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Lights! Camera! Yale!
Since film studies was first offered on the campus 30 years ago, the discipline has survived repeated challenges to its academic credibility. With the arrival of some new (and tenured) talent, film may be poised for an enduring surge.

Ever since 1966, when a faculty member named Standish Lawder began teaching a film survey course through the art history department, Yale has made repeated attempts at bringing movies into the curriculum on a scale appropriate to their role in the society at large. So vigorous had the efforts become by 1968 that this magazine published a special issue on the subject, and several attempts were made in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—when the number of film courses and classes that used film to examine other disciplines was steadily growing—to create a first-rate film program. But the University balked every time. According to those involved, the resistance stemmed largely from a persistent belief that film didn’t have the scholarly tradition of other forms of expression—especially literature—and therefore wasn’t worthy of serious study.

But now, film has suddenly gained a much firmer footing, and with it a chance to put New Haven on the worldwide cinematic map. Viewing and editing equipment is being updated; the student-run Yale Film Society is back after a long dormancy; and University Pictures—which produces and screens student films—is enjoying an upswing in membership. But the center of attention is clearly the Whitney Humanities Center on Wall Street, where film studies has found a home and where Yale’s renewed commitment to the study of film is taking root.

It’s difficult to say exactly why, after so many years of ups and downs in film studies, this is happening now. Student interest in film is clearly on the rise; applications to the film major were up from 60 for the Class of 1994 to 104 for the Class of 2000. But this interest is no stronger than it was in the 1970s. Administrators say no single decision was made at the University level to build a top-flight film studies program at Yale, but those most closely involved are enthusiastic about its potential. “In five years Yale will be the place for the serious study of film,” says Michael Holquist, chairman of the comparative literature department, which participates in the program. Holquist predicts that Yale will soon offer its first graduate film degree program. “It’s a great idea and high time,” he says.

At the heart of the renewed vitality in film studies are a pair of new senior professorships in American studies and comparative literature. Searches for candidates to fill the new positions resulted last summer in the creation of Yale’s first-ever tenured film professorships. Charles Musser ’73, director of undergraduate studies in film studies since 1992, was elevated from associate professor to full professor in American studies and film studies. Meanwhile, J. Dudley Andrew, a well-known film scholar, was recruited from the University of Iowa as professor of comparative literature and film studies. They were named co-chairs of film studies, and given resources to update equipment, outfit classrooms, add faculty, and purchase films.

“It’s been a triumph of struggle over indifference,” says Howard Lamar, an Emeritus professor of history and former President of the University. In the 1980s, Lamar argued—initially unsuccessfully—to consolidate Yale’s dozen or so film courses (then loosely knit into a special divisional major) into a coherent degree program. It was not until Lamar’s last meeting on his last day as dean of Yale College in 1985 that the faculty voted to establish film studies as a formal interdisciplinary major, setting the stage for a 15-year rebuilding process that culminated in the most recent developments.

Lamar and other long-time film supporters say the program surely would have crumbled were it not for the “faith” and relentlessness of Brigitte Peucker, a former film studies chair who has taught film at Yale for 30 years, and, later, Musser. Their administrators and colleagues say they never stopped fighting for the program’s survival and gave it the structure and coherence it needed to be taken seriously by the rest of the University.

According to Musser, the unprecedented granting of tenure to a film professor—let alone to two in one year—represents a “sea change” that has given film studies long-sought stability. “We’ve reached a critical mass in which the program no longer will depend on only one or two key people,” Musser says. “Now if someone leaves, or retires, or moves, we won’t be back to square-one every time.”

Square-one is familiar terrain for film studies at Yale.

Until this year, there had never been more than one full professor with an appointment in the subject. Many popular film teachers left Yale to establish programs at other universities. Among them were Crafton, who went to Notre Dame; David Rodowick, now at London’s King’s College; Annette Insdorf at Columbia; Jay Leyda at New York University; and Angela Dalla Vacche at Emory. “We could have been ten years ago where we are today—at the cutting edge of film,” says Peucker, who teaches film courses while serving as chair of the German department.

With every significant departure Yale’s film program was forced to reinvent itself, and it often survived as much on the wits and imagination of the people who ran it as on institutional support. As chair of film studies in the early 1980s, Donald Crafton learned of a local theater that was going out of business. He arranged for Yale to buy some of its contents (including the popcorn machine) and persuaded the theater to donate the rest. Crafton sold what Yale didn’t need and used the proceeds to buy the projector that now serves the screening room in the Humanities Center.

Some opposition to the study of film lingers at Yale, although it appears to be waning as the program proves its academic rigor and its allies increase in number. “Not to study a major expression of the world’s many cultures is to say that part of our existence shouldn’t be taken seriously,” argues Lamar. Nevertheless, students and faculty sometimes feel pressed to justify their chosen field. “There are people on campus who think all we do is sit around, watch blockbusters, and eat popcorn,” says Claire Cherlin ’01, a film studies major from Baltimore.

That couldn’t be further from reality. Yale’s approach to teaching films has always been to stress close analysis of the material in the context of language and culture. Thus Yale’s 45 or so classes on film all teach its value as a unique art form, as a lens through which to examine the cultures that produce and consume it, and as a body of literature meriting the same intellectual study as any other form of text.

The faculty is aided in this approach by the fact that film studies is an interdisciplinary program. As such, it can—and does—call on the resources of such departments and programs as comparative literature, American studies, English, French, German, Italian, Slavic languages, Russian and East European studies, African American studies, history, art, anthropology, theater studies, sociology, women’s and gender studies, and political science.

The emphasis on a traditional “literary” approach to the material has provoked charges that the program is weak on the actual making of movies. Students complain that there aren’t enough writing and production classes and that those that are offered are too difficult to get into. Moreover, graduate film-school administrators say they’re interested in students who can demonstrate that they can tell a story through images.

Andrew and Musser are sympathetic, but they are trying to allay this concern without overdoing it. A production track within the major has been offered for about four years; there is talk that at least one new production course is in the works, and Andrew is asking his faculty to address more of the concerns of filmmakers even in their theory and history classes. Says Musser: “You never completely understand film until you shoot something. It allows you to better understand and analyze what the filmmaker was trying to achieve.”

Make no mistake, though: Yale has no intention of becoming a production school akin to NYU, the University of Southern California, or Andrew’s alma mater, Iowa. “I don’t think we should ever become a filmmaking school,” says Andrew. “If people want to make films there are plenty of opportunities here outside class, or they can find ways to go to NYU for a term. Film studies at the undergraduate level should be about studying the history of images and the history of stories.”

To graduate, film majors must complete three required courses—Introduction to Film Studies, Close Analysis of Film, and either Film Theory and Aesthetics, or Issues in Contemporary Film Theory—along with two courses in international cinema. They then take two more critical studies courses in film plus seven other classes that reinforce the major. A small sampling of options includes courses on French, Italian, Polish, Brazilian, and Japanese film; on the movies of Hitchcock and Forman; on race and representation in American film; on Nazi cinema; on film noir and classical Hollywood. Other classes deal with representations of the city, justice, literature, and theater in film.

There are two screenwriting classes and three documentary-production workshops. In addition, about two-thirds of this year’s majors are either writing a screenplay or producing a film as a senior project. The production courses are taught by people to whom Musser refers as “national filmmaking treasures:” Michael Roemer and D.A. Pennebaker. Roemer’s films include 1964’s Nothing But a Man, which chronicled life in the black south during the civil rights movement. Pennebaker’s work includes Don’t Look Back, a 1966 documentary about singer Bob Dylan, and The War Room, a 1993 look at Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. Andrew’s influence is expected to deepen a program that has been gaining respect outside the University. “Yale has always had the makings of a great film program,” says Holquist. “All we lacked was a dynamic leader. Dudley is preeminently that. In pairing Dudley with Charlie we have a great one-two punch.”

Described by his mentor, retired Iowa provost Sam Becker, as a “tremendously disciplined person and a productive scholar who never takes time away from his students,” Andrew was well known to Yale before his arrival on campus. At Iowa he taught many of Yale’s own film professors, including Crafton, Rodowick, and Dalla Vacche. He is credited with building one of the nation’s top five film programs—in a Midwestern cornfield, no less, far from the coastal centers of gravity in the entertainment business. But according to Steven Ungar, chair of Iowa’s department of cinema and comparative literature, his contribution included making film part of the cultural life of the university. Andrew founded Iowa’s Institute for Cinema and Culture, a campus-wide resource for viewing, analyzing, and producing films. He also founded an archive of French film, and he established many popular film series, marathons, and symposia.

With barely a semester under his belt, Andrew’s influence is already being felt at Yale. His spring course, World Cinema, drew 150 students. He produced an Irish film symposium, the first in a series to be held at Yale. He is helping comparative literature use film to boost the content of its non-Western international offerings. And plans are under way to add at least one faculty member to film studies, improve the quality of teaching assistants, help professors in other departments integrate film into their teaching, upgrade Yale’s film archive, and work toward a graduate degree program.

While he expects the undergraduate program to undergo minor change, Andrew predicts that the “real rebuilding” will take place at the graduate level. No one at Yale seems ready to commit to a graduate degree in film, but Andrew says he hopes to enroll at least one or two students in a graduate program in tandem with another department within a few years. “I’m interested in locating students who already are doing work in art history or comp lit, but who want to add film to what they’re doing,” he says. “I don’t necessarily have to have a center or a giant graduate program. I can just be here in comp lit and film studies. People will find me, I’ll find them, and I’ll do my part in changing the graduate landscape.”

The rejuvenation of film studies is being accompanied by related progress beyond its own precinct. Memberships have risen in University Pictures (UPIX) and the Yale Film Society (YFS), and film-industry luminaries—alumni and non-alumni alike—are turning up on campus with increasing frequency. UPIX has been a resource for student filmmaking since 1983. It produces short films every semester, rents equipment to students who want to make their own movies, and trains students in filmmaking. The organization also stages two festivals a year devoted to student-made films. Its membership has risen from about 15 last year to 50 this year; UPIX co-president Elizabeth Newman ’02 says many new members are film studies majors looking for an outlet for their production skills.

The Yale Film Society, created in 1958, is the only group of its kind left of the many that existed on campus in the 1970s, when films were shown nearly every night of the week. Video killed these organizations—including YFS—but film studies resurrected it in 1997 after more than a decade-long slumber. Musser says this was intended to give film majors access to experience—such as talking with filmmakers and dealing with distributors—they won’t get in class. YFS shows feature films every Friday night and has a production arm that occasionally helps students make their own movies.

UPIX and YFS are among the many organizations that also bring filmmakers and actors to campus for lectures, discussions, master’s teas, and screenings. With a roster of alumni that reads like a Who’s Who of the entertainment business, Yale routinely offers students up-close exposure to creative and executive talent. Recent visitors include Oliver Stone ’68, Al Pacino, and Spike Lee; producers David Milch ’66 (Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue) and Ken Burns (The Civil War) ; Dreamworks SKG executive Walter Parkes ’73; actor Kenneth Branagh; and Andrew Mondshein (editor of Chocolat).

Alumni have contributed in other ways, too. Milch taught a creative writing class and provided internships for students. Roger Mayer ’48, president and chief operating officer of Turner Entertainment Co., arranged for the department to borrow 35mm prints of classics from his company’s film library. Parkes, the head of the motion picture division at Dreamworks, donated about 100 movie scripts to Yale’s screenplay collection and arranged campus screenings of movies before their public release. Yale students saw The Peacemaker, Amistad, and American Beauty before almost anyone else in America. Other alumni have contributed money to restart YFS, to expand Yale’s film and video collection, and to purchase digital editing equipment.

All of this adds up to what Roemer describes as an “unstoppable” film energy on campus and a potential that Yale’s cinema program may soon play in the academic big leagues. With a beefed-up undergraduate program, the promise of a graduate degree and better facilities bolstered by extracurricular experience, Yale is building an environment that is beginning to offer students a balance of thinking and doing—with a long-term investment in an infrastructure to back it up. As Crafton, now chair of the department of film, television, and theatre at Notre Dame, says: “Once you get the infrastructure in place, it’s almost as hard to get it out of place as it was to put it in in the first place.” For those who have survived Yale’s bumpy film ride, words like those are a reason to smile.  the end


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