Studies, at least as an undergraduate major, is best approached as a way to learn how to use your valuable leisure time when you're not working the cash register.
HAYNES: So the political aspect of Film Studies has no impact on undergraduates?
DUMAS: I don't know. Truly, I don't know. We could run a survey. How about that? We'll track only those persons who actually majored in Film Studies, ten years later, after graduation. "Question number three: I often think about the concept of the male gaze when watching cable television, true or false." Correlated with income, gender, and voting patterns. We'll see how many of them are now working in the banking industry and whether their time in Film Studies did, in fact, make them progressive voters.
HAYNES: I agree that the specificities of the quote-unquote "political" are one of the aporias of the discipline. Here's another I want to ask you about – I suppose it's related. This has to do with Godard, whom you argue is a sort of avatar for Film Studies, or perhaps once was.
DUMAS: Yes, we [film scholars] identify with him.
HAYNES: But for scholars who take their cues from Godard now, right now – the problem with De Palma is that he's been popular. Why give him any more attention?
DUMAS: Popular, in that he makes movies for a popular audience?
HAYNES: Exactly, that he aims for the multiplex. I tend to identify most
with this group, the scholars who are suspicious of the discipline's 'pop
culture' orientation and wonder why great contemporary films and directors
like Jia Zhangke and the Dardennes aren't getting more attention…
DUMAS: The decline of interest in modernism, I guess you'd call it, yes, that's a serious loss. When I was an undergraduate, twenty-odd years ago, you absolutely couldn't write a paper unless it was about Antonioni; if you wanted to write about Burt Reynolds or something, the prof would roll his or her eyes. Or only popular cinema if it was at least 25 years old, like Stella Dallas. Now we have the opposite problem. When I was in grad school, everyone was screening The Matrix in their Intro to Film classes, maybe in an attempt to bridge some kind of gap or to speak in a language their students could understand, and they're afraid to show difficult cinema, because they've got to keep their classes full. Yeah, it's a serious problem. Enslaved to the culture industry – that's exactly it.
HAYNES: Or perhaps could it be that the 1950s Cahiers gesture, to claim that pop culture like Mission Impossible is authored, remains the most powerful device in the film studies kit? And if so, why?
DUMAS: Well, the harder you kill the author, the more insistent the author's return. Yes, of course it remains the most powerful weapon in the arsenal. That's because Film Studies was born out of literary preoccupations, and remains so. I don't know that's necessarily a bad thing.
HAYNES: So will it become possible to write about Jia Zhangke the way Cahiers used to write about Mizoguchi – as an auteur, as opposed to as an emblem of contemporary China?
DUMAS: Well, now you're moving into questions of globalization and contemporary cinema, and I can't follow you there – or won't follow you there, more accurately. I don't really watch 21st-century movies, maybe because I don't much like 21st-century reality. But I'd guess that the impulse to see films as authored texts won't die, indeed it'll remain primary. Maybe if you found someone who used Zhangke's work in an intro class, you could then compare it to someone teaching an intermediate course on Chinese cinema, and maybe there would be differences in the way the text gets contextualized. But truly, I don't know. I have no idea what'll happen in the discipline in the next twenty years. I have a feeling it won't be pretty.
HAYNES: Well, along those lines, what's strange to me is that I know your next book is going to be a fairly traditional Film Studies text of the 1970's variety, in the sense that it's not an auteurist work but a Screen-style use of psychoanalysis.
DUMAS: Weird, isn't it? Yes, it's a throwback to the heyday of grand theory, Reagan-era style. At this point, it's called "Dreams From My Anal Father," and it's going to look at a series of American films from 1940 to 1968, from the Reagan movie Kings Row to some of the Jerry Lewis stuff from the 60's, and it's centered on 1953, the year of Robot Monster and The Five Thousand Fingers of Doctor T and Invaders From Mars and Glen or Glenda and so on. It's part of an attempt to find a new way to use Freudian methodology to study culture, or if not a new way, then a more coherent or less contradictory way.
HAYNES: It's definitely not kosher these days, the insistence on psychoanalysis.
DUMAS: But if you're working on culture, you can't avoid Freud, you just can't. You absolutely have to deal with the fact that culture consists entirely of shared fantasies. Now, if the Bordwell clot of scholars is right about one thing – and actually, they're right about two things – it's that we've spent a lot of time, way too much time thinking about spectatorship, when there's not really any way to quantify what happens when people watch movies. I know surveys aren't much in fashion these days, but still – what's the point of running a survey and discovering what a group of middle-class teenagers in Iowa City was thinking when they were watching American Pie, Part 11? Especially if you're not asking about whether or not they're stoned. We should obliterate the sociological impulse – it gives us nothing.
HAYNES: What's the other thing they're right about?
DUMAS: The Bordwellians? The other thing they're right about is that, during the years of Screen-style theory, there wasn't enough history; scholars were writing about movies as text objects without any sense at all of how movies get made or what the conditions are for the industry itself to exist. As if, say, Gilda just erupted out of some neurotic's head like a symptom. Yes, you have to use psychoanalysis, but you can't do that if you don't know the patient's history. Movies have back stories and industrial conditions of possibility, and you have to deal with that, and the Bordwellians are right in that, if you don't historicize, you're just masturbating.
HAYNES: A balance of theory and history.
DUMAS: A balance, yeah, exactly. One has to theorize and speculate, but one must also put things in context, multiple contexts. There's no one way to do film study – there are forty dozen ways, and if anything, one has to do all of them at once.
Jonathan Haynes is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Haynes, Chris Dumas, and Chris Labarthe comprise the San Francisco Brian De Palma Theory Collective.
Copyright 2012 by Jonathan Haynes. Used by permission.