Film Track To Turn Reels, Heads
For decades, Harvard has had an informal film studies program: students interested in the academic side of cinema have, with varying degrees of ease, found like-minded professors scattered across a wide range of departments. Now the Carpenter Center—the department’s Quincy Street home—is humming with meetings about how best to bring that option above ground, with an undergraduate track in film studies planned within VES and a counterpart graduate program being considered for introduction shortly thereafter.
The proposed concentration option is still in the early planning stages, as many of the administrative and philosophical specifics that have stalled previous efforts to formalize film studies at Harvard have not yet been fully sorted out.
Faculty involved say that the concentration will largely function by pulling the College’s existing offerings in film studies into a single academic framework.
Non-VES film studies courses would remain in their own departments but would count towards the still-undetermined requirements for VES’ film studies concentrators. In addition to adding some number of new film studies courses to VES’ offerings, faculty say, the major task of the new concentration option will be setting up these requirements, giving a bureaucratic skeleton to the decentralized array of courses in film studies at Harvard, which they say has grown sharply in recent years.
“It’s a matter of formalizing it,” says Kenan Professor of English Marjorie Garber, chair of VES. “This is not a stretch for us.”
Garber and others say a formalized film studies program would attract many undergraduates, both concentrators and students from other concentrations who take notice of newly-prominent electives.
“It’s going to change visibility,” Garber says.
Chair of the Department of Germanic Literatures and Languages Eric Rentschler—a key figure in the development of Harvard’s film studies program since his arrival as a tenured member of the department five years ago—echoes this view of the project, saying he hopes the concentration will take the resources already present at Harvard and “give them programmatic sense.”
To that end, he says, an 11-member committee of film studies faculty from VES and beyond has met once already and plans to meet three more times this semester. The committee is charged with hammering out the nuts and bolts of what will eventually be a proposal to the VES department, which will be able to approve, deny or send the proposal back for revisions. If approved by VES—which Rentschler says he hopes will happen by the end of the current calendar year—the film studies plan would come before the Educational Policy Committee (EPC).
Garber says she hopes the EPC will review the proposal within the academic year, while Rentschler says he thinks that committee could have a copy of the proposal as soon as early winter.
After the EPC’s go-ahead, the proposal would have to pass through the Faculty Council and, finally, the full Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) before film studies can join Harvard’s existing concentrations and tracks.
Members of the present film studies committee—whose membership is distinct from that of the FAS ad hoc film studies committee, which publishes an annual guide to film studies at Harvard—stress that the proposal is still in a preliminary stage and many of the specifics of the planned concentration have yet to be determined.
“We will do it right, rather than try to do it fast,” says Assistant Professor J.D. Connor ’92. Connor, who joined Harvard’s faculty this fall with a joint appointment to VES and the Department of English and American Literature and Language, is also a Crimson editor.
Connor’s return to Cambridge was one of the most recent milestones in a long buildup to the present high tide for film studies at Harvard.
Garber says that before this year, VES committed itself with Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby to adding two positions in film studies. Connor, as a joint hire, counted as one-half of a position; another joint hire in film studies this term—Assistant Professor Despina Kakoudaki, appointed to VES and the comparative literature department, who is on leave until next fall—was a second half-position.
That left one more open spot in film studies, which Rentschler says VES hopes to fill with a full senior professor by the end of the academic year. He says that the search process for that third hire is ongoing, with the department having whittled the possibilities down to a short list.
With these new appointments and the department poised to create an undergraduate concentration in the field, Rentschler is convinced that film studies’ position at the margins of Harvard is a thing of the past.
When he arrived at Harvard in 1998, he says, the major project at the time was collating the College’s existing offerings in film studies into a brochure for students—in part to demonstrate to administrators that starting a formal film studies program would not require major course additions. This strategy is still at the forefront of the push for a concentration track.
“One of the ways that faculty are persuaded of things is to show that it already exists and needs to be formalized,” Garber says.
The first edition of the brochure came out in fall 2000, Rentschler says, to apparent success.
“From the time I was here, I’ve seen only green lights,” he says, adding that he has received “nothing but support from University Hall.”
Bruce Jenkins, Cavell curator of the Harvard Film Archive (HFA), says that Kirby is “a little more traveled in this area” than his predecessors, citing the dean’s knowledge of Chinese cinema.
And after so many years of being dispersed throughout FAS, film studies has been left in an oddly auspicious position at Harvard: with the critical resources of a formal film studies program and none of its lingering strictures and bureaucratic baggage.
“We’re freed from the past in a way,” says Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking Robb Moss. “It’s precisely because it hasn’t happened here in this organized way that gives us the chance to do something special.”
Long Time on the Story Board
Longtime observers say a unique set of circumstances, intimately tied to the complicated development of VES, have conspired to make film studies what Connor calls “the last art to hop into the Arts and Sciences.”
“The tradition we have is at variance with the institutional standing that film studies have here,” Rentschler says.
Philosophical concerns both within and without the department are at the root of this historic resistance.
Several professors note that the academic theory of cinema was essentially founded by Hugo Munsterberg—a Harvard professor of psychology—shortly before his death in 1916.
But Jenkins says that as early as the 1920s the idea of establishing a Harvard Film Library that would have been the first of its kind was floated—and rejected.
That idea would not see the light of day until the 1979 establishment of the HFA, whose collection of original film reels Jenkins says is unparalleled by any other university.
“This place has the wherewithal to teach film studies with the thing itself rather than a pale version of the thing itself,” Jenkins says. The experience of watching the HFA’s vast array of 35 millimeter films in its theater is hardly comparable to watching a video copy of a movie, he says.
Many professors say that along with the HFA’s founding, the 1970s saw a flourishing of film studies both at Harvard and at many of its peer institutions, where formal degree-granting programs were then established.
“One could have very well said ‘its time has come’ 25 years ago,” Rentschler says.
It was in the early part of that decade that Robert Gardner—now an associate of VES, formerly its chair and the director of the Carpenter Center—says many began agitating for an independent Department of Film.
“That idea was put aside because film was always the strongest element in a department called Visual and Environmental Studies,” Gardner says.
Moreover, a fear of the academicization of film studies has led some to oppose the very idea of formalizing Harvard’s program.
“I know there was a worry [in VES that film studies] would pick up the bad habits of a hardened academic department,” Connor says.
In the absence of an official program, a core of professors interested in film studies has steadily grown within and without VES—and yet Moss says that only in the last few years has “the University given its imprimatur” to a film studies concentration.
“It’s a very cautious institution,” Jenkins says.
Several professors cite a persistent snobbery in the ivory tower as having prevented film studies from being embraced at Harvard.
“The real problem for film studies at Ivy League institutions, I think, is a bias on book culture,” Rentschler says.
Cast and Crew
Even those who agree on the wisdom of a formal program are conflicted about the exact direction such a program should take.
“The major concern will be about tutorials,” Rentschler says.
Rentschler says concentrators will have room to pursue a wide variety of interests within film studies, but stresses the importance of crafting requirements.
“It’s going to be a concentration with a very clear-cut set of probably six [required] courses,” he says.
The committee is currently discussing the question of what common academic experiences all those graduating with a degree in film studies should share.
“We obviously as a concentration have to give people the nuts and bolts,” Rentschler says. Concentrators must learn the basic history of film and the theoretical tools necessary to “read” a film, he explains.
Many wonder how much film studies concentrators should be expected to know about film production—an area in which there is already a well-established track within VES. This resource, Connor notes, is finite: requiring film studies concentrators to take existing VES film production courses could take away valuable spots in those capped-enrollment classes.
Rentschler is also currently planning for a prospective graduate program in film studies, which Garber says would not be part of VES. Rentschler says that a proposal for the graduate program will be put together this winter, with the aim of offering two graduate courses each term next year.
It will be “a tall order to get [a proposal] through by spring,” Rentschler says, but he and his colleagues will “try our damnedest.”
The need for a graduate program is made all the more urgent by the large enrollments expected for the film studies concentration; one of the most important reasons cited for the concentration option by its supporters is also cause for some logistical concern.
Rentschler says the committee is paying special attention to how they will find enough qualified teaching fellows for the concentration’s most popular courses.
He says graduate students in film studies would provide a natural pool of potential teaching fellows for the undergraduate courses. In the meantime, Rentschler says he believes that the current film studies TFs—largely drawn from a graduate workshop on film studies taught by Rentschler to students from many departments and faculties—will be enough to sustain the courses this fall.
Along with the need for qualified TFs comes the question of professors.
Garber says that with so many interested faculty already at Harvard, new hires are not critical to getting formalized film studies track off the ground.
“Right now we would be doing this largely with faculty resources, and that’s not a hardship,” she says.
But Connor says there are still important gaps in the film studies faculty, citing Harvard’s lack of an expert on silent cinema. Such holes, he says, might be filled by visiting professors, but Connor worries that it will be a challenge to find experts on the constellation of specific niches that make up a field as diverse as film studies.
Other issues include the space crunch facing VES faculty and Harvard’s lack of multiple screening rooms for 35 millimeter films.
“We really do need more screens,” Jenkins says. “You can’t have a university this large with so much interest in the medium...and have one 210-seat room,” he adds in reference to the Carpenter Center’s auditorium.
Even that single screen, Jenkins says, is in need of an updated sound system.
All involved agree that these issues will not stand in the way of starting the undergraduate concentration next fall.
But as VES winds the reels for the new program, Connor notes that showtime is by no means guaranteed.
“There are train wrecks periodically,” he says. “It has to actually happen.”
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.