Before Something and After Something Else: Film Studies in the Age of Media Studies

When I first looked at the title for the symposium, my immediate reaction was: there’s a word missing! The title should be: “The Future of Film Studies in the Age of Media Studies Degrees”. This is to say, my view of the topic is very much shaped by a particular institutional context – one in which the majority of students who study film are not film students as such, but media students. Over the last ten years, one of the major drivers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW, where I work) has been a shift to vocationally-oriented degrees. This has occurred at the same time as a decline in enrolments for traditional offerings such as the Bachelor of Arts.

This is not an unusual story – it is one occurring across the tertiary education sector. Despite this, film studies at UNSW has done very well, especially in comparison to other areas of study in the humanities. This is largely due to the way in which film courses are embedded within the structure of the three media degrees: the Bachelor of Media, Screen and Sound Production; the Bachelor of Media, Communications and Journalism; and the Bachelor of Media, Public Relations and Advertising. These three degrees provide the bulk of enrolments in the School of the Arts and Media. Film studies courses feature in the structure of each, and constitute an independent major within the Bachelor of Arts.

Thus, on one level, the good health of film studies at UNSW can be put down to a rigorous and, at times, exhausting process of curriculum planning involving staff members from both the media and film programs. This process has been successful because it builds on a history of good will and intellectual exchange between two areas that share aspects of an intellectual heritage, as well as a substantial cohort of students.

With this in mind, I want to turn to one of the questions that was put to symposium participants: “Can film studies remain a distinct discipline, or is it destined to be simply one of several areas in a larger field of media studies?” My response to this question is informed by the interviews conducted by Noel King, Constantine Verevis and Deane Williams for their publication Australian Film Theory and Criticism Volume 2 and Dana Polan’s book on the first decades of film study in the U.S., Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film. As far as I can tell, at no point has film studies functioned as a distinct discipline. It has always borrowed methods and concepts drawn from other disciplines across the humanities and the social sciences. Indeed, one of the features of film studies in Australia is its receptivity to ideas coming from other disciplines – its willingness to co-opt both people and ideas into its teaching and research agendas.

Having said this, it is equally true that film study is underpinned by something quite distinct. And this distinctiveness, I suggest, comes less from the theoretical concepts and methods employed by scholars, and more from the object of study itself. To put this another way, the thing that distinguishes someone working in film studies from someone using films for illustrative purposes is the capacity to use certain methodologies and theoretical frameworks to draw out of a film the cultural, aesthetic and formal questions that define its life and circulation – its worldliness.

If we prioritise this relationship to an object of study, it is then possible to grasp something very important about the discipline’s current institutional situation. The term that comes to mind is “value proposition”. This horrible, neo-liberal term has become part of the lexicon of modern university life. It circulates in the form of a question: “What is your value proposition?” Rather than objecting to this question and what it implies about the state of modern university life, let us accept the importance of having a response or, better still, a number of responses that can be used in different contexts.

In the context of this discussion, I want to suggest that what constitutes film studies’ value proposition for students studying media is its ability to cohere the vocational, theoretical and historical aspects of their teaching and learning. Film studies is able to do this because it has at its disposal a history of production that can be told in tandem with a history of ideas that spans the humanities and social sciences. The history that I refer to is not singular: it can be told from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints. But, regardless of how it is told, for all of us involved in the day-to-day business of teaching film, there is an implicit recognition that what we teach has been shaped by one or more versions of this history. For students studying something as multifarious as “media studies”, this is incredibly valuable and enabling.

Locating what we do in relation to a history that spans both bodies of work and ideas has other benefits and implications. “To know that one comes before something and after something else, being in the middle of the century like this, to be the maker of one’s own history oneself, of the history that follows you, is the only opportunity to make history”. [1] Jean-Luc Godard is talking here about how a certain knowledge of cinema’s history stamped the consciousness of the Nouvelle Vague and allowed it to understand how cinematic images and sounds constitute the very material of historical knowledge. This symposium (and others like it) confirm that we are at a similar point in the institutional study of film. We know that we came before something and after something else; we understand that the ideas and writings that inform what we do are inseparable from other ideas and writings that came before and follow after. The matter of film studies’ value proposition comes down to what we do with this knowledge – how it provides our teaching and research endeavors with vocational purpose. For me, this involves using lessons learnt from film to engage with other media, primarily photography, writing and performance. “It has taught us how to look at the world”, Thomas Elsaesser declared 24 years ago; and “now we have to learn how to look at the other arts and media through the lens of the cinema, but a cinema so naturalized, so culturally internalized as to be nowhere in particular and yet everywhere”. [2] This, too, is a matter of doing justice to film’s worldly qualities: its capacity to lead us back out into the world.

What film studies draws from its affiliation with media studies is something more than just the institutional protection that comes from high student numbers. It acquires a greater capacity to follow what is happening to images and sounds, to track their proliferation and movement out of the cinema into a range of spectatorial contexts and audiovisual environments. When I was reading the interviews in Australian Film Theory and Criticism, I was struck by a comment made by Tom O’Regan. Near the end of the interview, he reflects on the changes in his work over the last couple of decades. He admits that, on one level, it might seem that these changes suggest a move away from screen studies toward what he calls “policy-wonking and industry analysis”. But on another level, these moves were driven by the same imperatives that drove his earlier writings: “[T]o understand why filmmaking looks the way it does? What are the conditions under which it is produced? Why does it look this particular way rather than another way?” [3]

The affiliation between film and media studies ensures that we are better positioned to answer these types of questions. Indeed, if unable to answer them, film studies will not be able to claim a future, and nor will it have much of a past.

[1] Jean-Luc Godard, quoted in Antoine De Baecque (trans. N. Vinsonneau & J. Magidoff), Camera Historica: The Century in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 208.
[2] Thomas Elsaesser, “Around Painting and the ‘End of Cinema’: A Propos Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse”, in European Cinema Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam University Press, 2005), pp. 170-171.
[3] “‘The Circulation of Ideas’ – Tom O’Regan Interviewed by Deane Williams”, in Noel King & Deane Williams (eds), Australian Film Theory and Criticism Volume 2 Interviews (Bristol: Intellect, 2014), p. 73.

About the Author

George Kouvaros

About the Author

George Kouvaros

George Kouvaros is Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW. His most recent book is Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank's American Cinema (Minnesota UP, 2015).View all posts by George Kouvaros →