After 30 years, film studies balances theory and practice

Charles Musser ’73 was one of the first to major in film studies at Yale. The Whit- ney Humanities Center has been an asset to this more recent field of study.
Charles Musser ’73 was one of the first to major in film studies at Yale. The Whit- ney Humanities Center has been an asset to this more recent field of study. Photo by Samantha Gardner.

When Charles Musser ’73 finished his junior year in the 1970s, he decided to take time off — to work on an Oscar-winning documentary.

College was a place for books, for writing, for art, but not for watching movies, and Musser, a film buff, wanted to watch movies. So Musser left Yale for four years to explore filmmaking and landed a two-year job as an assistant editor for a Vietnam war documentary. When he returned, he opted to create his own major, becoming one of the first Yale undergraduates to major in film studies.

At the time, the academic study of film was only just beginning in the United States. Despite initial resistance from the faculty, the University’s film studies program has grown more and more prominent over the past 30 years since the University began offering degrees in 1985.

While film’s status as an academic discipline may no longer be challenged, the field is now forced to respond to new technologies and media. Echoing Yale’s liberal arts focus, the University’s film studies program has focused traditionally on theory rather than on film production — but with film production becoming increasingly popular since the advent of YouTube and high-quality portable cameras, students are quickly losing interest in the theory. Traditional reel film is becoming obsolete, and film studies professor Aaron Gerow admitted that “people consider film an ancient medium.”

“Cinema has kind of dissolved into other things,” said Musser, who is now an American studies and film studies professor.

Although an external review found that Yale’s graduate cinema program in critical studies, which focuses on theory rather than production, is one of the best in the country, professor Francesco Casetti said the review also noted that the undergraduate film studies program needs improvement. He added that the film studies faculty at Yale is largely composed of professors with joint appointments in other departments, which prevents the program from catering to students more interested in film production.

Different schools are adopting different approaches to balancing theory with practice, and Yale is no exception.

“We have to find our answer, specific to Yale,” Casetti said.

THE EVOLVING FILMMAKER 

Thirty years ago, filmmaking was expensive.

There were no high-quality cellphone cameras that would allow any film novice to shoot an impressive video. There was no technology that high school students could use to edit clips with a few mouse clicks. There was no YouTube for amateur cinematographers to share videos of their dogs playing fetch. And filmmakers usually went into severe debt, Musser explained.

As film production becomes increasingly commonplace and accessible, Yale’s film studies program has one great fear: losing its identity.

All five Yale professors agreed that the integration of theory and practice, with a focus on theory, makes film studies at Yale unique. Yale wants to avoid simply modernizing the program, Casetti said. Instead, he thinks the program should attempt to understand new media through traditional methods of cinema studies so that students increase their critical knowledge, not just their technical skills.

But film studies majors want more courses in the technical aspects of production. At New York University, which has a prestigious film studies department, fewer than 200 undergraduates are majoring in cinema studies, while over 1,000 are majoring in film production. NYU professor Richard Allen said the disparity in enrollment is understandable, considering filmmaking is “a very attractive career prospect.”

According to Film Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies J.D. Connor, production is also the most popular concentration within the film studies major for Yale undergraduates. Despite criticism from production majors that the program places too much focus on theory, the program is committed to teaching self-expression, Connor said. He added that Yale would never have a course on editing, for instance, as practical and technical courses defy Yale’s liberal arts focus.

Still, seven Yale graduate students interviewed said their critical studies education is well-regarded because of its balance between theory and practice.

“I feel really firmly that production just can’t exist without critical studies — you just won’t end up becoming a good producer,” Mal Ahern GRD ’17 said.

A BLESSING AND A CURSE

Few other film studies departments nationwide have clung as strongly to tradition as Yale has.

Allen, the NYU professor, said his department has redefined “cinema” to include any moving image.

University of Chicago professor Tom Gunning said his film studies department does not recognize a sharp divide between film and new digital media.

“People assume there was something called ‘film’ which existed for hundreds of years without changing, but the digital is just a later stage in something that has been continuously changing,” he said. “There definitely has been a change, but we think it’s positive.”

Princeton professor P. Adams Stiney said he respects Yale’s model. Stiney added that few film studies programs teach serious cinema studies, since most show DVDs and YouTube videos instead of actual reels, and Yale is one of only a handful of schools that offers a greater emphasis on critical study.

In addition to its traditional focus, Yale’s program is heavily multidicisplinary, drawing much of its faculty from other departments. According to film studies production major Deandra Tan ’13, the program’s interdisciplinary identity is “both a blessing and a curse.”

“There’s a tremendous advantage, on the one hand, to be able to pull faculty from other humanities departments,” Connor said, adding that Yale was able to create a robust film studies program on a modest budget because the University did not need to hire many new faculty.

Still, the jointly appointed professors also have obligations to other departments, which dilutes resources for students in the major, Connor said. He added that the program’s first priority is to hire a permanent filmmaker. Casetti said inviting more film scholars to Yale and increasing students’ exposure to professionals dedicated fully to film is another way to improve the program.

Despite the program’s issues, professors and students alike recognize the advances Yale’s film studies program has made in the past 30 years. Tan accredits this development to “the efforts of some amazing faculty, without whom it wouldn’t nearly be the major that it is today.”

The film studies program currently has 16 permanent faculty.

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