When the seriousness of the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and the college made the decision to effectively shut down face-to-face operations, the first thing I did was to make a contribution to the Amherst Cinema, as I feared it would not exist on the other side of this crisis. A significant part of my work as a film studies scholar and professor has not only been the study of the history of film, but the study of the history of film experience, specifically of movie-going. As a shy person who yet craves connection with others, movie theaters have long been my refuge. Sitting with strangers in the dark, together watching a series of moving images magnified on a giant screen is an experience that has filled me and countless others before me with wonder, with the very sensation of curiosity itself. Thinking, writing, and teaching about this phenomenon has also been a bridge with the sensation of feeling, of loving an art form even as I (and my students) bear a critical eye toward what we see.
I was therefore chagrinned to learn that the college has suspended its program that has enabled Amherst students this past year to attend films for free at Amherst Cinema. Some might say that it’s frivolous to expend resources on free movie tickets for students. But this program goes well beyond such a conception. When the Amherst College Film Society developed this program with the support of the Office of Student Affairs, they were becoming partners with a local business, one that has been hit hard not only by the pandemic but also by changing modes of watching film. I was thrilled to see the work of our burgeoning Film Society to think beyond the campus. Albeit only a few blocks from our hallowed halls, they were venturing beyond the college into the world of Western Mass and beyond. They were inviting — and indeed challenging — their peers to commune with one another and with the greater Amherst community over an art form. And in so doing they were inviting their peers to commune with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other film lovers throughout the world — cinephiles whose curiosity extends beyond the multiplex and the formulas that big studios fund. Students at Amherst, after all, are aware of the power of film and media; departmental research has shown that 70 percent of Amherst students take at least one film and media studies class during their studies at Amherst. In other words, the work by the Film Society to partner with Amherst Cinema has been an educational mission and a community mission.
Like other small, independent cinemas around the world, Amherst Cinema treats film as an art form rather than purely as an industry. It takes risks on “smaller” films with smaller budgets and often lesser-known casts or creators. It quite literally expands our vision through what it shows on its screens. Yes, we can often watch the same movies on our laptops or television screens or, heaven forbid, our mobile phones. But doing so changes our perception of what we see, whether through the other distractions our small screens share with us, through the loss of detail from the diminished image, or through the disappearance of a community with whom we share our experience. One might argue that we may never or only rarely communicate directly with other members of the audience in the theater, but I’d counter that we indeed connect with one another through our shared laughter, gasps, and tears. Every year I take the students from my Film and Writing course to Amherst Cinema, and every year they make this very argument themselves. And they want to return to the Cinema for the quality of the experience. After all, going to the movies has a value far beyond the price of a ticket. The partnership between the Film Society, the college, and Amherst Cinema is also an effort to support student life. Particularly given the challenges students have faced these past few years, it seems to me that allowing students some sanctuary in a local movie theater, watching alone or with friends, as well as beside those members of the film community whom they may only know by face or the sound of their laughter, is good for mind, body, and soul.
It’s my hope that we will honor this communion with one another, with our local town, and with movie-goers around the world by finding a way to sustain a partnership with Amherst Cinema. I would happily work with the college administration and, of course, with my beloved Film Society, to think about ways to make this happen.
Professor of Film and Media Studies