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John Sanford, News Service (650) 736-2151; e-mail:

Lights, camera, action: Film studies rolling at Stanford

Before founding a university, Leland Stanford played a key role in what is considered one of the most important moments in the history of motion-picture development. Now, more than a century later, a film studies minor program has just finished its inaugural year at Stanford.

Over the past few decades, discourse on film has made its way from coffee houses to college lecture halls. According to Professor Henry Breitrose, who established the university's graduate documentary film and television program in the Communication Department, academic interest in the study of motion pictures gained momentum during the early 1970s.

"There had been a certain reticence to the idea of seriously studying something that was both an art and an industry," Breitrose said. "But it became obvious that a lot of people who thought of high art as, say, the paintings of Michelangelo were really admiring an art form that was also a business: Michelangelo was paid to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, just as Bach wrote church music to earn a living. There's nothing about art that makes it necessarily incompatible with being part of an industry, and the study of the interaction between art and commerce is an important aspect of the field."

But Stanford has been something of a Johnny-come-lately to the area of film studies, a fact that Breitrose, who drafted the proposal for the program in consultation with colleagues, attributes to "a certain amount of conservatism with regard to the popular arts" on the part of the university.

"But that has changed, mainly for generational reasons," he added. The university's peer institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago, only recently have started formal film programs.

Now, administrators in Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences are considering a proposal for a film studies major. Meanwhile, film is attracting more and more attention from scholars here in various humanistic fields.

"Some of the most important art and probably the most influential body of art of the 20th century resides in English-language film," said Rob Polhemus, chair of the English Department. "The relation of film and narrative and the relationship of imaginative language and visual art are vital, blossoming fields of investigation in the broad discipline of English."


The film scholar

With dark, cropped hair and designer glasses, Scott Bukatman could have been whisked away from a group of art-minded New Yorkers and deposited, blinking, in the California sun. The 44-year-old film scholar bears a vague semblance to the playwright and screenwriter David Mamet.

Bukatman earned his doctorate in cinema studies in 1992 from the celebrated program at New York University. In 1997, Stanford hired him with the charge of helping to develop film studies, collaborating with a committee that included Breitrose and Michael Marrinan, associate professor of art and art history. "The idea was that film study would be connected to the study of visual arts in general," said Bukatman, sitting in his Cummings Art Building office, which is festooned with pop-culture bric-a-brac and movie posters.

Bukatman, the program's coordinator, is an assistant professor in the Art and Art History Department, where the program is housed.

"I see it pretty comfortably ensconced in the liberal arts here because it rewards the kind of study the liberal arts centers upon," he said. "It rewards textual analysis; it rewards the study of the artist; it rewards the study of film as a cultural document; and it rewards the study of film as a contested cultural document, created by multiple voices with different agendas and seen by different audiences with different agendas."

In this digital era, however, film is not the only medium that merits study, Bukatman said, citing computer-generated new media that also produce moving images, like video games. Nevertheless, many of these techniques and effects derive from filmmaking, he said.

"The study of film works very well on an undergraduate level because it synthesizes so much from other arts and other forms of expression -- including literature and narrative," Bukatman said. "It has a performative basis, like in theater and performance art. It is also a real-time experience. In many ways, it touches upon and synthesizes these various media."

A unique fine art

Legend has it that in 1895, audience members sitting in the basement of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris yelped and ducked for cover upon seeing the projection of a locomotive steaming toward them on a silver screen. What they were watching was the Lumière brothers' one-shot film of a train pulling into the station at Ciotat, a small seaside town about 20 miles to the east of Marseilles.

Yet this 50-second film, widely believed to be the oldest common ancestor of what is now modern commercial cinema, seems to embody an element that continues to make motion pictures unique among its counterparts in the fine arts: movement.

In film, not only are the images kinetic, but the mechanism for projecting them is, too: A roll of flexible film unspools in front of a bright light at 24 frames per second. For Bukatman, movement continues to be one of the most significant and defining aspects of film.

"The movement of objects within the frame, the augmentation of that movement through camera movement or through computer-generated movements -- or metamorphosis -- it just seems that movement and change make film very emblematic of the century that it's been part of," Bukatman said. "It really began at a time when modernism held great sway over the intellectual field of Europe and, in some ways, it's seen as emblematic of modernism: It's technological; it moves; it captures the fragmented pace -- the mechanical pace -- of life in this part of the century. And now that we've entered into a period of digital culture, we find that films that use digital effects are really using them to generate movement or exaggerate a sense of movement -- a sense of bodily experience at a time when people aren't quite certain where the body fits into culture anymore."


By John Sanford

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