What follows is a longer than usual and more personal than usual post about the reasons why I left my academic career in film studies. The content of this post has been brewing for years, in a limbo of not knowing until now how to write it down. It’s helped me a great deal to commit this to words, and posting marks a definite feeling of moving on. It may not, however, be of general interest to readers of ‘The Place Between Stories’, so I thought to let you know what’s coming so you can decide whether to read on or not.
Several years ago, when I still did what I used to do, I attended a talk by the English underground filmmaker Peter Whitehead. Best known for depicting the insider dynamics of the 1960s counterculture, in films like Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and The Fall, Whitehead, a polished raconteur, told of how his life became progressively consumed by his filmmaking. He reached a point where he found it impossible to be in any situation, any relationship, without the lens of a movie camera interposing itself, literally or in imagination, between himself and wherever, or with whomever, he was. Whitehead’s way out of this cul-de-sac was to become a falconer, a discipline which demanded of him a direct, immediate, camera-less connection with the birds he was training.
Several nights ago, from the thick of waking thoughts about whether and how I should finally write this post, I dreamt I was in an imaginary Hitchcock film. Close-ups, compulsively manipulated suspense and James Stewart, one of Hitchcock’s iconic lead actors, were all present. In the course of investigating something or other where he was not supposed to be, the Stewart character was blinded, when his eyes accidentally crossed the path of a laser. With great reluctance, I was forced to remain in an old, echoing mansion, and look after the blind man.
This post has been writing itself on and off in my head, and sometimes in words that I’ve quickly abandoned as not the right ones, since soon after I left my academic job as a lecturer in film studies, coming up to four years ago now. I naturally want to make some sense to myself as to why I wound up in that particular career and why I decided I had to leave it, but I’m torn about sharing my findings. The impulse to make some public, definitive declaration wrestles with the worry that my reasons and justifications are too personal, too extreme, too general and hysterical, to be of interest or use to anyone else. The idea and need to write this post have persisted, though, shifting shape and emphasis until here now I find a way forward into words that will do, if only to spell out a line that I can draw underneath what I used to do and its residues, and in some way, perhaps, have done with it.
The reasons why I left academia and stopped teaching film studies are several, and complicated, and intertwined. Some were personal: burning out, falling ill, hitting a professional plateau, feeling more and more like I was on the wrong track in life. Some were about having had enough of the intrusive, obstructive, managerialist culture of English universities in general, and the one I was working at in particular, and being fortunate enough to be in a position to quit. But a deeper and more inadmissible reason for leaving was that I completely lost faith in film. I was nagged by the kinds of questions, doubts and suspicions that go beyond the pale, the ones that violate the agreed rules of engagement.
Most of my animus was with contemporary cinema, a weary revulsion against constantly over-sold expectations of vitality, originality and cultural significance that the films I dutifully watched rarely, if ever, came anywhere close to fulfilling. Although this wasn’t something I would openly confess, or expect to withstand close intellectual scrutiny, I felt persist in me a belief that film was in terminal decline, having peaked in social and aesthetic significance around the middle two quarters of the 20th century, and that I’d finally stopped buying into special pleading on behalf of this or that exceptional director or landmark movie or brief talked-up flurry of renaissance. The hermetic world of international film culture – we filmmakers, distributors, marketers, festival programmers, critics, reviewers, cinephiles, specialist magazine editors, teachers, film scholars – came to seem to me just a mammoth conspiracy, all pretending that the emperor is sporting some jaunty number which he is not.
I see some explanation for my disillusionment in the fact that I basically wasn’t a native lover of cinema in the way that many of my colleagues and students were. Looking back to my teens, when I came by instinct to the things that fired me, films had virtually no significance. Yes, a few uncanny late night voyages with BBC2 into classic horror, and the troublingly adult emotional and sexual arena of European art films, did have quite a profound effect – one that when I hit the doldrums in film studies I’d keep harking back to, trying to recapture – but my formative world aged fourteen, fifteen, sixteen was all about literature, new wave music, modern art, and the shadowy brush of spiritual yearning. I came to cinema in my late twenties, on a detour back to the source of the critical visual theory I’d picked up fragments of during my first two degrees in art history, theory which was heavily informed by the celebration (or fetishisation) and analysis of film. So my attachment to film was always, on balance, and despite a tidy clutch of films that I genuinely adore, based more on intellectual aspiration than true love. This is doubtless one of the reasons why I persistently felt like a pretender teaching film studies, and why my repeatedly-aroused and repeatedly-disappointed film-going, videotape-accumulating and DVD-buying habits were always tainted by the hollow compulsions of addiction and consumerism. Just one more must-see documentary, one more National Film Theatre retrospective, one more DVD purchase, and that will be ‘the one’ and I will get it, and finally be replete at home in love with film in the way that the others are.
‘Each deed you do’, observes Ursula Le Guin, ‘each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again.’ This binding by repeated acts creates convoluted consequences, which, at least in my experience, are impossible to undo by any clean stroke of the will. Not least because they are never straightforwardly negative. Until the submerged half-recognition that I was on the wrong track worked itself loose and to the surface, I was good at my job, grateful to have it, and will die proud of what I learned and achieved by doing it. My binding record of success, though, only sharpens my need to distance myself from some (not all) of my old colleagues and associates, those who still from time to time – though thankfully this happens rarely now – drop me a line and ask or invite me to do something, in tone as if everything’s the same, our shared devotion to cinema is still intact, and I’m fixed securely in the mould they once knew me by. I can’t say I blame them; only that I’m not going to reach back across the distance now, and that I wish I could find in myself more gracious and decisive ways to express that refusal.
The ingrained habit of repeatedly faking a passion for film that deep down I didn’t really feel, affects to this day my ability simply to watch and enjoy films. Still the anxious flutter of over-inflated expectations, followed by inevitable let-down. Books are different, books I’ve managed to extricate from the bottomless tangle of scholarly obligation, by following my own nose as to what to read, and occasionally stumbling into grails of sheer breath-holding, page-turning pleasure. But with movies, I still can’t distinguish between what I want to watch and what I think ought to be watching, can’t get away from the internalised pressure of needing to have a fully-formed critical and analytical opinion in place by the time the credits roll, can’t shake off the tang of disappointment that once again this film is not the one that I have been waiting all my life for.
I’m painfully aware too that film never satisfies me because I allowed serial film-watching, and the controlled stance of film analysis and scholarship, to fill in the space of my own direct creative urges: those disreputable, terrible mysteries that I would not, could not permit myself. Although I’ve yet to uncover any thwarted desire to be a filmmaker – and never cease to be amazed at my remarkable capacities for self-deception, when it comes to noticing what I do actually want – somewhere in back of awareness I’m always waving a fearsome-looking gauntlet at myself that has ‘writer’ and ‘artist’ printed on it. Film, though, is such a seductive medium of displacement. Sometimes it’s as if (or at least if you believe the marketing blurb), films shift the world on its axis all by themselves, or by virtue of audiences showing up to pay and watch them. I kept myself going for years on the friable belief that I was really achieving something, making things happen in the world, just by watching films and more films; a delusion especially pernicious because a lot of the films I prided myself on watching were documentaries about serious contemporary issues. As well as substituting for my creativity, film-viewing was my escape into phantom concerned citizenship. So another reason why I remain averse to seeing films – even and especially really good, considered documentaries and other engaged films about serious contemporary issues – is my susceptibility to that habit of displacement. I’d rather create something, however humble, or do nothing, however futile, than go to the cinema, and let sitting immobile in the dark for a couple of hours staring up at a screen allow me to pretend otherwise.
Shortly after I left my job I stumbled on the Dark Mountain Project, and into a head-on consideration of the multiplying ecological, economic, and cultural crises of civilization, and the hard realities of modern extractive societies heading into decline. My disillusion with film became heightened and inflected by considerations of long-term ecological sustainability, peak resources, and cultural complicity in denial. My doubts extended to the huge expenditure of resources that making film demands, all that it takes in raw materials, money, energy, labour and time to realise a vision on a screen; whether all this was ever really worth it, and whether in the longer term film as a medium could – or deserved to – survive the coming global upheavals and contractions.
This further extreme is the juncture where, I hazard, my personal crisis of faith in film patches into a much larger sense of intense cultural dislocation. I’ve come gradually to sense that being periodically assailed by irrational assertions and absolutes, although I’m ashamed to find it happening to me, and can list all the objections whenever my internal railing kicks off, is part and parcel of this crisis. Vicious, ill-informed polarization increasingly seems to have the upper hand in public discourse, seeming always to be more visible and to have more persuasive power than measured, reflective, curious and compassionate voices. This is certainly something to fear the consequences of and actively to oppose, but I wonder whether it’s also symptomatic of a much deeper fracturing, which can’t simply be cured by counter-argument, and that beckons for some other way into understanding.
As time has gone on, I’ve managed to arrive at a kinder, more realistic, sense of film as a medium in small t-transition, like so much else that is the entangled legacy of our extractive civilization. If in the long, hard overview, film as we’ve known it over the course of the twentieth century is probably unsustainable, in the short, implicated view – the place from where most of us have to negotiate the world in which we currently find ourselves – it can still be used to make a difference. Film can bear witness to the desperate realities breaking through the ever-widening cracks in the veneer that masks corrupt power and runaway exploitation, it can bring forth the shapes, colours, textures and possibilities of radically new ways of being in the world.
But there’s no going back. At one level, that’s just my personal decision: to draw a line under my former attachment to film, not to give it much in the way of my energy and attention any more, not to make exceptions on a case-by-case basis, for all the reasons aired here, and probably others that I can’t yet articulate, for at least as much future as I can foresee. At another level, no-one can un-ask the questions that lie beyond the pale once they’ve asked them. I can’t shake off some crazy inkling that there are filmmakers out there who do their work in full light of the kinds of absolute doubts and suspicions that assailed me, and that they’re doing something very different with that light from the filmmakers who maybe sense those questions exist but don’t want to go near them – or only in a token way, like a government consultation exercise – because they get in the way of what they are here to do.
Every summer that I’ve been in Berlin, I spend time watching the swifts, who pass all day scything the air above the courtyard of the apartment building where I live. I’ve learned to be less startled by sudden whooshes as they fly low as dive bombers over the roof, and how to pick the metallic scream of their calls in the high ether out of the tapestry of evening bird song, some of which I recognise and some not. As I get lost sat watching them, there’s usually an evening breeze brushing my skin, the generous taste of cold beer in my mouth, and the background unfolding of a burnished sunset, of which there will be only one exactly like that in all of time.
Even if I was a filmmaker, I wouldn’t be able to record all the intricacy and fullness of this everyday scene, as it reaches me through the particular filter of my human senses, this experience so ordinary that I have to prod myself not to take it for granted. I wonder whether if I was a filmmaker, I’d still be tempted to try. My persistence in watching the swifts is an answer of a kind to one of the deepest questions I hold out towards film. I’d like to say that it’s not so much an answer as Rilke’s famous ‘living the question’, but I’m not sure I can claim that much. I know though that the answer keeps shifting, and that the question leads back to the fate of Peter Whitehead. It asks me how much time I spend being sufficient where I am, using only the resources of my own senses to reach out and meet the world around me, without the impulse to place a camera between me and here in order to mediate and record, and how much time I’m in front of screens that draw my attention to sounds and images of elsewhere and elsewhen, and towards a need to make those kinds of records myself – in my case, through photography rather than film. This isn’t a question with a simplistic good/bad answer built into it; at least for me, it’s about reflecting on where I place enough time and attention, and which act I see as primary, and what kind of a human being I’m becoming when I decide that for now, I’d rather watch the swifts outside my back door, and learn how to pay closer attention to all that is present, than rent a movie about penguins. This is no judgement on those who’d prefer the movie, or the people who cherish their local bird life all the stronger for having watched the penguins on screen, and vice versa. But I’d become blind to something from spending all those years in the dark, staring up at a place where a thin beam of light spreads out to project an image bigger than me that was not mine, and where perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be in the first place.
Reluctant as I am to admit it, that part of me, for better and worse, will never be the same again. The lines that I draw blind will probably never stay put. But still I can come back to life, and look after.