The University of Chicago Magazine

April 1997


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."

The author of this piece, John Easton, AM'77, is director of media affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center and writes regularly for the Magazine.


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