• September 11, 2014

Cinema and Media Studies: Snapshot of an 'Emerging' Discipline

Although cinema and media studies have been a prominent part of American academe since the 1960s and at a handful of universities since the 1910s, only now are they on the verge of being officially recognized as the components of a real discipline.

Every dozen years or so, the National Research Council attempts to determine which universities have the strongest departments of philosophy, physics, economics, and other familiar disciplines. Film and media studies, however, have never appeared in the council's rankings. That may change, if only because scholars are increasingly fascinated by subjects such as the history of film censorship, the representation of transgendered people, the ways that music can transform a movie, and the massive popularity of Dancing With the Stars. As chair of the program committee of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies, I have had a unique opportunity to assess what is on the minds of cinema and media scholars while helping plan the next annual conference, to be held next month in Vancouver.

When the council released its last report, in 1995, cinema programs were unranked but not ignored. The field was declared to be — along with race, ethnicity, and postcolonial studies, and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies — an "emerging discipline." The council is now seeking information that can put cinema and media studies into its next set of rankings. Charlotte V. Kuh, who first declared film studies to be an "emerging discipline," has coined a new term for the field, declaring it a discipline of "ambiguous provenance." Although the term might suggest something more exotic, it merely acknowledges that the advanced study of cinema takes place in departments of comparative literature, French, theater, and communications as well as in programs prominently labeled cinema and media studies.

As director of the task force that constructs the council's taxonomies and places disciplines on its various lists, Kuh will determine how many faculty members and students are engaged in film and media study at Ph.D.-granting institutions. The task force is most interested in whether or not the discipline has reached the mandated number of 500 Ph.D.'s over the past five years. If not, cinema and media studies will officially remain in an emergent state.

We think we have met the 500 requirement. We simply have to identify all those ambiguously provenanced graduate students who have written dissertations in cinema and media studies. Although there are serious arguments about when and where it all began, the first American Ph.D. in film studies was probably granted in the early 1960s at the University of Southern California. Every year since, a growing contingent of graduate students has written on cinema and, increasingly, television. The Society for Cinema & Media Studies (until a few years ago the Society for Cinema Studies) has been in existence since 1959 and has been holding annual conferences since 1960. The organization now has more than 2,200 members, every one of whom will tell you that the field of cinema and media studies is a fully developed academic discipline. The prospect of imminent official recognition provides an opportunity to assess the state of the field today.

I've built the upcoming meeting's schedule out of what remained after the program committee evaluated 161 proposals for preconstituted panels, 28 proposals for workshops, and 571 abstracts for papers that scholars sent into the open-call hopper. Even a quick survey of those proposals reveals how the discipline has matured.

What jumps out at you first is that auteurism is still out of favor. When film critics in France began watching American movies with unprecedented rigor in the 1950s and 1960s, they decided that the best American directors were the authors of their films. The favored auteurs were said to inscribe a film — even a Western or a musical — with their unique artistic vision. Initially the auteur theory had great appeal for American scholars. In the 1970s, a young professor wishing to offer a film course could tell her chairperson that musicologists taught the great composers Mozart and Beethoven, art historians taught the great painters Michelangelo and Rembrandt, and that she, accordingly, would teach the great directors Jean Renoir and Ingmar Bergman. Thus was modern film studies born.

But even though most American film scholars are still likely to say, "Have you seen the new Cronenberg film?" rather than "Have you seen A History of Violence?," the auteur theory has been losing ground since the late 1970s. In those heady days of Grand Theory, feminist and ideological critics persuasively argued that directors are primarily and unconsciously engaged in transmitting the values — good and bad, but mostly bad — of their cultures.

Film scholars today still harbor a deep suspicion of the old romantic auteurism. A survey of the proposals for this year's conference turns up not a single panel focused on Bertolucci, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarantino, or any other brand-name director. There are, however, more than five proposals for papers about the French director Chris Marker, best known for the stunning La Jetée (1962) and currently breaking out of conventional cinematic modes with multimedia CD-ROM and essay films.

The handful of other directors discussed in more than one proposal include Todd Haynes, who in films such as Far From Heaven (2002) delicately stretches the conventions of melodrama just short of the breaking point, and Michael Haneke, who throws monkey wrenches at convention in films such as Funny Games (1997) and Caché (2005). Like Marker, these post-auteur auteurs engage in intense dialogues with film and media history and are thus irresistible to cinema scholars.

If the discipline's devotion to the best-known auteurs is narrowing, the global reach of cinema and media studies has become vast. A long list of nations appears in the proposals. There are as many papers addressing cinema and TV in Ecuador, Egypt, Poland, the Philippines, and Thailand as there are on media in France, Germany, and Russia. Other than the United States and Canada, the countries most represented in the proposals are China and Korea. Both are now in cinematic golden ages. If you don't know these cinemas already, start by renting the films of Yimou Zhang and Chanwook Park. Nevertheless, the proposals tend to be less about aesthetics and more about how Chinese and Korean films are made, distributed, and received in global economies.

After reaching out to television and media scholars by changing its name to the Society for Cinema & Media Studies in 2002, the organization is now receiving almost as many proposals about specific television programs as about specific films. For every abstract on a cinema classic or a new film there is one for Perry Mason or Battlestar Galactica. And if this year's proposals are any indication, those water-cooler chats about HBO's Sunday-night programs are especially intense in faculty lounges. At the 2006 conference, much analysis will be lavished on Deadwood, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. One scholar discusses the richly evocative opening-title sequence in Deadwood; another argues that Larry David has extended and deformed the tradition of the American innocent best exemplified by Charlie Chaplin.

Scholars intrigued by technology are increasingly attracted to what will be called "new media," at least until digital imagery loses its novelty. One of several proposals on video games considers those based on spectacular melodramas, such as James Cameron's The Abyss, that seek to reproduce the visual splendor as well as the emotional impact of the original film and may even bring tears to a player's eyes. Another argues that the award-winning Civilization games present old-fashioned colonialism as the only way to build a decent society.

If the auteur theory helped professionalize the discipline in the 1960s and early 1970s, film theory was the route to professionalization in the late 1970s. By theorizing what goes on in the minds of individuals watching huge images while sitting in the dark, cinema scholars definitively established that their work was not a watered-down version of what took place in English and theater departments.

Psychoanalysis, especially the French rethinkings of Freud, was especially useful for the first film theorists. The single most influential article in the history of film theory is surely Laura Mulvey's 1975 broadside, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Combining French interpretations of Freud with feminist and Marxist analysis, Mulvey declared that mainstream cinema was one of many parts of an oppressively patriarchal culture. For Mulvey, women could watch Hollywood films as metaphorical transvestites, participating in an unambiguously male gaze at fetishized female bodies; or as masochists, identifying with the victimized women on the screen. The work of Mulvey and those who extended her theories on the gender politics of representation is hardly forgotten, but it is no longer front and center.

Indeed, Mulvey's name is nowhere to be seen in the stack of proposals for the 2006 conference. And I found only one mention of Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst who was a major influence on Mulvey and who, in his theory of the "mirror stage," explained how children become perfect consumers of cinema at 1 year old. According to Lacan, when a mother holds her child up to the mirror and the child sees itself as more coordinated then it actually is (the mother is usually holding her baby in a standing position, preventing it from falling), the child sees an idealized self-image, an experience it will repeat every time it identifies with the glamorous characters on the enormous mirror that is the movie screen. The theory may not be dead, but Lacan is no longer a central figure. Even Slavoj Zizek, the flamboyant theorist who revived Lacan in the 1990s, is absent from the proposals.

The one theorist who pops up repeatedly in the proposals is Gilles Deleuze, another Frenchman, but one with little patience for the old therapeutically based models of psychoanalysis and cultural politics. In his work on cinema, Deleuze focuses primarily on how time and the image disrupt the supposedly seamless flow of film narrative. But in his other writings, he has argued that people are connected less to families and countries and more to the natural world. A central image in De-leuze's thinking is the rhizome — an invisible, subterranean structure that connects seemingly independent entities on the surface. Accordingly, film scholars are now using Deleuze's ideas to look past familiar patterns of connection to theorize about gay identity, cinema of the developing world, and many issues that are usually at the margins of the discipline.

One word that appears in a large variety of proposals is "postfeminist." Scholars are writing about the postfeminist body, postfeminist Hollywood, and even the postfeminist femme fatale. One paper suggests that the recent consignment of the Miss America pageant to an obscure cable channel shows that, at least in the popular media, a woman's body and mind are no longer perceived as an integrated whole. All those makeover shows that seldom ask young women to perform or express high ideals suggest that identity is not within the body but on its surface.

If earlier models of feminism are losing ground in popular culture, they are still central to cinema and media studies. In fact, cinema and media studies are more gynocentric than ever. Numerous proposals ask that we think critically about female performers such as Josephine Baker, Monica Bellucci, Jayne Mansfield, and Barbra Streisand. The paper on Mansfield, for example, identifies her penchant for bombshell self-parody, while the essay on Bellucci traces how American and French filmmakers have displayed her body in order to emphasize her Italianness. The number of papers on male stars is much smaller, and one is devoted to that most unconventional star, the Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa (whose roles included Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai). There are also numerous proposals about coming-of-age films both for and about adolescent girls, including a paper on how many of the films both analyze and enforce the iron grip of consumerism on these young women. Other papers examine the carefully policed definitions of female beauty promulgated in TV shows such as America's Next Top Model and What Not to Wear.

African-American studies and queer theory are also alive and well on the conference program. The scholarship in black studies is typical of what is happening in the discipline as a whole. Even if many papers praise black performers for their achievements, they are just as concerned with how the artists are appropriated by white culture. As a paper on Louise Beavers points out, even though Halle Berry mentioned several prominent black actresses when she accepted her best-actress Oscar in 2002, she overlooked Beavers, who appeared in more than 125 films, usually as a mammy figure. The paper argues that more attention needs to be paid to an actress such as Beavers primarily because she makes so many of us uncomfortable. Interrogating that discomfort is as important as celebrating the actress's long career.

Gay and lesbian theorists continue to bring their subjects out into the open, and not just in order to "queer" performers popularly regarded as straight. One proposal reveals how the filmmakers of An Ideal Husband (1999) and The Importance of Being Earnest (2002) heterosexualize characters and situations taken from plays by Oscar Wilde by scrupulously excising Wilde's homoerotic double meanings and his wry potshots at marriage.

So where are cinema and media studies headed? If the coming conference is any indication, the trends toward identity politics and non-Western cinemas — as well as the abstract schemas of Deleuze — reveal a centrifugal force away from canonical directors and the old Hollywood, once the comfortable center of cinema studies. But at a time when American cinema is producing highly regarded films with prominent gay themes like Brokeback Mountain, Transamerica, and Capote, it may be that Hollywood is catching up with cinema and media studies. And if the society can compile that list of 500 dissertations, the National Research Council might catch up as well.

Krin Gabbard is a professor of comparative literature and English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His most recent book is Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 52, Issue 24, Page B14

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