Sam Rohdie’s review of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema makes a number of telling and important criticisms, but I should like to append this comment since it seems to me that on one simple point he has missed the author’s intention, and, more seriously, in certain respects he has failed to grasp the main themes that underlie the book.
First, the simple point; Sam Rohdie completely misunderstands the function of the Pantheon of directors at the end of the book, and the general attitude assumed in the book to evaluative critical judgements.
The conventional definition of criticism is the establishment of standards of excellence in an artistic field, but a trend of modern criticism, to which Peter Wollen’s book clearly belongs, is concerned with something quite different, viz., the establishment of the semantic field of an art, of the poetic, the artistic, and, in this case, the cinematic. But in this attempt to establish not what is good cinematically, but what is cinematic, value judgements constantly intrude on scientific statements, if only because there is a tendency to regard what is most cinematic as what is cinematically good. Sam Rohdie points out several incautious evaluative statements in Peter Wollen’s book. He then attacks the cinematic Pantheon in the appendix on the grounds that it cannot be derived from the scientific analysis, it is ‘merely’ Peter Wollen’s personal taste. This is simply to misconstrue the purpose of the Pantheon. There is a classical (if ultimately unsatisfactory) provisional solution to the problem of fact and value, and that is to let the reader know the author’s prejudices explicitly, so that he can judge for himself. The function of the Pantheon is precisely this: unlike Andrew Sarris’ original, it is not an attempt to found a cinematic prise de position, it is quite simply a warning to the reader of the author’s personal taste in films. The Pantheon and the evaluative comparison of Hawks and Ford are not evidence of the same tendency to draw illegitimate critical judgements: the former is there to prepare the reader in his assessment of the latter.
Secondly, the major confusion: the misconstruction of Peter Wollen’s argument I have just discussed seems to have led Sam Rohdie away from the central concerns of the book. He claims that this ‘error’ of Peter Wollen’s derives from his predilection for thematic analysis—analysis that could apply to any media, and that the book therefore runs wide of its own target, ignoring any specifically cinematic forms and concentrating on conventional literary content. In fact, Peter Wollen does discuss this form/content dichotomy in his distinction between auteurs and metteurs en scène, but as a subordinate issue. He is concerned with a dichotomy that is arguably more basic: the dichotomy of programme and performance.
To call for an aesthetics of film form is merely to end where Peter Wollen’s book begins. He starts from the immediate problem facing anyone who attempts to provide a semantics of film: the cinema is a poly-aesthetic medium. The centrality of this problem explains the solidarity of the three apparently disparate chapters of the book. Eisenstein, the first great director who also concerned himself with cinematic semantics and aesthetics, posed this problem, but he could not solve it—within his framework poly-aesthetics became synaesthesia. Peter Wollen then sketches two solutions to this problem. He tries to establish a combinatory, multi-dimensional semantics for the cinema in the last chapter, and in the second, he tries to break away from the semantics of the film-object to discuss it essentially as one of the performing arts—the film in relation to its production and presentation.