Introductory thoughts: The current state of the film distribution is abysmal. A bizarre taboo has been placed on almost all American film. You can name in a single breath all of the directors who come up with any semblance of regularity. Virtually no one has seen any of the films that do come up, which explains why the questions are always boring and repetitive, and those who wish to learn film for quizbowl understandably do so by writing on the same slender array of answers that quizbowl has adopted into its absurdly restricted canon. Having spoken to many fellow quizbowlers about this, I know that these problems are widely acknowledged, though if I am unaware of a strong conservative viewpoint on this issue, and someone would like to defend the current state of film questions, please do so, as I hope a productive discussion will emerge in response to this post. Currently, due to the fact that the questions are always so insipidly written and the answer selection so uninspired, I get the sense that no active writers are particularly invested in sustaining the status quo, which shows favorably on my current endeavor. Here, I will explicate in greater detail some of the central problems, along with their easily enacted remedies:
1. The distribution, in spite of its excessive focus on foreign film, does not represent foreign film with any degree of adequacy. Fellini, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, and Kurosawa account for over half of all foreign film questions. Obviously film is a small category, but it should not be possible to narrow down every tossup to two or three answers from the first clue. The origins of this particular selection of directors is unknown, but the reason it perseveres is clear: the writer of any given set, knowing that he/she can only write a handful of film questions, usually chooses to write on the most frequent quizbowl answers for the purpose of learning. Thus, few writers of academic film questions have seen the films they choose to write about (which causes a significant problem of quality which I will discuss later). Due to this self-aggravating problem, even someone like Werner Herzog, a foreign art film director who enjoys great popularity in America, seemingly an ideal answer choice, comes up only rarely. To those who may persist in disagreeing with my argument that quizbowl desperately needs more questions on American film, at the least they should work to expand the canon so that it no longer ignores such eminently important and widely studied directors as Fassbinder, Kieslowski, Renoir, Vigo, Wenders, Kluge, Visconti, Chabrol, Syberberg, Clouzot, Pudovkin, Pasolini, Bresson, Pabst, Ophüls, Rossellini, Schlöndorff, Straub and Huillet, Melies, Mizoguchi, Wajda, Ozu, Tati, Varda, and Dovzhenko. I am not at all opposed to questions on foreign film; to the contrary, not nearly enough foreign film comes up in terms of diversity.
2a. The treatment of American film is misguided and insufficient. For the most part, only classical Hollywood cinema achieves any representation in the arts distribution in quizbowl. I find this particularly strange, because art cinema is largely defined by how it differentiates itself from the technical and thematic approaches of classical Hollywood. Classical Hollywood films are important because of their historical significance and because of their relationship to the art cinema, but they are, by and large, considered to be “trash” in the quizbowl sense. If a tossup on It Happened One Night belongs in the arts distribution, then a tossup on Tron (another film of questionable quality but undeniable significance in the history of cinema) belongs in the arts distribution as well. Very few directors whose careers began in classical Hollywood are generally considered to be auteurs; Welles, Hitchcock, and Wilder are the clearest examples. The 1950s is a sort of transition period in which the power of the studio system faded and more directors achieved creative control and innovated within conventional genres; for instance, Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, and the early films of Stanley Kubrick. The 1960s onwards marks a mostly unrestrained period of what I would refer to as “American auteurist cinema” in which many internationally significant directors emerged and exerted final cut privilege over their films, either by setting up independently or forcing a deal with a studio in the Hollywood system. This is the as of yet unexploited gold mine of quizbowl material. America has produced many great films and many great directors in the last five decades, and many quizbowlers have seen these films and are familiar with these directors. Therefore, writing more questions on American film will expand and diversify the canon while largely decreasing the average difficulty of film questions. Also, the questions will naturally become higher quality, since instead of feeling compelled to write on foreign films he/she has not seen, a writer may use English-language films with which he/she is directly familiar, which I will expand on shortly. In considering the status of post-classical American directors in relation to their foreign counterparts, I would draw up two loosely defined categories; there is no absolute division between these, and certainly no universal standard for determining them, but I will use them to illustrate a general concept. The first class encompasses the directors who consistently demonstrate control over their oeuvre, often writing their own screenplays, and whom scholars widely analyze as auteurs. This class includes Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Robert Altman, Bob Fosse, and the Coens. The second class covers directors whose body of work includes both influential art films and purely commercial ventures of no critical interest, sometimes due to an earlier phase as an auteur followed by a descent into lucrative hack jobs. Ridley Scott illustrates this phenomenon very well; whereas Robin Hood and Body of Lies certainly have no place in any arts distribution, his early films like Alien, a work of enormous influence much commented upon in Marxist and psychoanalytic critiques, undoubtedly belongs in the arts distribution. This may sound radical to some of those whose quizbowl experiences have unconsciously persuaded them that only foreign films can be art, but I trust that anyone with a basic grasp of the ever-growing body of film scholarship will agree with me when I say that the inclusion of screwball comedies from the 1930s as fine art while excluding more modern American films like Alien, and apparently only due to the fact that many people have actually seen them, is an utter absurdity. Into this second class of directors I would also place Sidney Lumet, Roman Polanski, David Fincher, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis, Arthur Penn, Clint Eastwood, Gus Van Sant, Rob Reiner, Brian de Palma, Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack, Terry Gilliam, Alexander Payne, David Lean, Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Francis Ford Coppola, and even such wildly popular directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, and James Cameron. I understand why many would see my treatment of these directors as a cause for concern, for it may appear that I am coming dangerously close to recommending Star Wars and Titanic as suitable subjects for academic questions, but I believe this risk can easily be averted with some simple reasoning. As always, the line dividing art from trash can become quite tenuous at times, and it is not a topic on which universal agreement will ever be possible, but I do think it can be navigated with relative ease by considering two criteria: critical attention and historical significance, the latter of which can justify the inclusion of a borderline film in the arts distribution if the body of criticism around it is somewhat scanty. I know that my suggestion is imperfect, but I nonetheless believe it more than adequate for the purpose at hand. The bottom line: American film is watched and studied all over the world, and quizbowl needs to stop ignoring it.
2b. Some additional notes: I reiterate that I drew the distinction between the two classes of directors above for the purpose of illustrating the problem of the art-trash boundary, and I have little interest in debating the placement of any particular individuals, as such a debate is irrelevant to the general concepts I laid out. Also, my list of directors is in no way exhaustive, and those I did list were all drawn from my own very much incomplete knowledge of American film. I would also like to mention the fascinating emergence in the last decade of foreign directors comfortable working in both their native languages and English who have made significant contributions to English-language cinema, including Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuaron, Fernando Meirelles, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whom I did not list above due to their ambiguous status regarding language.
3. In their present dilapidated state, almost all film questions are simply degenerate literature questions, which largely defeats the point of including film in the arts distribution at all. To state the obvious, film is a multitrack audiovisual medium, so logically, film questions should always make use of clues which reward the actual viewing and hearing of a film rather than the reading of a plot summary, or even the reading of a screenplay. Since films are meant to be watched rather than read as screenplays, I often find that I cannot remember the names of many of the characters in many of the films I have seen, which underscores the uselessness of the current standard tossup on a director, which is frequently little more than a list of character names. All film questions should make use of at least one or two clues describing elements of the mise-en-scene, editing techniques, camera position and movements, or the use of music and non-diegetic sound. Since film is a multitrack medium in which all of these elements coincide, creating uniquely identifying clues by noting how the director combines more than one of these elements is not difficult. Example: I want to write a tossup on 2001: A Space Odyssey. “This film makes notable use of a graphic match cut” is clearly a useless clue, but “this film includes a notable graphic match cut between a bone and a spaceship” (pairing an editing technique with particular images) is a unique and interesting clue transcending the level of dull plot summary.
Closing thoughts: David Bordwell has described how the first standard-bearers of modern film criticism became overly enamored with the European art cinema of the 1960s, which was “so strong an intellectual presence…that it shaped conceptions of what a good film was.” The scholars of the world, of course, have long since overcome this excessive preoccupation with that period of innovation in film, and did so long before the birth of good quizbowl, so why quizbowl silently endorses it remains an enigma to me.
The quantity, quality, and diversity of film questions in quizbowl must increase, because in their sad state at present, film questions lack the merits to justify their existence.
Edit: Minor terminology correction, additional directors.
Last edited by felgon123
on Tue Jun 12, 2012 1:54 am, edited 3 times in total.
Tommy Casalaspi, University of Virginia, Maggie L. Walker Governor's School, HSAPQ Editor