Mason Film Program Takes a Global Approach

Posted: August 8, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Art Taylor

The world of cinema has changed considerably in recent years. Barriers have broken down between the multiplex and the art house—and between what constitutes an American movie and a foreign film.

Though French or Italian directors once dominated the international film world, today Indian, Iranian, or Israeli filmmakers are just as likely to find scholarly attention and popular acclaim. While their films might have once been difficult to find at the corner video store, they are now just a mouse-click away, thanks to online rental agencies and distributors.

In the midst of such developments, George Mason’s interdepartmental Film and Media Studies (FAMS) Program is also making some significant changes this year, with Department of English courses giving attention to global cinemas far beyond cinema studies’ once traditional topics. This shift not only follows wider trends in film scholarship, but it also capitalizes on the interests and talents of film studies faculty within the English Department: associate professor Cynthia Fuchs, and assistant professors Jeanette Roan and Jessica Scarlata.

The traditional approach to cinema studies, which finds its roots in the 1960s, tended to focus on a largely U.S.- and Europe-centric film history, and later included the films of Japanese directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu. It also concentrated on formalism and the “auteur theory,” championing the director as the primary author of the film-text.

Aspects of auteurism persist today on a popular level; consider, for example, that this summer’s War of the Worlds remains a Steven Spielberg film, despite the hundreds or even thousands of people who collaborated to bring it to the screen. But the seeming simplicity of the director-as-author equation belies the complexities of filmmaking culture and economics in the 21st century, in which not only many people but also many nations may be involved in the making of a single film.

“While French or Brazilian movies might still be marketed as such in some parts of the states, many films are no longer made or distributed along nationally identified lines,” says Fuchs, who directs the FAMS program. “Production and marketing companies are international.”

Just as the auteur theory and the marketing of so-called national cinemas ran the risk of oversimplifying the filmmaking process, film studies’ once-dominant focus on American and European film too often resulted, Scarlata says, in a “partition between these countries and the rest of the world.”

“Film history courses often covered European and Hollywood cinema along national lines, and would devote only one or two weeks to the cinemas of India, Senegal, Mexico, Brazil, China, Hong Kong—all falling under the heading of ‘third cinema,’” Scarlata says. Film historians, scholars, distributors, and marketers all contributed to creating such a hierarchy, with organizations such as Miramax Films or the Criterion Collections’ DVD choices perhaps inadvertently creating a false sense of what constitutes “quality” film.

“You can’t not cover Godard or Truffaut,” says Scarlata. “You can’t ignore Italian neorealism. But you also want to cover films that may not have been shown widely simply because of issues of access.”

The film studies courses offered this fall at Mason serve to underscore the shifts in scholarly approaches, and to address some of the major changes in the ways films are produced, distributed, and marketed today.

Cinema and Global Culture, taught by Roan, is being offered for the first time this fall. The course originally grew from Roan’s interest in the rising popularity of certain Asian films. “People are watching movies with subtitles in the multiplex,” says Roan, citing the success of the “kung fu” genre and of movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. There is, as well, the movement of many Asian filmmakers to Hollywood to find work.

Roan is also interested in the success that Titanic has found around the globe: “What makes this huge Hollywood blockbuster appealing to all these different audiences? How does such a film circulate globally?” Such examples, she says, “change the way that we talk about what an American film is and what an international film is.”

Scarlata’s course, International Film, also approaches cinema with an eye toward access and distribution, and examines the relationships among filmmaking, national identity, and imagined constructions of “the nation.”

“The national image that the Irish Republic circulates in its cinema and visual culture is often at odds with history itself,” she says, drawing on her own scholarship in Irish cinema. She also points out how Mexican directors once explicitly strived to create a national image, drawing on the Mexican muralists of the 1920s, for example, and promoting the image of Delores del Rio made up as an indigenous Mexican as an emblem of the country. Later, director Luis Buñuel subverted some of the popular images constructed by previous directors and cinematographers to enhance his own social and cultural commentary. In her course, Scarlata will also address the state’s role in both funding and censoring films—and sometimes in both funding and censoring the same film.

The FAMS program is a collaboration involving several departments and programs within the College of Arts and Sciences, including English, Communication, Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, the Center for the Study of the Americas, and African American Studies. For more information, visit the FAMS web site.

This story originally appeared in slightly different form in Not Just Letters, the English Department’s newsletter.

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