The Cinema Hypothesis: Teaching Cinema in the Classroom and Beyond (Preview)
by Alain Bergala. Translated by Madeline Whittle, with a dialogue between Alain Bergala and Alejandro Bachmann. Vienna: Austrian Film Museum/SYNEMA, 2016 (Distributed in the United States by Columbia University Press). 131 pp. Paperback: $24.90.

Reviewed by Adrian Martin

Any reader of The Cinema Hypothesis needs to have one fact straight in their heads from the first page: it is a book proposing the type of film education that should be directed to very young children. It is not a book centrally about academic film studies in the broadest sense, or the state of film criticism in 2002 (when it first appeared in French), or the condition of cinephilia. And yet, in its digressive and exploratory manner, it manages to touch, often probingly, on many such subjects connected to film culture.

Bergala’s book wanders all over the map, but the adventure it records has, at least, a precise starting point. In 2000, the author was invited by Jack Lang (from 2000 to 2002, France’s minister of education in the socialist government) to formulate principles and procedures for film education in schools—right down (and this is a crucial aspect of the program) to the youngest grade of the smallest children. There’s no arguing with Bergala on that point: I, too, firmly believe that the motto of cinema pedagogy should be “get ’em while they’re young!”

What exactly is the “hypothesis” advanced here? For Bergala—who has spent his entire career pondering the issue from diverse angles—students must be made to experience the “creative drive,” the essential decision-making behind strong, memorable moments of cinema. This can be done through watching, listening, and talking—Bergala proposes an attractive theory of how to approach cinema through well-selected, pointedly juxtaposed clips or fragments—and it can also, or in tandem, be done through elementary filmmaking exercises: choosing a location, directing an actor, framing a shot.

That may sound a straightforward, even elementary, approach to teaching cinema, but Bergala launches his hypothesis as a battering ram against, on the one hand, analytical studies fixed on the interpretation of films and, on the other hand, political approaches fixed on the reflection of issues of history or contemporary society (the dreaded “film as discussion starter” method so prevalent in classrooms everywhere). He is particularly disapproving (and rightly so) of an educational approach that, I confess, I have never experienced: “an encounter with cinema through bad films,” based in part on the notion that teachers should begin with “what the kids already know” in order to hopefully wean them off it!

In many ways, The Cinema Hypothesis is a book devoted to what was once called, for a brief window of time that effectively closed at the end of the 1960s, “film appreciation.” For Bergala, everything that comes under the rubrics of “Media Studies” or “Cultural Studies” is firmly a matter of sociology, or related areas of social science. The arc of Bergala’s own professional career traces a transition from a semiotic era of “ideological decoding” in the 1970s (some of his early work on still photography dutifully follows this mode) to a “return of aesthetics” in the 1980s—a charge which he led in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma and elsewhere, and with which he has tenaciously kept the faith ever since.

This means that, for Bergala, cinema is, above all, art—and that true art, in his view the source of all real “resistance” to power and oppression, needs to be defended and reinforced. Even “institutionalized” in the primary, secondary, and tertiary curricula, to the extent that anything can be institutionalized (Bergala is hip to the ways in which young students will always circumvent the tastes of their elder teachers and begin to construct their own culture). Cinema as art, for Bergala, has many enemies and several “Big Others.” The entire system of capitalistic/consumerist movie entertainment (globalized “Hollywood”, in short) is one such mighty foe; another is broadcast television. (The Internet had not yet particularly registered on the book’s consciousness in 2002.)

This aspect of The Cinema Hypothesis is very much “of its moment,” dated to the turn of the century, and has not aged terribly well. Bergala takes every opportunity to rail against the horrors of then-burgeoning “reality TV,” mindless quiz or variety programs, and the like. TV, according to Bergala, is good only when it manages to become “cinematic”—a position he essentially upholds in the interesting “fourteen years later” interview at the back of the book. Contemporary TV scholars—and fans—will likely turn a whiter shade of pale when reading these strident, scarcely convincing sections of The Cinema Hypothesis. That TV has evolved its own, unique craft, and generated not a little pleasure for spectators worldwide, through formats such as the sitcom, music video, and even the best of the dreaded “reality” programs, does not really count as an achievement within Bergala's critical system.

No child can be forced to “swallow” the values of their teacher—but perhaps they can be, in the nicest and most polite way, seduced into the cinephilic passion. “Initiation” is a word that resonates like a mantra in the book because, for Bergala (as for many visionary educators), “only desire truly initiates learning.” And it is on this topic that The Cinema Hypothesis starts to branch out and digress, often very engagingly so—since experiences of cultural initiation can be found in many places, by participating in cine-clubs, or through loyally following a certain critic in a particular magazine, or attending film festivals…

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