Theory and Practice at the Crossroads

By Clive Myer

Reports from a path-breaking assembly

Beyond the Theory of Practice (19-22 November 2003, Cardiff Screen Festival) was convened as the third in the CILECT* series of conferences investigating the role of theory in the teaching of practice at film schools. Amongst some 30 interrogative papers, keynote speakers included Noel Burch (video paper), Peter Wollen, Rod Stoneman, Patrick Fuery, Brian Winston and Laura Mulvey. The event was a milestone in recognizing the fracture between the teaching of theory and practice in film schools.

Theoretical practice, the space occupied by the production of critical practice, has often been misunderstood as the equivalent of the teaching of film history or film studies alongside craft teaching of various screen practices. Over the past 30 years, the growth of cultural studies within the universal consumer-based social democratic environment has signalled a shift in the role and meaning of film education globally.

It is no longer only within the privileged realm of the film school that issues of representation are discussed or that artefacts of moving image enquiry are produced and circulated. There are important issues at stake here regarding the relationship between the film industry and film education.**

Within the more singularly product-based context of the film school we have seen a relentless movement towards the displacement of the relevance of theory and its implications for practice and, in some academic institutions, film theory’s almost blind ignorance of the potential of practice itself as the site of philosophical progress. At this conference, some of the leading exponents of earlier debates around film praxis came together with a new generation of thinkers and makers to open new discussions on why, how and where these now pluralistic politics of practice might impact. What follows is an open letter – asking why issues of form have now become issues of content – and addressed to Noel Burch (film historian, film-maker and author, Theory of Film Practice), whose video paper, edited down from a long interview conducted in Paris, served as the introductory keynote to the conference.

Dear Noel,

It has been almost 30 years since we held a conference like this. Back then, it was you who distinguished between Avant-Garde and Vanguard, and what then, for you, might have been weapons have now become toys, but toys that are no longer cared for. At the 1975 RCA conference ‘Art/Politics/Theory/Practice’, you presented such a paper (later published in Afterimage vol. 6, Summer 1976). There you surmised that such radical writers and painters as Shaw and Courbet fell into the same trap as the Russian Social Realists, engendering a false security within naturalism and populism. You identified the problematic, of the illusion of an equivalence between sign and referent, with the corrective that,

“for modern art, the work is not expression but creation: it presents to us that which was not seen before it, it forms rather than reflects.”

This emphasis on form and structure as the determining factor for the production and reading of meaning did, in itself, produce a polarisation between the work of the film structuralists and the so-called deconstructionists, and you invoked this difference as a political one, pre-empting your present position, in taking to task “the idealism of the avant-garde in its failure to recognize the Unconscious or the work of ideology. Vanguard work on the other hand must do work on the infra- and super-structures of ideology where produced as ‘natural’.”

During the past 25 years, the globalizing effect of social democracy has shifted the terms of reference and your position has reversed to give primacy to the place of content over form, albeit to contextualize that within the framework of political feminism.

However, to posit this perspective, in favour of maximum media distribution (television, popular cinema), against the continued exploration of form, content and context within an aesthetic framework, may make sense on the one hand, but may also create unnecessary walls on the other. Your proposition that ‘art is dead’ is understandable in reviewing the total recuperation of radical artistic practices within the past three decades. However, your notion that we were wrong about Brecht or that Mulvey was wrong about the gaze can only stand if we accept the presupposition that the conditions of radical transformation (of society) existed within the ethos of the space occupied by art, its institutions and its reception.

We did after all know that this incorporation was coming, which should have been of no surprise to us. At the conference I was initially concerned that the focus was too broad – Peter Wollen took us back to Kuleshov and Eisenstein, ending fitfully with 12 quotations on praxis; Rod Stoneman showered us with his 30 year journey of conflictual encounter... Then I realized that in this void of dark matter between theory and practice, partly of our own creation within the institutional acquiescence in which we reside, lies a bubble of latent energy – call it post-Deleuzian pluralism in the act of becoming, or what you will; and we were there with pin in hand at the threshold of what Terry Eagleton refers to as the end of postmodernism, throwing his gauntlet to cultural studies to chance its arm in new exploration.

By the second day, after Patrick Fuery had delighted us with the theory of the sublime and the notion of resistance infiltrating the space between theory and practice, a new sense of what it might be like to break from received orthodoxy emanated. Brian Winston and others examined documentary while some described models of praxis in Scottish and Indian film schools. Other international contributions added to the feeling that the broad issues necessarily raised could, with further conferences on the horizon (CILECT Theory for Practice 4, Helsinki, May 2004), begin to articulate the moment and lay down ways of riding the storm of the new global ideology.

We began to think that we had re-evaluated representation in its entirety but, of course, this was merely a (re)birthing euphoria. Animation, television and new media were under the glass, but it took Laura Mulvey’s closing paper to reassess our own reprocessing, to consider that, through the inclusivity of the history of cinema and its archival residue, we could begin to re-engage in an epistemological process of reflection, to prepare for the institutionalized and homogenised ideological onslaught still to come.

Your conclusion, Noel, is no longer to chase form, but to chase and change context. This of course is an admirable direction but not one that can be taken on its own by the filmmaker. As film schools expand, our attention to the theory of practice must expand with them, albeit in new and repoliticised directions. As we get closer to a recognition of the similitude of theory and practice, we also get closer to the discovery of the philosophical impact of practice. We owe it to the new generation of filmmakers.

Clive Myer is Director of the Film Academy, University of Glamorgan and convened ‘BEYOND the Theory of Practice’.

* Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinema et de Television; Abstracts, articles and information on forthcoming publications regarding the conference can be acquired at

** See Vertigo - Volume 2 - Issue 5 (Summer 2003) for a report on the Cambridge Film Festival/Vertigo Independent Film Parliament.