FILM IS A FINE ART

 Writings of Gus    *note to the department

Film is a fine art – those like music and painting that are goals or ends in themselves- – and a liberal art, the study of those reflective and critical skills necessary to freedom. Film must not be taught in isolation from the humanities and the other arts; nor must it be taught in isolation from history and politics. Given that this newest of our arts draws on so many other major arts in our culture – – on drama, opera, poetry, painting, literature – – it is reasonable to consider any of the humanities or the arts as film’s academic home.Today new voices are demanding to be heard, seriously challenging the canon and the curricula based on it. Given film’s appetite for the arts and its individuality or autonomy as a new art, film is as naturally crossgrained as it is “interdisciplinary”: it offers a radical focus for questions of cultural plurality (it is international in scope, naturally crossing cultural boundaries and declaring both similarities and differences between cultures). Film also questions stereotypes and other social constructions, for a stereotype is indeed a “social construction”, and it can be questioned. Film focuses such challenges, projects and screens them, and discovers the mechanisms in our culture that enables some voices while silencing others, that allow some subjects while relegating others to the margins. Moreover, if our culture has shifted from the word to the image- – I don’t believe this but I entertain the hypothesis- – then why be wail the fact when a film curriculum can obviously reverse this direction. In my experience of teaching and learning from film, movies motivate texts, lead naturally to reading and writing. I require my students to read a great deal, and texts central to our culture and of real difficulty; and even though I have only one assistant for the several hundred students in my classes I also require them to write.Film is presently uncanonical. Those whose work contributes toward a curriculum in any subject know that we cannot in advance design what we can only discover in practice. But film’s uncanonical nature is one of its great assets. We do not know what it can bear and to date we do know that putting it together with the best that a culture can produce is an unending and critical apposition, one worth serious, humanistic study. Unlike scraping the hulls of years of interpretations, film is in the process of discovery and revelation where interpretation is concerned.One principle of my teaching takes its inspiration from Henry James admonishing aspiring writers to, Yes, write from experience. But before that there is something even more important:  “become one upon whom nothing is lost.” But given the nihilisms and fashionable skepticisms of the day don’t we begin by believing that if we are anything at all then we are ones upon whom, if not everything, then surely most important things are lost? Then teaching might be inspired to recover from this despair the self that is best; and learn again how to have a voice in one’s own experience; to stop the incessant voice of rediscover and readmit voices lost and denied.In exposing my students to the best in the other arts and humanities, and to the best in film, it is my hope that these first impressions might prove of sufficient force that they would one day return to the films and texts. By not providing film the best environment we can, we are missing opportunities as teachers and we are missing them at the sacrifice of our students. My fantasy? If students arrive with literacy in images film can help to teach them other articulations, the critical challenge of finding words, the best words, for something, like any masterpiece, that we know is better than anything we can say about it – that this piece of music, story, poem, play or movie offers what any art, liberal or fine, promises: a view of immediate reality, even one that competes with it on the best terms.  Moreover, film offers a student a critical reflective voice in his own experience, surely a place to begin education.  If we deny the student this voice we are as teachers missing one of the great opportunities our democratic culture offers, an art that appeals to the many and can in its greatest instances hold its own with similar achievements in the other arts. I shall end by quoting from some private correspondence from my friend and mentor Stanley Cavell: (should film be denied admittance to a serious, humanistic study and there be no honorable reasons for its rejection – – I can see none – then such denial) “expresses an indifference to the education of a region of our students’ interests and sensibilities that not only directs a significant portion of their times of choice and conversation but which, among all such current times, is the region most likely to persist throughout their lives, whatever their careers.” My fantasy is that film, our new art, is bidding fair and should be heard in its bid for equal treatment among the liberal and the fine arts.

Film requires for its study a socially and intellectually coherent and expansive place rather than one defensive and cultish. If there is any institution in our democracy which denies that there is but one game in town, it must be the university. It is a church permitting, even encouraging, heresy, a constant redress of what we believed were our basic values.
*comments welcome

2 thoughts on “FILM IS A FINE ART

  1. Great statement and the main reason I parleyed a study of film with Ira and Gus into an American Studies doctoral dissertation on Kubrick. The shot from Seven Samurai recalls more than one delightfully animated conversation over coffee in the Frontier concerning Kurosawa’s “masterwork,” the word Gus preferred to “masterpiece.”

  2. It was and is a kind of bedrock idea Gus had about film’s importance in academe. It was good that he was able to rally students through this form of teaching. Not having completed a doctorate at Stanford sort of hung in his craw for years, but given his extraordinary intelligence and capacity to entertain and instruct, he found a home teaching film at UNM. I dug watching him work; often casually, comically, he brought the young around to seeing the value in the crosscurrents that film projected.

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