Studying the study of film 

Film prof Haidee Wasson co-edits volume on state of the discipline

By Karen Herland

As a newly-minted PhD nearly a decade ago, Film Studies professor Haidee Wasson looked ahead and was surprised. Her chosen field – film studies – was widely claimed to be facing immanent decline. Some even predicted death.

"As a person about to be admitted into the special club, I was reasonably disheartened to see that its very future was in question," says Wasson. In response, she co-edited Inventing Film Studies, with Lee Grieveson of University College, London.

Ohio University became the subject of student filmmakers in the ‘60s. Magnifying glass

Ohio University became the subject of student filmmakers in the ‘60s.

Inventing Film Studies is a collection of papers tracing the evolution of film studies as a discipline. The volume brings together the work of established pioneers with newcomers all interested in film’s role in the academy.

Scratching the surface of the so-called crisis, Wasson realised that although celluloid as a medium was in decline, the presence and impact of moving images was expanding. The discipline itself was also slowly being redefined. Film scholars had begun to address the impact of moving images on computer screens, cell phones and PDAs. Film studies was not dying… it was transforming.

"Film studies offers a case study of how universities change and adapt. The study of film was long fuelled by the sense that studying cinema mattered to a changing world. Universities had a responsibility to respond. This is also true of new moving image technologies and cultural forms.”

Wasson underscores the health of inquiry into moving images, old and new, by pointing out Concordia's film faculty has published nine major volumes in the last 18 months.

"Studying film involves tracing the relationship between film and industry, government policy, artists, cultural institutions, and the public," explains Wasson, pointing out the importance accorded film criticism in the popular press and the constant discussion about the impact of new technologies all help tell the story of the study of film. "At its best, film studies maintains an interdisciplinary link to the world outside academia."

Inventing Film Studies reassesses some popular myths. "People think film studies was born after May 1968 in the intellectual revolution built on the back of student protests and activism. They see it as developing in parallel to, and informed by, the women's and gay rights movements, and anti-colonialism."

Although that marked an important phase, the book traces the study of film as far back as the earliest days of cinema. Wasson says cinema was initially studied at the turn of the century in sociological, psychological, and eventually industrial terms. Its relationship to the humanities (for instance, its inclusion in the Fine Arts Faculty at Concordia) represents a more recent shift.

In assembling the collection, the editors approached key figures. "Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen are considered founders of the discipline," says Wasson. "We printed a dialogue between them about the moments they consider important." Mulvey was the recipient of an honorary doctorate at Concordia's June 2008 convocation ceremonies.

Similarly, Camera Obscura, a paradigmatic feminist collective committed to publishing critical works on film and television, also contributed a chapter.

The editors made an effort to move beyond an American perspective, partly dictated by the centrality of Hollywood in film production. However, the contributions are limited to English, so the collection focuses on North America and the U.K.

Wasson suggests that each chapter either introduces, refocuses or enhances an aspect of the discipline. "So many details emerge in the dialogue between author and editor."

For instance, York University's Michael Zyrd's chapter examines the symbiotic relationship between avant-garde cinema and the academy that developed in the '60s and '70s. Usually staid institutions became major sites for the promotion and dissemination of experimental film.

"Avant-garde cinema relied on universities as an exhibition venue. Universities presented the work in an effort to stay relevant. They each needed the other to survive," says Wasson.

Wasson is currently examining the impact of small mobile film technologies. She's investigating how – long before iPods and YouTube – portable film projectors and mobile screens transported moving images out of movie theatres and put them everywhere else.


Concordia University