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Lights, Camera...Film Studies

By Daniel J. Hemel, Crimson Staff Writer

In a Hollywood ending to their long struggle for official recognition, scholars of the silver screen won unanimous approval from the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) Wednesday for an undergraduate concentration in film studies.

The new honors-only 14-course track, to be offered within the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES), will make its debut this fall, likely accompanied by an expanded cast of film-focused faculty.

Because film studies will be part of VES rather than an independent department, the concentration proposal will not need approval by the full Faculty, said Chair of the Department of Germanic Literatures and Languages Eric Rentschler.

“It’s a done deal,” said Rentschler, a member of the EPC, which includes administrators as well as faculty representatives.

Rentschler, who helped orchestrate the effort to launch the film studies track, predicted an outpouring of student interest in the newly-formed concentration.

But he noted that under VES rules, prospective film studies concentrators will first have to complete a course in the field and receive an A grade.

Professor of VES Giuliana Bruno, the department’s only senior faculty member with a focus on film studies, hailed the EPC’s decision as a “wonderful moment” for Harvard.

“Traditionally, cinema studies in many universities are very often attached to literature departments, which is a more conservative way to see film as an offspring of the narrative,” Bruno said. “For Harvard to recognize finally the study of film as a creative tradition—not in a department of literature but in a department of art—is a forward-looking move.”

The film studies concentration also signals an expansion of VES’ domain, Rentschler said.

“VES is a department that historically has been involved in hands-on creative activity,” Rentschler said.

Whereas VES already includes students who focus on filmmaking, Rentschler said that film studies would “involve thinking about and reflecting on artistic endeavor.”

The proposal for the new track, which was developed by an 11-member faculty working group, allows concentrators broad opportunities to pursue interdisciplinary work.

Concentrators will be required to complete two to three courses outside of VES that do not emphasize film-related subjects, but that complement their departmental work.

According to Cavell Curator of the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) Bruce Jenkins, these could run the gamut from philosophy and literary theory to hard science classes for students who seek to explore mathematical models behind cinema.

“Stop for a moment and think about how much of contemporary life is of a piece with the moving image,” Jenkins said.

Rentschler also noted the interdisciplinary nature of film studies.

“Anyone who’s just studying film doesn’t know what they’re doing, because film involves so many other things,” Rentschler said.

At the heart of the film studies proposal is a trio of introductory courses that all concentrators must complete.

Rentschler said that Assistant Professor J.D. Connor ’92 will teach “Histories of Cinema I,” and Assistant Professor Despina Kakoudaki will teach “Histories of Cinema II.”

The teacher of the third introductory course, “Introduction to Visual Representation and Film Analysis,” has yet to be announced.

Concentrators also must complete at least six advanced courses “directly related to film and visual studies”—or up to nine advanced courses if they choose not to write a senior thesis.

Rentschler said that Harvard’s ensemble of cinema scholars would gain a boost from two potential additions next year: a full professor of film studies and a junior faculty member with a joint senior appointment in VES and anthropology.

And New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell will join VES in a one-semester cameo as a visiting lecturer this spring.

Rentschler forecasted that “many dozens” of undergraduates would seek to enter the concentration.

Film studies’ interdisciplinary focus is a major source of its attraction for prospective concentrators.

“I’d probably want to be a philosophy concentrator at another school,” said Daniel E. Luxemburg ’07, who is considering concentrating in the newly-formed track. “But the philosophy department here seems interested in old and dated stuff. A lot of contemporary French philosophy has to do with film and art theory.”

The proposal approved by the EPC Wednesday puts Harvard on the cutting edge of the field, according to Bruno.

“Cinema studies, truly conceived in relation to visual studies and architecture, is the way of the future,” she said.

The concentration’s access to the HFA’s resources will allow students “to see cinema the way it’s supposed to be seen: in a public forum, with people from all venues, on a big screen in a cinematically-special building,” she said.

According to Bruno, the film studies concentration will be housed alongside VES in the Carpenter Center, whose designer, Le Corbusier, earned acclaim for integrating cinematic elements into his architecture.

Even as it moves to the vanguard of film studies pedagogy, Harvard lags decades behind other universities in recognizing cinema studies as a discipline.

“The Ivy League has been—outside of Dartmouth—very far behind the times in recognizing film studies as a legitimate course of study,” Rentschler said.

But according to Jenkins, “being close to the last, we have certain advantages. We’re coming up with something more enlightened.”

While Harvard has long offered a variety of film-related courses, “we haven’t been able to bring them all under a programmatic umbrella,” Rentschler said.

Cinema scholars now are looking to launch a graduate program in film studies at Harvard.

VES academic services coordinator Michael Lawrence said the film studies committee aims to complete a proposal for a graduate program by the end of the academic year.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.

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