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Alone at the Movie House

By Cara B. Eisenpress, Crimson Staff Writer

Can movie marathons be more than the activity of Sunday afternoons? For Ian S. Polonsky ’06, who turned in his film studies thesis in March, they are the stuff, apparently, of serious research and work.

Despite high enrollment in film studies courses––208 students flocked to the Film Studies’ core offering “Literature and Arts B-11: The Art of Film,” the foundational course that used to be given through the Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) department––Polonsky was the only senior who wrote a senior thesis in the field this year.

It’s certainly not a lack of resources that stops would-be film thesis writers. “Harvard gets the thumbs up as a place to study film,” Polonsky says. “The professors are excellent. VES is even one of the rare departments that gives thesis writers a working budget.”

For Polonsky, taking VES classes as a freshman got him hooked on the department and made him realize what he could do in it. In fact, the idea for his thesis was born in J.D. Connor’s “VES 172h: Histories of Cinema 2: Sound, Space & Image to 1960” class, which he took sophomore year. Semesters of interpretation later, he decided to focus on the musical sequences of 1930s musical director Busby Berkeley as they have come to be viewed since being shown in a montage at a 1960s revival theater.

Connor, who worked closely with Polonsky throughout, pinpoints the draw of working on a Film Studies thesis. “In other humanities, you get weighed down by the past. In the case of a film thesis, it’s not hard to break new ground. It’s more like a biology thesis. You don’t get to do that if you want to study Fitzgerald or Hemingway,” he says.

Polonsky started out fascinated by Berkeley’s sequences, but found himself doing research about its legacy in the 1960s and after. In the end, the thesis “wasn’t about a specific film or what Busby Berkeley was doing in the shots, but about how it was received,” he says.

The combination of primary sources, critical theories, and independent research show how this thesis work is just as rigorous as that done in other concentrations. “Everyone thinks VES is just kids who make art projects, but there are a few of us wandering about who do written work,” Polonsky says.

Those “art projects”––films––supplement film theory work, if only because of proximity. In the end, Polonsky says, “I want to actually go into the filmmaking world, though not behind the camera.”

He hopes to do work in production development––reading scripts, deciding what to make and not to make, having ambitious artists under his authority––and hopefully end up as the head of a production division within a film company.

And his background makes him a good candidate. According to Polonsky, many of the important people in production have intellectual backgrounds: making movies isn’t about dropping out and heading to Hollywood anymore. One doesn’t have to choose between making movies and learning about them. Connor says this attitude has been adopted in VES: “We try to avoid the trade-off as much as possible.”

Polonsky says that James Schamus is more or less his role model. He is the president of Focus Features, a film company where Polonsky has interned. Schamus not only has a PhD, teaches at Columbia, and publishes, but he has also collaborated with Ang Lee to co-write and executively produce “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and, more recently, to produce last year’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Schamus’ success is probably the status a lot of film buffs want to achieve. And maybe, just maybe, Polonsky, with his lone film thesis in tow, is on his way there.

—Staff writer Cara B. Eisenpress can be reached at eisenpr@fas.harvard.edu.

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