Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2010

Dropping a film class at Columbia University

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 6:01 pm

jane-gainesJane Gaines

Last Monday night I decided to drop a film documentary class I had been taking at Columbia after getting my first assignment back from Jane Gaines, the professor. I had completely forgotten how bad a reaction I have to getting papers graded or critiqued.

The first assignment was to define “what is documentary” in a half-page, single-spaced, mine is below. My frustration with the class had a lot to do with this assignment. How do you answer something like that in what amounted to a quarter of a page? After she gave us the assignment, she grinned and said that it would be a real challenge to stay within that limit. I don’t know. I found that it undermined my thought process. But then again, I probably write 10,000 words a month so I am not typical.

Just three months short of my 66th birthday, the last thing I needed was to go through the humiliating experience of a professor giving me a C, or in this instance reading her criticisms all over my submission no matter how well-intended. I was flabbergasted by her insistence that I use the term “motion picture” instead of “movie”. I used that term deliberately for the same reason that Harvey Pekar once told me he preferred the term comic book to graphic novel. Who needs that kind of snobbery? After all, if David Bordwell, one of the top film scholars in the world, can title a book “The way Hollywood tells it: story and style in modern movies”, then why should Gaines object? Of course, professors are the final arbiters in such matters just as my project manager at work is the final arbiter of how I do my work. At least in that case, I am getting paid for my troubles.

It is not just classes that I have taken at Columbia that present such a problem. A few years ago, I finally resolved not to submit articles to leftist academic journals since I resented going through the process of peer review. My last experience with RRPE, the URPE journal, was particularly off-putting. I was told by one of the peer reviewers that an article about Max Frankel’s book on the Cuban missile crisis would be enhanced by the perspective found in a Socialist Workers Party book on Cuba. Who needs that shit, even if it came from a tenured professor at the U. of California?

I had mixed feelings about the class to begin with. I was far more interested in a workshop on making documentaries in the spring term, but Gaines’s class was a prerequisite. I decided that it was worth my time since at least I would be getting what I expected to be a survey on documentaries going back to the days of Auguste and Louis Lumière, who invented the genre. I also hoped that she would point out what “worked” in documentaries and what did not.

My interest in this was not academic. After retiring in a couple of years, I hope to do some of my own work on subjects that matter a lot to me, including a project that would involve interviewing ex-SWP’ers. About 5 years ago I collaborated with an old friend of mine from the SWP who was videotaping Trotskyists who had been active in the 30s and 40s. I opened doors for him to a group of Cochranites, whose viewpoint obviously meshes with my own.

It took me approximately three weeks to figure out where Gaines was going in this class and by the fourth week I was ready to drop it, even if I hadn’t been the unhappy recipient of her comments on my assignment. The assignment itself should have been a tip-off that we were on different tracks.  For me, “What is a documentary?” is a question with very little interest. After having reviewed over 100 documentaries on Rotten Tomatoes over the past decade or so, it never entered my mind that this was worth considering. As it turns out, this is a major concern of academics doing what they call film theory.

Now, based on her course’s description on the Columbia website, you would think that we’d have a similar take on things:

Film MA/MFA: The Documentary Tradition

Jane Gaines, Professor

This core of this course is the radical tradition in documentary, with special emphasis on the U.S. 1930s in New York (The Film and Photo League, Nykino).

The historical approach begins by asking whether the Lumière actualité is or is not the precursor of what has become the PBS style documentary. Students think about the theory and practice of social change media, beginning with the 1920s Soviet Socialist tradition (Dziga Vertov), the British Empire Marketing Board (John Grierson), the French cinéma vérité (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin) and the National Film Board of Canada, internationalized with focus on China and Iran, updated with the question of documentary footage on YouTube. A feature of the course is the challenge to the definition of “reality” posed by the contemporary faux doc or “mockumentary” as well as documentary work that is both fiction and not what we would call “fiction.”

If you google “Jane Gaines” and “Marxism”, you’ll get 1,750 hits. From a cursory glance, you’d think that you were dealing with a hard-core commie. But on closer examination, you begin to learn that her Marxism is the sort of thing you hear at academic conferences and read in journals read geared to other academics. For example, in an article titled Women and representation that she wrote for Jump Cut, a leftist film magazine, she sets down her agenda. The key sentence in this excerpt is italicized:

Camera movement, continuity editing, framing, narrative unity, spectator point of view, and the spectacle of woman are all analyzed in feminist counter-cinema. In theory this is a continuation of Godard’s project to combat ideological forms with film form. Counter-cinema also borrows from Brecht’s idea that annihilating pleasure and identification can effect critical distance and ultimately a change of consciousness in the theatrical audience. The final “test” of counter-cinema has to do with whether the film shows that what we are seeing is shaped by cinematic form and that beyond the experience of the film, there is no such thing as unmediated reality to know.

Leftist filmmaking will find drawbacks to this approach. First of all, this is a very difficult concept to grasp. Those of us who eat, sleep and breathe political theories of representation, who have made the politics of meaning our life’s work, are not always aware of the degree to which our own consciousness is shaped by words, images, or other signifying material. Are we asking too much of a film text if we expect it to effect change on its own, especially if it is seen out of the context of political organizing and education efforts? Second, why should a film which considers its own signification process necessarily have to require its audiences to know advanced film theory in order for them to enjoy, appreciate and, hopefully, reflect on what they see?

The tip-off is “political theories of representation”. This should let the reader know that we have crossed over into the rarefied territory of Saussure, Barthes, Derrida and Gayatri-Spivak. Professor Gaines is mainly interested in how film documentaries represent the world, not in the world itself.

Let me illustrate. In my post on the movie “Catfish”, I first articulated my disaffection with her approach. You’ll note that I describe her as a good professor. Momentarily, I will explain why I would revise that opinion:

In my class, there is a preoccupation with the question of what a documentary is meant to do. The professor, a very good one indeed, has selected readings and classroom screenings that stress the ambivalence of the filmed image. Two weeks ago we watched the Zapruder film, a paradigm of multiple interpretations. My guess is that this area of investigation dovetails neatly with the remaining influence of postmodernism in the academy, particularly strong at a place like Columbia.

It even extends to films that would appear to have little to do with something like Capturing the Friedmans. A recent class was focused on agitprop movies from the 1930s, including a remarkable Belgian film by Joris Ivens and Henri Storck called Misery in the Borinage that called attention to the miserable working and living conditions of the working class. In one scene that the professor highlighted, we see cops attacking a picket line in front of a factory. We learned from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary that Ivens and Storck had workers reenact the original incident using themselves in the role of cops. “Aha”, she said, “how real can the movie be when the workers are dressed up as cops?”

I found this question a lot less interesting than what kind of message Ivens and Storck were seeking to deliver and what their political affiliations were. But then again, I am the unrepentant Marxist.

With such doubts already present in my mind at the beginning of Monday’s class, I was ready to drop the class almost immediately after getting my assignment returned to me. But I decided to stick around for the rest of the class, as long as I was there.

Two things occurred that lowered my estimate of Gaines as a teacher. She tended to treat Columbia students in a belittling manner all along, a liberty she presumably enjoyed as a tenured faculty member. (My untenured wife is loath to tell a student to turn off his cell phone for fear that he would retaliate in a student evaluation.) But last Monday it really struck me how mean she can be. The class starts at 6pm and goes to 9:45, a function of the complete film screening that takes place in each session. So students obviously get hungry. Around 6:30 she spotted a student eating some granola and walked up to her during the lecture and said, “Our rule here is that if you bring something to eat in this class, you have to bring enough for everybody else.” That was typical behavior, but even worse would follow.

Gaines switches between Powerpoint and film excerpts throughout her lectures. Last Monday after she was illustrating some point about “representation” through an excerpt of a movie about a mentally ill woman made by her daughter, the teaching assistant did not switch back to the Powerpoint slides immediately. Gaines waited for a few seconds and then upbraided the TA in full view of the class using the tone of voice you associate with a woman complaining about her maid—good help is hard to find nowadays.

I have no idea what makes these high-falutin’ post-Marxist film theorists tick. Her behavior reminded me of how another celebrity leftist academic treated his students:

Zizek has developed an elaborate set of psychological tricks to manipulate his American students and enable him to have as little contact with them as possible. At the first meeting of each course, he announces that all students will get an A and should write a final paper only if they want to. “I terrorize them by creating a situation where they have no excuse for giving me a paper unless they think it is really good. This scares them so much, that out of forty students, I will get only a few papers,” he says. “And I get away with this because they attribute it to my ‘European eccentricity.'”

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.

From “Enjoy Your Zizek! An Excitable Slovenian Philosopher Examines The Obscene Practices Of Everyday Life — Including His Own

By Robert S. Boynton in the October 1998 Lingua Franca


  1. Interesting in a very sad kind of way Lou. Academics are the pits really. The way she assaulted your paper is a typical instance of someone who cannot ignore the allure of the will to power. Having said that I have a Bhaskarian take on reality and you would appear to be working with something like a Kantian model. Now that would be a useful place to begin a dialogue.

    What especially interests me though is the case where a fictional text is truer than a non-fiction text. The example I use is Sebastian Barry’s great novel on the Irish troops in WW1- It’s a long way. The point I make here is that if one wants to understand what it would be like to be a soldier on the Western Front then one reads Barry’s book and not the histories which he references at the back of his novel. In some way Barry’s book is truer.

    The answer maybe lies in the role of imagination. If you take Toibin’s great book Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, its success is due I think to Toibin’s ability to imagine what it would have been like to have been part of Gregory’s coterie and to have seen the starving peasants dying quietly by the wall of the Gregory mansion during the Great Famine, while Lord Gregory was pushing through the legislation to take their land of them if they got public relief. Toibin’s book takes us below the surface of what happened to show us the underlying reality of the social relations that dominated Ireland in the 19th and 20th century. All that makes Toibin’s book a very true text and one worth reading.

    All very interesting and worth exploring in a dialogic manner. As for the mockumentary thing, that is really a very insignificant moment. Just like lies proves there is something known as the truth, mockumentaries prove there is something called a documentary.



    Comment by Gary MacLennan — October 22, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

  2. If you would stick it out for another assignment, you could do a variation of an old students’ trick: turn in a couple of paragraphs from Mao’s talks on literature and art.

    Comment by Charles — October 22, 2010 @ 8:40 pm

  3. That’s one great picture of your prof. Reminds me of the colleague who told me “You can take Mike out of Ford City but you can’t take Ford City out of Mike.” Shit like this just oozed out of her mouth. Her husband was also a colleague. He said that only a handful of people were really capable of grasping the best modern poetry. Both were good liberals.

    I knew a radical history professor who was exceptionally smart and a film scholar too. You wouldn’t believe how he treated the secretaries.

    Michael Yates

    Comment by michael yates — October 22, 2010 @ 9:26 pm

  4. Charles, she has quoted Mao on numerous occasions in her essays for what that’s worth. (Not much.)

    Comment by louisproyect — October 22, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

  5. I was far more interested in a workshop on making documentaries in the spring term, but Gaines’s class was a prerequisite

    Maybe just get the C and continue on to something more interesting.

    I’ve had numerous experiences that are similar. Academia is mostly a horrible way to make a living – despite the perk of being in the ‘eltie’ – and so they have to take their repressed anger out on someone. I’d much rather be a plumber.

    Comment by purple — October 22, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

  6. Repressed anger pretty much describes Jane Gaines.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 22, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

  7. “only one- what about collective work?” Why do they even bother to write this shit? Anyway, always good to read your stuff Louis.

    Comment by sam — October 22, 2010 @ 10:58 pm

  8. Granted, your opening sentence is kind of rambling.

    Comment by Jenny — October 22, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

  9. Jenny, the last person in the world to comment on someone else’s thinking/writing is you.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 22, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  10. You got clocked for the auteur, but she missed the gender statement… she isn’t even a good pedant.

    To get the grades you have to show evidence of subjugating your thoughts to the course readings (her selection) so leave your own thoughts and life experience at the door—it will only pollute the fountain of knowledge.

    Louis, you have been a very naughty boy.

    Comment by HoracioO — October 23, 2010 @ 2:30 am

  11. Louis, you have been a very naughty boy. Hilarious.

    Reading it again one notes that she repeatedly asks for more details, which seems to be at odds with the assignment length.

    Sorry to hear about the cell phone issues. The divide between tenured, and untenured/lecturer is increasingly large.

    Comment by purple — October 23, 2010 @ 4:32 am

  12. @ purple: The divide is *beyond* large. As far as I can tell, the tenured are the bosses of all students, the bosses of the majority faculty that does the classroom teaching.

    Comment by Townsend Harris — October 24, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  13. Nice handwriting, but in the modern education system, markers are strongly discouraged from writing all over students’ work.
    Why hasn’t she gone to the trouble of producing a formative feedback sheet?
    If it contributed to grades, where’s the mark scheme?
    Couldn’t the whole exercise have been conducted on-line too?
    Only university lecturers get away with crap like this.

    Comment by prianikoff — October 24, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  14. Haven’t been in the academy for quite some time, but given the levels of discourse on education that are coming from some of my younger colleagues, it doesn’t sound like I’m missing much. These days, when I think about going back, it’s only about getting some sort of certification so I can continue to teach until I can afford to retire, if ever. And even certification classes are filled with younger students who do not understand why they should challenge themselves to be acquainted with, oh, say, John Dewey. The need to rediscover the wheel drives their every moment. I hate to say this about many of the younger teachers I’m meeting anymore, but it’s true. They don’t have much of a scholar’s curiosity anymore, and way too many of them are waiting for the “education reform” experts to tell them what a scholar’s curiosity is or should be. Nothing makes this so plain as does the acquiesence of so many young people new to the profession to the testing mania that continues to drive the “education reform” discussion, even as the bankruptcy of the high stakes test fetish reveals itself concretely over and over again. Many younger teachers really believe they can magically transcend the limitations imposed by infrastructural collapse if they just write the correct cabbalistic inscription on the presentation board for our “superiors”. It is a sad thing to see young teachers staying at the worksite from can’t see in the morning until can’t see in the evening in order to meet up with the completely arbitrary abstractions of “education reform”. And I only went into all of this, because this is the sort of education that all too many teacher education programs are selling these days- and it sounds like your prof at Columbia is one of those idiots leading the charge.

    Comment by MIchael Hureaux — October 24, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  15. I’m having a similar experience in a humanities class right now. My instructor is vaguely liberal, from one of the toniest suburbs of the metropolis and from a top liberal arts college. I suppose her method comes from what she was taught.

    In class we do a “close line reading” where we simply put into other lines what the author has said – something I find extremely, extremely boring. Any comments on historical, political, economic influences on the work are frowned upon. In my papers such comments are called unnecessary digressions. I put them in my footnotes, but those are frowned on as well. It thus becomes that the author is sealed in a hermetic little world of their own, where they can freely be inspired to create art, whose magnificence we must appreciate – unaffected by political or economic forces or motivations. This is the method that we the student are supposed to be learning is the “right way” to write cultural criticism. At least I am old enough and conscious enough to know this is all BS. Thank god I am majoring in a hard science.

    I have had to take four English classes as a Bachelors requirement. Two teachers seemed to come from working class backgrounds (one was doing construction part-time while teaching classes – he was the best of all four), one came from a wealthy background, one had published books and had a PHd I would guess was middle class. I’d have to say the working class ones with less credentials were much, much better. The other two seemed to have learned a lot of bunk about theory, demanded papers be in that structure and it all came out decontextualized garbage.

    Comment by Adelson Velsky Landis — October 25, 2010 @ 12:10 am

  16. Not being one of your sycophants, allow me to be the one to say that from afar this looks a lot like sour grapes.

    You criticize the professor for being detached from reality but how about you? Are you involved in some major struggles that you’ve forgotten to write about between movie reviews (which by the way aren’t half bad)?

    You criticize her privilege, but aren’t you a professional living in an ultra expensive part of the country?

    You criticize academia, but aren’t you a product of that? Aren’t you a college graduate who works at a prestigious university yourself? Isn’t this article about you taking up college courses in your free time?

    Perhaps what you hate in the professor is what you see in yourself. Or perhaps it’s not so deep, and you just can’t take criticism.

    Comment by Jimbal — October 25, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  17. A non-sycophant’s view: This student enrolled in the wrong course. He makes things–videos, articles and, maybe one day, documentaries. So he wanted to learn how to make a better product. But he found himself being asked to speculate on the nature of the subject. That’s always a detached, i.e., not practical, operation. So he pulled out. I don’t see any academy vs. non-academy conflict. There are surely more practical courses offered elsewhere. Who pays the less rent really doesn’t come into it.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — October 25, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

  18. Yeah, ain’t no sycophantry here. The truth is that modern “scholarship” is encouraging young people to believe that the world begins and ends with their feelings, or the “feelings” or the subjective musings of their author/creator. Hence, a college entry essay in many high schools these days is entirely autobiographical, and demonstrates no academic depth whatsoever. Seminar at my current high school has subject matter that is driven from above, and it is entirely based upon college entrance requirements. Sort of a “socratic seminar” in which only one voice is speaking. If that’s rigor, pass the liquor.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — October 25, 2010 @ 7:02 pm

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