Friday, 12 February 2016

Why Christian Metz is the Worst Film Scolar

Christian Metz (1991-1993) has often been considered an important film scholar. Many a film studies professor has incorporated his extensive work into their curriculum. According to many film scholars, Metz is crucial for his work in trying to study film as a language. His own words on his efforts were "I want to get to the bottom of the linguistic analogy in film." What does this mean? What is a "linguistic analogy" and what does that have to do with film analysis? The truth is, it means nothing. It's just jargon. All Metz has done is said a completely nonsensical phrase and inserted a massive amount of professional-sounding terms to make himself appear smarter than he really is. If any of my professors are reading this essay, than let me take this moment to apologize now, because I am about to explain that Metz is far from a scholar worthy of academic research. He is nothing more than a hack, whose work is at best common sense ideas buried under a thick layer of overly-convoluted terminology, and at worst nonsensical garbage.

From the aforementioned quote, it is obvious that Metz's writing is based heavily based on making himself sound more professional than he really is. His essays are constantly filled with heavy jargon, and based on pointless ideas. We can see this in his essay The Imaginary Signifier, an overly convoluted paper that attempts to explain why people are able to emotionally connect to a film. To do this, he identifies the audience as a "voyeur," supposedly passive, and begins referring extensively to Freudian ideas before finally concluding that it has something to do with "primary" and "secondary" identification. What are these special ideas that according to Metz are the key to understanding how audiences respond to movies? Well, Primary identification is the camera, and secondary identification is the characters.

In other words, according to Metz, his long-winded ramble about Freud has been trying to say that the reason people get invested in a film is because they relate to the characters and the way the shots are set up. This is what he refers to as "secondary identification." Congratulations, Metz. Nobody had ever figured that out before. Of course people relate to well-written characters. What makes a film like Apocalypse Now so compelling is exploring the psychology of the people involved in its narrative. This is one of the major problems with Michael Bay's films; he fails to give his characters sufficient depth and thus fails to give the audience any reason to be interested in what happens to them.

Of course, Metz is also basing his research purely on a specific model of filmmaking. He was French by birth, and so his material is likely based on a mix of local and American films. He completely disregards other styles of filmmaking. There are movies that would easily challenge his claims. For instance, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey has very little in the way of character development. While they have personality and emotions, there is no one individual with whom the audience can connect to on an emotional level. What makes the film so compelling is its vision of the future, and the way Kubrick opts to convey it primarily through the use of visuals and music.

The same could also be said of many early films. There was hardly anything relatable about the early films of the Lumiere Brothers, and yet they still proved a success. Their films were generally under a minute long, and consisted for the most part of everyday occurrences. The Arrival of the Train at the Station is just that: a train pulling into a station. There is nobody for the audience to connect with, and yet it still proved to be popular. In this case, it was the novelty of film itself that engaged audiences. The very idea of a moving picture was so radical that it alone was enough to excite those who saw it.

This same idea can be seen the work of Georges Méliès. As a magician, his primary interest was creating illusions, and this was the main goal of his films. The "story" was usually nothing more than a means to present his then-revolutionary illusions. In fact, several of his films lacked a plot of any kind. The Human Playing Card and The Prolific Magical Egg were both essentially magic shows, where Méliès would present on a stage and use his editing techniques to make things appear, disappear, and transform. The audience is not expected to connect or relate to Méliès, they simply enjoy the brilliant illusions he able to create.

Going on this logic, it would suggest that the film apparatus itself is responsible for the audience's reaction, and not characterization as Metz claims. Audiences in the early 20th century were drawn to the theaters because of the novelty of moving pictures, not necessarily for a specific story. Of course, this same reasoning is not as applicable today. Usually when one goes to see a movie today, they are expecting a good story. This in turn leads me to a simple conclusion: there is no universal film language. Metz seems to maintain otherwise, ignoring the obvious evidence and questions to be raised by what he has already said.

Metz's concepts of "primary identification," when taken at face value, could therefore appear to be more accurate, as it highlights the importance of the camera which would seemingly be supported by the aforementioned early films. However, that would at best a very loose interpretation of his claims that only applies to films made before 1920. Metz goes a step farther to claim that the audience actually relates to the camera itself. Understandably, once the jargon is removed Metz's theories start to sound a lot more stupid. Metz actually thinks that the viewer sees "himself" (Metz, and many of his contemporaries, only seem to consider male spectators) as the camera. This does not happen.

It is true that the camera can play a crucial role in shaping the audience's emotions. There is a reason why this has to be carefully planned early on; the director has to figure out where to place the camera, how to compose the shot, and what types of lenses to use. This much is true, but claiming that the audience can relate to the camera is a major stretch. Even in the early days of film, audiences weren't relating to the camera as though it were a person, they were simply amazed because nobody had ever managed to create moving pictures before. It was the novelty of the motion picture itself, not the apparatus used to make it, that captured their imaginations. This same novelty also ended as soon as films became commonplace. This is absurd to think in such a way.

To justify his claims, Metz refers to the work of Sigmund Freud, a man whose work has absolutely no connection to film studies. More specifically, Metz refers to the obsolete and equally ridiculous idea of "castration anxiety" as an analogy to support his claims about audience reactions to film. Apparently, the fear of castration gives the viewer a sense that he is missing something, and subsequently this is what contributes to the "disavowal" which allows him to fetishize a film as real even if he knows it is fictional (he gives this the strange name of "voyeurism"). Obviously, this is based on some extremely biased claims.

Outside of using obsolete psychoanalytical practices, there is the strange fact that the spectator is always referred to as male. Metz seems to be under the impression that only men go to see movies. He incorporates Freudian concepts that only address male sexuality (Freud reportedly had trouble discussing female sexuality) and makes no attempt to address a female spectator (a flaw pointed out by Laura Mulvey a few decades later). In what way does Freud's "castration anxiety" explain how a woman is engaged with a film? It does not, and Metz never addresses this at any point. He is speaking purely from an obsolete male perspective and explaining absolutely nothing.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his so-called "Grand Syntagmatic" which aims to break down the ways in which film functions as a language. According to Metz, the shot represents a type of "grammar" that can allegedly be broken down into eight basic categories. He identifies these categories of "autonomous shots" as the single-shot sequence, non-diegetic insert, subjective insert, displaced insert, explanatory insert, parallel syntagma, bracket syntagma, descriptive syntagma, alternating syntagma, a "scene", episodic sequence, ordinary sequence. His tactic could not be even more confusing, a fact made ironic when one realizes that these ideas have already been documented and have much simpler names.

A "single-shot sequence" for example, is according to Metz, a single continuous action that occurs over one shot. There is already a name for this: it's called a long take. This is a style that has been popularized by a number of films. Before Metz, the idea fascinated Alfred Hitchcock, who attempted to utilize it in Rope. Though cuts were used, it was only due to technical limitations of the cameras used, and they were made to appear continuous. Hitchcock himself would later state that he would have shot the entire film in one take if it had been possible. More recently, Gravity used the same approach, with the entire first fifteen minutes happening in a single shot.

This is just one of many examples of how Metz's schematic shows only that he has no idea what he is talking about. All this man has done is made a fool of himself. He has no brilliant ideas or worthwhile ideas. His writing is garbage polished up to look like it is something of a higher quality than it really is. His theories fall apart as soon as they're examined (and that is assuming one can actually figure out what he is trying to say), and he does nothing but coat far-fetched and ridiculous ideas in professional-sounding Jargon and references to Freud; yet his work continues to be studied on an academic level. His work is still promoted by film scholars as a crucial part of understanding film, and it makes no sense why this should still be happening. Metz is not a director worthy of study, he is a writer of nonsensical jargon who thinks he is smarter than he really is, and his work should not be covered in such large detail.


  1. Very interesting article, John. I'm not a film school student and not at all familiar with Metz before this, but have presented your arguments very well. I'm curious to know if your professors are aware of your disdain for this man and what they might think of it.

    1. Funnily enough, some of them do. One of the main things that drove me to write this was having to write a paper on Metz's work, and I've made no secret of my disliking for his work. Yesterday, one of my professors (the one I had to write an essay for) even poked fun at it by claiming Metz speaks very highly of my work.

  2. I have no idea who Metz is and I'm glad I didn't know. He sounds like a fucking jabroni. It's bad enough we deal with trolls but those disguised as intellectuals are the worst.