Reel scholarship

From our print archive: Film has become the medium of 20th-century storytelling. At UChicago, it’s now the stuff of academic study.

On February 14, the rereleased Star Wars overtook E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, as the top-grossing film of all time. E.T., released in 1982, brought in nearly $400 million, about one-fourth of the University of Chicago’s endowment. Star Wars, first released in 1977, had been a distant fourth, with $323 million in box-office revenues. But a few new scenes, enhanced special effects, and a revised sound track were excuse enough to offer the film again in late January. Its first weekend, it brought in $35.9 million. A Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll of 1,056 adults claimed, incredibly, that even before the rerelease the average American had already seen the film seven times.

That same Valentine’s Day, the “Living Arts” section of the New York Times ran one article each on opera, ballet, and television; two theater critiques; and seven movie reviews, including one on the front page that featured a neat little box pointing out the other six. The 30-page section carried 20 full pages of advertisements for films, clearly subsidizing the coverage of the other arts and probably of front-page politics as well.

“Film,” says Miriam Hansen, the Ferdinand Shevill distinguished service professor in the humanities and, since fall 1991, the founding director of the University's Film Studies Center, “has become the medium in which stories are told that tend to be central to the concerns, problems, preoccupations of a society. It is one way in which society reflects upon, communicates with, and negotiates the meaning of everyday experience, of changes, transformations of the world they live in.” Even those who dwell in the ivory tower, notes Hansen, are not unaffected by the power of film: “If you hear my colleagues arguing about something, it's more likely to be a movie they saw over the weekend than a novel they have read.”

Since Hansen's colleagues are primarily faculty in the English department, some scholars may find that observation a little troubling. Regarding film as a legitimate field of study, Karl Weintraub, AB'49, AM'52, PhD'57, the Thomas E. Donnelley distinguished service professor in history and the bedrock of the College's Western civilization requirement, concedes, "If enough faculty want to do something and they do it well, they should be allowed to, but I think for students it might be preferable to try to get some distance from their involvement with the present, to concentrate on something less familiar that would enable them to return to their own world with more perspective."

But neither the familiarity of film nor the proximity of the field's past seem to faze the no-nonsense, meticulously academic Miriam Hansen. Since arriving at the University, she has nurtured the nascent film program as it grew from an occasional elective course or workshop into one of the most respected scholarly cinema programs in the country. Now, Chicago undergraduates can major in cinema and media studies, and a graduate program is in the works.

Although the old guard may sneer at motion pictures as too plebeian, too paltry, too, well, popular to serve as the crux of a hard-core, Common Core education, that pervasiveness may be the single best reason to study film. "It certainly is the art form that the most people encounter and enjoy," says Tom Gunning, professor of art history and a member of the film-studies program. "One can argue that this popular allure, film's inherently democratic quality, is deleterious to it as an art form, but I think one can also argue that this mass appeal is part of film's vitality." Although he's a fan of avant-garde films, "the type that nobody sees," Gunning's list of a dozen films nobody should miss includes Hollywood classics like How Green Was My Valley, and he insists that "some of the greatest films that were ever made, probably the majority of the best films that were ever made, were made for mass audiences."

The visionary filmmaker D. W. Griffith, the George Lucas of his day, predicted the extraordinary success of movies like Star Wars 80 years ago, proclaiming that film was the art form of the 20th century, the new universal language, that it would take over education and replace the library. That hasn't quite happened yet-in fact, going to the movies peaked in the 1940s and '50s, when adults went twice a week-but the movies, as a social and cultural force, ought not to be ignored.

"Film has been around for more than 100 years now," points out Philip Gossett, dean of humanities and an unabashed proponent of the U of C's film program. "The history of motion pictures encompasses a good deal of the 20th-century experience, both high and low art, math and business, the globalization of the media. None of us is indifferent to these issues." Movies have shaped, if not the world, at least the way we look at it. "We now think about our daily experience in film terms," notes Gunning. "Fast-paced editing, flashbacks. Film has given us the metaphors by which we understand modern experience."

By bringing together modern technology and art, the movies-which got their start, like the U of C, in the early 1890s-blossomed into an effective way for artists to comment on modernity. "Film is one of the ways that the modern experience is digested," says Gunning. "This technology, which can embody a new experience of space and time, is probably the best way to comment on a world that has itself been sped up and transformed by technology." Although they haven't replaced schools or libraries, film and its stepchild, television, long ago supplanted print as the way most people come by information about their world. Therefore, suggests Gunning, an early-cinema scholar who turned down offers from Harvard and Berkeley to come to Chicago, perhaps every student ought to have a course in film. It may be the best way, he says, to learn not just one of the languages of art, as one might from studying literature or music or painting, but also how to develop a critical perspective of pictorial storytelling and how film can manipulate the ideas and images it presents.

"If you don't understand how a film, or even the nightly news, calculates its effects on you," says Gunning, "you're in thrall to it rather than in control of it."

But how does one teach film: as an art form or as journalism; as a corporate commodity or a consumer product; as a cultural or a social, historical, and political phenomenon? All of the above, says Hansen. Film is a discipline in its own right, she maintains, with its own history, "but a person who only knows about film doesn't know much about film."

We can understand the cinema only, she says, "if we know something about the ways in which it interrelates with other art forms, other forms of entertainment, other media—how it functions within an ever-more-complex environment of visual and sensory practices in an ever-more-powerful information society." In fact, one strength of the University's program lies in its diversity of approaches. The nine core and 30 resource faculty are drawn from English, art, and art history—and from sociology, anthropology, and history; French, German, and Italian; Slavic, Far Eastern, and South Asian languages; even music, psychiatry, and the Divinity School.

Still, almost every course starts with close, detailed, sometimes frame-by-frame examination of the "texts," in this case scores of the 2,500 movies, videos, and laser discs available through the Film Studies Center. In Introduction to Film I and II, students are taught the basics of analyzing technique and style—the nitty-gritty of framing, lighting, timing, and editing. "We start with the specifics of the medium," says Hansen, "how films tell stories, express emotions, convey information, engage viewers." The curriculum quickly expands to look at the industrial context (how films are produced and distributed) and the social and historical context (how they are received and experienced in ways that change over time). "The formal aspects, the central details are worth examining closely," says Gunning, "but films can only be understood if you understand their full range of context, the way they were made and marketed and viewed."

Talk to anyone in cinema and media studies and, although each has his or her own specialty—Chinese silent films or German women's cinema or Soviet aesthetic theory—at some point they'll all echo Gunning on the importance of context and audience. It's an emphasis that blossomed in reaction to film's early academic heritage. When scholars first began studying the cinema and developing scholarly programs back in the 1960s, the debate tended to focus on whether or not film was art. Students in classes with titles like Film and the Novel 101 were queried, Was the movie better than the book? A few were; a lot weren't.

"It was a futile, pointless debate," says the Frankfurt-trained Hansen, who studied English and American poetry in graduate school and wrote her dissertation on Ezra Pound before she developed her scholarly interest in movies. By concentrating on films adapted from literary classics, she says, the debate excluded most of the really good films, and it imported a whole hierarchy of aesthetic values that were not at all appropriate to dealing with motion pictures. "If you take the work of John Huston," says Hansen, "who adapted a lot of literary classics like Moby-Dick as well as best-sellers like The Maltese Falcon, almost everyone, including myself, would prefer the films based on the popular novels to the canonical literary works."

Since the 1970s, the academic focus on film has expanded considerably. Emphasis has shifted from highly theoretical studies of a film's style and technique, or how a movie imparts its message, to more empirical studies of the cinema as an economic and social institution, with more analysis of the inevitable tensions between artistry and finance.

One fortunate result has been a shift away from the limited pantheon of classic directors and a rebirth of interest in the beginnings of the cinema-an era of tremendous innovation, experimentation, diversity, and turmoil. Instead of focusing on a straightforward narrative, much of early film was what Gunning has labeled the cinema of attractions, collections of attention grabbers that made people want to stop and stare. For the first two decades of film history, there were few true movie theaters. Films were shown as part of other entertainments: at fairgrounds, public parks, museums, burlesque halls, and vaudeville theaters. So they had to compete with more traditional amusements.

This constant competition produced a particular "aesthetics of display," according to Hansen, "of showmanship, defined by the goal of assaulting viewers with sensational, supernatural, scientific, sentimental, or otherwise stimulating sights." One popular 1895 film that featured a train coming straight out at the audience was such a shocker that viewers were rumored to have panicked. Another, Thomas Edison's Electrocuting an Elephant, simply documented an elephant being led onto an electrified plate and strapped in place. After a minute, smoke rises from its feet and it topples. "The moment of technologically advanced death," notes Gunning, "is neither explained nor dramatized."

Such tactics might not sustain a feature film today. But many suspect that the classic era of narrative-driven films is nearing an end, and that the creative energy has shifted to independent filmmakers who make up for bantamweight funding with a pioneer's sense of adventure and exploration.

"Contemporary film and media culture," Hansen notes in a recent essay on the similarities of film's past and future, seems to be "reverting" to a state of creative chaos in which "long-standing hierarchies of production, distribution, and exhibition have lost their force." After a long and lucrative run, the "classic" storytelling film, produced and distributed by multinational corporations, viewed in theaters that look and feel and smell the same whether you're in Oakland or Oshkosh or Ottawa, may be on the way out.

Thus, Hansen likes to think of film's early days as "the cinema's forgotten future. It gives us a view of the roads not taken, paths that were cut off but nonetheless contain possibilities and are now open again." Silent film in particular sizzles at the U of C. Hansen and colleagues Gunning, Yuri Tsivian, Eugene Yuejin Wang, and others focus on the cinema's origins, the period from 1893 to about 1915, when film production and exhibition settled into established patterns.

Like moviemaking, moviegoing went through a settling-in period. The development of film's early audience has become one of Hansen's primary interests. "I was always more interested in the experience of watching films than the film itself," says Hansen. Her first book, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Harvard, 1991), looks at the emergence of movie audiences, focusing on the gradual transformation from the largely working-class and immigrant audience that attended the so-called nickel theaters, which popped up around 1906, into the wealthier audience courted by the picture palaces of the classic cinema.

Closely intertwined with the emergence of a film audience, she argues, was the creation of a new and different kind of public sphere, an environment where everyone—all classes, genders, and ethnic groups—could meet routinely under one roof to talk and be entertained. Film's expanded public sphere had at least one unexpected consequence, seen in the growing economic power of women. Hansen points out how the unanticipated cult status of Rudolph Valentino forced the men who ran Hollywood to accept and even cater to women. Seventy years after millions flocked to see the semi-clad captive Valentino writhe provocatively during The Son of the Sheik, however, the need to draw women into the theater remains an issue for the industry. "We've been a testosterone-driven business for a long time," Laura Ziskin, the president of 20th Century Fox, told the New York Times earlier this year. "Now I'm looking at a more estrogen-driven business."

If all this talk about heartthrobs and hormones should again raise the question whether film study is a topic of serious academic endeavor, a quick look at even the most accessible sections of Hansen's exhaustively researched and carefully argued book, or a few minutes in one of her classes, should lay those doubts forever to rest. Students who enroll in hopes of sitting back and taking in a movie or two, maybe with popcorn and a Coke, will be seriously disappointed.

Her course American Cinema to 1934 meets for lecture and discussion—no film clips—Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 to 12:50, but tends to run over. Screenings are Tuesdays and Saturday afternoons. The class requires four textbooks, lots of supplemental readings, a midterm, a final, and a paper. "Lectures, screenings, readings, and discussion are essential components of the course," according to the handout. "You should try to see at least half of the films more than once. Use of videotapes is encouraged for make-up viewing and close analysis but cannot be considered a substitute for the scheduled screenings. Keeping a viewing journal is strongly recommended."

Also recommended: speaking a few foreign languages. Hollywood is only one site on the film-production landscape, and early American film producers took decades just to gain their share of the domestic market. A wealth of accents can be heard at the biweekly Mass Culture Workshop, where graduate students who appear to have seen every movie ever made meet to discuss topics like whether there is such a thing as national cinema (maybe), or whether road movies are really less about the journey than about home (probably not).

The multinational, interdisciplinary nature of the U of C cinema-studies faculty also reflects the diversity of film culture. Take, for example, two new recruits: art-history professor Yuri Tsivian and assistant professor Eugene Yeujin Wang. Latvian scholar Tsivian recently rediscovered an entire period of Russian silent film and produced the first systematic catalogue of the more than 300 pre-1919 Russian films he found buried in a state archive. It includes only about 10 percent of all the films produced during that period, says Tsivian, "but these 300 films make up about 95 percent of what has survived."

The rediscovered Russian films are very different in style and content from American movies of the same era, with deliberately slowed tempos, restrained acting, and uniformly tragic, "typically Russian" endings. Clearly targeted at working- and middle-class women viewers, many of the films present, says Tsivian, "a fantasy of the lavish and slightly decadent lifestyles of the wealthy, much like recent U.S. soap operas" such as Dallas or Falcon Crest.

Wang, an expert on medieval Chinese art, has a passion for early Chinese film. He studies how this distinctively American technology was adapted and locally modified to suit the "melodramatic impulses of Chinese storytellers." Wang is also interested in the surprising correlations between medieval Chinese tableaux and the shifting points of view and magical transformations depicted centuries later in Chinese films, and in the doubting, dismissive response to film by the Chinese Buddhists.

The center's emphasis on international film studies, says Hansen, is an acknowledgment that "the future of world cinema is not Hollywood; it's somewhere in, say, Africa or Australia or Hong Kong." The Indian film industry, for example, now produces more titles than the U.S., controlling markets in the Caribbean and large parts of East Africa, where Indian movies are often shown without subtitles because, like early cinema, they focus on attractions such as music, dancing, or landscape.

Is that where Western film is headed? Nobody knows. The industry, Hansen points out, has been infallibly inaccurate when it comes to charting its own future. Faced in 1927 with the prospect of adding sound to pictures, Harry Warner of Warner Brothers asked: "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"

Academics do no better. In the early 1970s, the chair of Columbia University's film department told Gunning that "in ten years there will be no more movies, no more movie theaters." Every few years, chuckles Gunning, "I hear that same prediction, yet more people are going to the movies now than were ten or 20 years ago." With the spread of video, laser discs, and other gadgetry, we may be evolving different forms of a motion-picture culture, he suggests, but the projected images of celluloid on screen remain by far the richest sensually and are not likely to fade away.

A bigger threat is the emergence of conglomerates such as Disney that are less interested in films than in the toys, theme parks, or other marketing "tie-ins" that often prove to be far more profitable than the pictures themselves. Such companies are not really interested in the primary product anymore, says Hansen, a fact that points to "the death of imagination."

The enormous expense of making movies—the average cost of shooting and marketing a major film is now nearly $60 million—has led to increasing dependence on practices like product placement, the agreement to feature merchandise on screen in exchange for financial support. About 40 minutes of the average two-hour film now incorporate product placement, one study claims. In fact, the recent popular film Jerry Maguire was taken to court on 12 counts, at $10 million apiece, by Reebok because Tristar Pictures allegedly reneged on their "promise" to present the sports-shoe company in a positive light.

Despite the powerful forces putting a damper on cinematic creativity, "I'm not pessimistic," says Hansen. "New things will happen." The struggles of the bigger film corporations may open up paths for smaller, more independent filmmakers (four of this year's five Oscar nominees for Best Picture were independents, after all), and allow more exposure in this country for avant-garde films from other countries. As the artistry and industry of film diversifies, suggests humanities dean Gossett, it leaves the highly interdisciplinary program at the University in a better position to lead the field. That brings us to one last reason to study movies at the College of Great Books. "We are well on our way to having the best program in the country," insists the supremely confident Hansen. Thanks to the late Gerald Mast, AB'61, AM'62, PhD'67, a theater scholar with impeccable credentials and a deep interest in film, cinema studies had already acquired some academic credibility on campus even before Hansen was recruited. "We all learned about film studies in Chicago from Gerald Mast," says Harvard University film scholar Alfred Gazetti. "He was chapter one."

But the story heats up only in chapter two, with the arrival of Hansen and her recent recruits. Chicago suddenly became "a very powerful player," especially in early cinema, admits Gazetti, "and that happened fast." Hansen, Gunning, and Tsivian are "all extraordinary people, decisively at the top," he affirms. "It would be difficult to argue that anybody in that generation is more respected."

When combined with the University's tradition of multidisiciplinary, boundary-free research and its long-term interest in the power of images—exemplified by the Center for Imagining Science, a project that pulls together everyone from artists to astronomers to radiologists, all of whom share concerns about the acquisition and analysis of visual information—the cinema and media studies program is poised to make a real difference in how people think about and study the movie industry.

"Chicago is not going to displace the big, complete departments like NYU, UCLA, or USC," says Gazetti. However, "I don't think their goal is to compete with them, but to carve out a niche—in this case early cinema, which is currently where the action has moved—and to do that one thing as well or better than any one else."

And the program has already begun to produce students who have distinguished themselves with national honors, for example, winning both top awards in 1994 in the Society for Cinema Studies' prestigious essay and dissertation competitions.

Finally, although the formal academic program is new, Chicago nevertheless can claim the longest connection of any university with the motion-picture story. Thomas Edison premiered the first motion-picture device at the World's Columbian Exposition on the Midway in 1893. Some of the earliest research on moviegoers came from University sociologists in the 1920s who were interested in the effects of the movies on social behavior and interaction. DOC Films, founded during the 1940s, is the country's oldest campus film society, and one of the few that has remained active despite the competition from videocassette rentals.

"So you see," Hansen contends, "we are just catching up with a cultural phenomenon that happened 100 years ago and has shaped this century like no other art form."