Theory and practice meet in film studies

For his article “Film Dept. struggles to accomodate all” (2/22), Ben Beitler’s questions seemed narrowly focused on the history of the program. I’d like to add a few remarks about its present and future. First, the Film Studies program has made clear to the administration that a full-time filmmaking teacher is its number one priority in terms of additional faculty for undergraduate teaching. Certainly, it is true that numerous colleges and universities have at least one full-time filmmaking professor while Yale has none. This pains me as much as any of the students he quoted: I hope this failing can be rectified.

Second, it is important to realize that the program of creative courses offered by Film Studies has become much more developed since the mid-1990s. Before then, screenwriting courses were only taught as occasional college seminars; now we have a full-time screenwriting professor. Additionally, there were no courses devoted specifically to documentary or fiction film/videomaking — now we have a number. With the recent and still tentative addition of two courses involving filmmaking, the Film Studies program has been reassessing the ways that students can move through the major. Changes may well be reflected in next year’s blue book.

There are many different kinds of film departments in colleges across the United States. NYU is a studio arts, production-driven enterprise. At Columbia University, in contrast, the undergraduate major is almost exclusively focused on critical studies. Although our majors can undertake a wide variety of critical studies concentrations (e.g. American film and culture, film and literary theory), we do strive for an integrated balance of critical studies and creative courses in order to accommodate to those majors pursuing their passion for filmmaking. Such a balance certainly existed at Yale when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s. My three principle film studies professors — Jay Leyda, Standish Lawder and Michael Roemer — were highly regarded filmmakers who were actively teaching history, theory and criticism. The knowledge I gained from them enabled me to get hired to work on interesting projects undertaken by filmmakers such as Peter Davis, Milos Forman, Woody Allen and D. A. Pennebaker. To work with these directors, people had to have a strong grounding in the history and theory of film. (I think this is still true today.)

My Yale studies prepared me for these opportunities and later fostered my own modest but reasonably successful efforts at filmmaking. If I had not developed a passion for book writing and academic life, I might still be in the world of production. A mixture of creative and critical studies classes also worked for some of my classmates — such as Walter Parkes (former co-head of DreamWorks Pictures) and Tom Lennon (who won an Oscar last year for his documentary short).

It might have been helpful if Beitler had interviewed more of our current majors. I know they have ideas for improvements and doubtlessly some complaints. However, his article gives the impression that we are out of touch with basic student aspirations. Talking to Alice Wang ’08, who has just finished a senior essay entitled “Objects and Subjectivity: The Reconstruction of a Nostalgic Past in The Virgin Suicides” and is now completing her senior project in Fiction Film Workshop, might have provided a more reassuring perspective on our balanced approach. Our method, I believe, does appeal to many students. But let’s not get carried away. Most aspiring poets not only write a lot of poetry, they read a lot of poetry and have a lot to say about it. Most aspiring filmmakers not only want to be making films (or more often videos), they want to look at and analyze a lot of films as well. This is how we learn.

The possibility that Yale’s School of Art might develop a concentration in filmmaking for undergraduates is an intriguing one. If such a program did emerge, I would hope and expect that the School of Art and Film Studies would continue to share resources and faculty. While such a concentration might create some appealing new options for students, it is my belief that some of the frustrations expressed by Emily Ferenbach ’09 and others would be addressed if we had one (and eventually two) full-time filmmaking teachers who could contribute to the life of the university in ways that are impossible for part-time adjuncts.

While the Film Studies program is never going to satisfy everyone, our integration of theory and practice is a pedagogical approach that we share with the Theater Studies program. Both of these programs are part of Yale College and are committed to offering a humanities-based, liberal arts education. That is, I think, a good thing.

Charles Musser, professor of American Studies, Film Studies and Theater Studies, is the co-chair of the Film Studies Program.

Comments