Cinemetrics: Bête Noire and Cause Célèbre

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Covert, Andrew

I do not find the question of cinemetrics to be one of utility, or of fidelity in terms of representation, but one of critical capacity.

I find it surprising that some members of the congress seem willing to approach any perspective on film with the words "just" attached to their description. As in: "Cinemetrics is JUST a tool for analysis" or "Cinemetircs ONLY addresses an underlying systematicity in the films themselves." I extend this criticism even to Dr. Carrol's rather prosaic claim that "more information is never a bad thing." Information is indeed a bad thing when we use it unreflexively and without sufficient thought to the outcome of analysis. 

Hat in Ring: I have never met any transparent methods of academic inquiry and, for all its ambition to objectivity, cinemterics is no different.

Like any way of systematically confronting the moving image, cinemetrics conveys a certain way of thinking about film. It is not simply a way of gathering information, in the same way that any method of analysis is not simply a matter of data collection. Methods inevitably carry with them a way of thinking, a frame through which we see the cinematic object and make judgments about it. Cinemetrics carries none of the ideological trappings that many of our other methods do, and thus is certainly an attractive adjunct to the value-free analytic perspectives in vogue currently. Such a utopian fantasy will persist as long as we continue to disavow the epistemological framing that necessarily attends each instantiation of academic analysis. 

On the other hand, however, I feel it important to note that Dr. Furstenau's criticism of cinemetircs does not really pass muster as such. It would not, I hope, be too unfair to call it a dismissal. I think his approach misses the value of cinemetrics (such as it may be), but also its danger as a way of thinking about film. This danger flows from is the extent to which it defines and refines the type of questions that can be asked about the cinematic object. To represent a film graphically is a good sight gag, but to see it simply as such misses its power as a rhetorical device that routes thinking through an un-reflexive visual form. (I am here thinking of Susan Buck-Morss' article "Envisioning Capital: Political Economy on Display" Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Winter, 1995), pp. 434-467 URL:

Cinemetrics makes a claim as to what is important in film. It frames questions about film into certain modes and models. Like any medium of inquiry it foregrounds certain aspects of film and pushes others to the back. It is our common frustration that we must choose between reductions as a condition of understanding, but the form of that reduction is paramount to addressing what we wish to get out of the critical process. 

In sum, the question at hand must depend on the kind of questions we wish to answer about a given cinematic object. If we want to know the average shot length of a given Hitchcock film and how it relates to others in his ouevre from a certain time period, cinemetrics would seem to be the way to go. But I think our ambitions are, and should be, much greater than this. To suggest that cinemetrics provides an insight into anything more than the most superficial quantitative data is mere sophistry.  In deference to points made by Drs. Lefebvre and Prince on this topic, to have a goal for our inquiries is, and should be, what defines them. I would even go further and say that it is by their goals that such inquiries should be judged.

Cinemetrics should not float around innocently in the toolbox of film terms, awaiting diligent application. It must be questioned. And that questioning could lead to some very uncomfortable dissonances as to what we value in cinematic inquiry.

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