The University of Chicago Magazine

April 1997


Film-studies director Miriam Hansen and early-cinema scholar Tom Gunning.

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." [Follow link below to continue story.]

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