As a first-year at Amherst my list of potential majors went something like: History, Sociology, Political Science, English, LJST, cultural elitism, turf & golf course management (available at the University of Maryland), entrepreneurship, constructed relativity, puppetry (University of Connecticut), mastodons in literature and society (personal favorite) and, of course, Film and Media Studies. I’d always been passionate about film, but had never found an outlet for serious film discussion in high school. Although the limits of high school film criticism in class manifested in complicated ways, some of the limits were obvious and very basic. For instance, while we read novels and short stories in my English classes dating back almost two thousand years (although admittedly most were from the past two hundred years or so), almost every film we watched was from the past 20 or 30 years and had been made in America, with little seeming effort to introduce students to films they likely hadn’t seen. I took solace only in the fact that student discussions about literature weren’t dense or difficult either; perhaps the poor treatment of film was simply an extension of the treatment of literature and this would all be rectified in college.
At Amherst, things are different. Every class has its on and off days of course, but students are generally interested in discussion, which is something I’ve found true regardless of subject. But this is especially true for English. With the caveat that I’ve only taken one formal class on literature (with many others informally related to or covering literature extensively), my experience in said English course was significant. I tend to talk almost too much in class, even if I don’t always have something substantive to say, but in the one English literature course I took I found myself surrounded by as many as twenty five students all equally interested in the material as I was. They were willing to explore, debate, discuss, and provide insight on the literature of the southern United States; each day, I was astounded at how many students regularly spoke, how interested they seemed in commenting and the insight they provided. It was, above all, a class with valuable input from basically all involved and that made it truly special.
Comparatively, I’ve taken three film courses at Amherst, all during my first two years here, before I gave up. The best, by far, was actually offered by the German department. It provided a fascinating look at film paired with an exploration of how the films we discussed reflected on the culture of the time they were produced. Student input wasn’t as regular as I would have liked, but the class was strong enough that students were pushed to think in interesting ways about film regardless. The other two were intro courses, offered by the English department at the time, and while I enjoyed one significantly more than the other, neither were especially challenging, and more importantly, neither featured significant student input from a majority of the class. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I was almost heartbroken. Why were these classes not like my others? This was supposed to be Amherst, the land of engaged students and serious academic discussion. They flocked to my other courses in droves, but where were they here?
The absolute worst fact was that those who did comment frequently treated film almost as a simplified version of literature, mimicking its use of language and dialogue to convey narrative, character and insight, without exploring any particular facet of storytelling unique to or enhanced by the filmic lens and the subjective camera. In English courses, people were keen on moving beyond events of a narrative. They were excited about exploring perspective not only through the characters, but also through the author and the landscape. Those elements, along with that of language, were all treated as characters in their own right who informed the narrative and the storytelling in meaningful ways. With film, I seldom heard anyone discuss aspects of storytelling which manifest in particular ways in the filmic world, such as editing and mise-en-scéne. Just as characters in literature are defined not only by what they do and say but also by how the author describes them, so too are characters in film defined not only by what they do and say. For instance, where they exist within the frame matters: how the camera films them, be it from above, below, or the side and their actions and vision related to the lens of the camera. These are uniquely filmic aspects of storytelling. These aspects are informed by and exist outside of literature and other forms of art, but are aspects that few students appear prepared to discuss. Instead, we focus on aspects of film which implicitly or explicitly judge its merits in relation to other forms of “more valued” art. We see the filmic version of a favorite novel and judge its merits in relation to how faithful it is to the book or whether the events of the plot were altered; we do not explore how the film differs by its very filmic nature, or how the presence of a visual element and a camera telling the story reforms it or alters it. In doing so, we do not grant films the agency to exist on their own terms.
We eat up poetry and classical music for their emotional and intellectual reflections on society and we comment on the narratives they tell, even when they lack traditional narrative flows associated with the conception of “plot.” Then, we see films that emphasize mood, form or composition over a formal “plot” and chastise them for being “story-less.” While students valued a complex understanding of other forms of art, they often reported that they felt films were being overanalyzed. And this, above all, is the principal disservice done to film in our society. We value it in a superficial way, and do little to explore it on its own terms and how its terms redefine and relate to society around us. We see film implicitly, then, even when trying to value it, as a lesser cousin of other forms of art.
Unspoken here is the implication that Film Studies should be theoretical. A major assumption and constructed norm itself, but a norm also true for literature, is that Film Studies should be focused on writing and analyzing film. Amherst vastly favors analyzing literature through essays on content, as opposed to creative writing courses, for instance, designed to produce authors. The focus is clearly on theory over praxis, as was true until recently for the film courses offered at Amherst (largely due to their being offered by the English department before the existence of a Film & Media Studies department of its own). This reality is heavily indebted to the liberal arts curriculum, and a trend Amherst is trying to buck of late with film courses by offering several courses a year on various practical and technical aspects of film-making. This will hopefully come without losing the conceptual and theoretical framework that is often necessary for understanding films as well.
This form of combining praxis and theory is useful and even ideal, but what about the average Amherst student who has no interest in making films and simply thinks of a film course as a way to “watch movies for homework”? Few students would take an English course to “read books for homework.” These students are unlikely to register for a course on making film. The shift to valuing film-making in the film department is important and meaningful in the context of the larger discourse around liberal arts, but something may be lost in the transition. Or, something would be lost if many schools had meaningful theory classes on film in the first place — courses that took the analysis of film as not only an art but also as a form of public culture.
Film is a means by which we relate to and understand the world and one another. We as a society digest film all the time; it’s all around us, and many of the biggest media events of a given year are filmic in nature. Instead of trying to understand why this is the case, and how it is that the construction of film, its dissemination and the filmic lens speak to us, we write film off and treat it as pop entertainment. Even this, though, says something about the power of film and what we could learn from it; if an art form is popular, there are particular, constructed reasons for its popularity both related to the art form itself and the way in which it exists in society. Film can at once approximate and distort life in intimate and complicated ways that shouldn’t be devalued. We have much to learn, not only about how “art” is produced by the artist, but about who gets to be an artist, what it means for something to be considered art, how this informs its relationship to society and how the public connects in some capacity around forms of art such as film. Seeing film as a form of “pop entertainment” and not valuing it for this reason is rooted in an oppressive historical dichotomy of valuing forms of media associated with the upper-class, such as visual art, literature, poetry and classical music. These forms of art are seen as “intellectual” or “meritous” and are expected to be valued as such. They are valued in opposition to forms of media such as film and popular (non-classical) music, which are seen as trite entertainment “for the masses.” In this light, by exploring film seriously, we break down this divide, learning not only much about film in the process but also about ourselves.