The Practice of Theory in East Asian Cinemas

Tragically forgetting Marx, American activism has at times celebrated practice as committed action while demonizing theory as a retreat from the struggle. In any number of academic contexts, “theory” is met with suspicion if not derision—a kind of elitist terrorism waged against the sincere who simply “read” or “appreciate” texts directly. However, the rejection of theory is also a theoretical position, and any act of reading operates on theoretical presumptions.

This lecture proposes a radical reconciliation between theory and practice in the cinematic experience. The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek theoria, which means “spectacle,” “something to look at,” as well as “the act of looking,” and “to attend a theatrical performance.” Reassessing these meanings, this talk will argue for the theoretical and practical agency of both the filmmaker and the spectator. It explores the theoretical import of filmmaking, film viewing, film analysis, the film studies classroom, and the art of programming. Finally, it reconsiders “theory” in East Asian Cinema as spectacles that are in themselves philosophical statements that in turn become occasions for discovery and re-articulating experience of the world’s meaning and the world-as-meaning.

This is the last lecture out of a series of five in the East Asia Film Literacies Lecture Series. This lecture was given by Visiting East-West Center Scholar Earl Jackson, Jr., Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on November 20, 2003, in Crawford Hall 115 from 3:00-5:00 PM.

East Asia Film Literacies Lecture Series

A Lecture Series by:

Dr. Earl Jackson, Jr.
Associate Professor of Literature
University of California, Santa Cruz
Visiting Research Scholar, East-West Center

These articles are based on lectures that Dr. Jackson gave at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the Fall of 2003.

In certain recent developments in digital technology, media and communications industries, and transnational capitalism, there is potential for a kind of cultural revolution, a digital one dealing with new modes of archiving, disseminating, and distributing films internationally. The booming DVD market has now made thousands of films from all over the world available to individuals and institutions. Of particular interest to these lectures are the tremendous numbers of East Asian films now accessible to the individual. The restoration and mass marketing of the works of the past may enrich impoverished notions of cinema since Rashomon. The rapid turnover of first-run films into DVDs allows contemporary East Asian filmmakers to find US audiences through networks that surmount the iron curtain of US film distributors and Hollywood “remakes.”

However, a revolution requires more active engagement than collecting and cataloging, nor does the mere presence of the film in a library or a home entertainment system in itself instigate an epistemic break. The encounter with the films must be proactive and interactive if the influx of filmic texts is to result in sociocultural practices more substantive than new forms of consumer fetishism and if there is to develop interpretative communities that do not exhaust themselves in connoisseur-cults. This lecture series is an attempt to highlight some of the opportunities and challenges the brave new film world offers.

Each lecture will be a very specific, hands-on, eyes-open exploration and demonstration of some of the challenges of these filmic texts that should guide the ways of reading we develop in response. Every lecture will be fully illustrated with clips from the films, and crucial historical or contextual background will be provided in handouts and Web guides. Furthermore, hypertext versions of each public lecture will be posted on this website.

This series is not interested in handing down doctrine or prescribing method, but rather opening up conversation. One of the targeted partners for this conversation are individuals who are either currently teaching or are considering teaching courses on one or more East Asian Cinema. But since a teacher is also always a student first, and both are intellectuals only to the extent that they are passionately curious, in addressing “teachers” this series addresses anyone whose imagination and intellectual and emotional curiosity respond to the art, fantasy, excess, and multiple joys of cinematic experience across various linguistic, national, transnational, cultural, and crosscultural nodes and modes.

Rewarding Vice: The Non-Innocent Pleasures of Chinese Popular Films

Writings from these lectures are available as a PDF.

Confucianists occasionally attempted an ambivalent defense of fiction by promoting works that would “punish vice and reward virtue.” Recent Western attention to Hong Kong action films evinces a similar moralistic confusion. Instead of analyzing the features of those films that make them so interesting, many critics instead merely defend their own interest in the films. The critical evaluation of this cinema is thus preempted by an apology for one’s appreciation of it. Attempts to advance a new cinematic literacy, often begin—and even end up—as apologies for the “guilty pleasures” of Chinese popular film.

This lecture will attempt three interventions in the apologetic tradition of US critical reception of Chinese cinemas. First of all, it will scrutinize the notion of “the guilty pleasures of Chinese popular film.” Second, it will suggest ways to reconceive spectatorial pleasure, “Chinese film,” and “Chinese popular film.” Third, works from several genres of Chinese popular film will be “read”—not only the Martial Arts film but also the women’s melodrama; the crime film; huangmei opera; and the gambling-thriller in order to demonstrate how this reorientation enables a fuller and more nuanced access to the significations and significance of such films.

This is the first lecture out of a series of five in the East Asia Film Literacies Lecture Series. This lecture was given by Visiting East-West Center Scholar, Earl Jackson, Jr., Associate Professor of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on September 25, 2003, in Crawford Hall 115 from 3:00-5:00 PM