Good or bad taste - it's in the can

May 11, 2007

Film studies now cover Tarantino as well as Truffaut and take in YouTube and obsure horror flicks. But academics are split on the subject's future, says Melanie Newman

Turkish trash cinema, Nigerian horror and Italian medieval sex flicks might not be everyone's idea of good taste, but to the academics, film-makers, distributors and critics meeting at Brunel University's Cine-Excess cult film conference, that's the whole point.

As conference organiser Xavier Mendik explained, cult cinema is meant to "transgress notions of good taste". With a series of books to his name on topics such as "Gothic musclemen movies" and "Nazi sexploitation cycles", Mr Mendik, who is also director of the Cult Film Archive, has put Brunel on the international map as a centre for research into obscure cinema that tests the boundaries of taste.

"I have tried to avoid giving Cine-Excess a traditional conference structure and see it as new type of film festival for theorists and the cine-literate," he said. "I passionately believe the future of film studies very much revolves around bringing the industry and academe together."

This year, he will share his passion with students as director of the world's first masters in cult film and TV.

Cine-Excess follows Edinburgh University's Arab film festival and Oxford Brookes University's human rights film festival held this year, all evidence of diverse expertise among British film academics and their willingness to look beyond the mainstream.

"The domain of cult-film studies has emerged from a wider academic acceptance that so-called trash could be taken seriously and that Quentin Tarantino is as relevant as François Truffaut, while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tells us as much about American society as any documentary could ever do. That willingness to engage with often marginal and difficult texts has really liberated the discipline," Mr Mendik said.

There is no doubting the popularity of film studies. A search on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service website turns up 775 "film studies" courses compared with 738 for chemistry.

But no two courses are the same. While departments such as Brunel's have embraced the more obscure reaches of cinema, others have capitalised on film studies' increasing respectability.

Jenny Barrett, a lecturer at Edge Hill University, said: "For a long time, film studies was tarred with the same brush as media studies. But now it's seen as a valuable degree that can open an enormous range of career opportunities in the film industry, journalism, teaching and project management."

Film studies generally began as a bolt-on to foreign language, English or cultural studies departments. Edge Hill's programme started as a module in an English literature degree. Universities later set up departments or centres of film.

Karin Littau, director of Essex University's Centre for Film Studies, said:

"In the heyday of cultural studies, film was mostly taught as part of popular culture. Now, quite rightly, it is treated as the art form of the 20th century. There is more emphasis on film aesthetics than ideology critique."

Other academics have noticed a shift towards film history in recent years.

Paul McDonald, professor of film and television studies at Portsmouth University, said film history increased the focus on the institution of cinema and how it evolved, moving into broader areas such as censorship, relationships between the film industry and the state or the wider commercial world. "This gives us a greater sense of how film seeps into and affects the political, economic and cultural life of a country," he suggested.

Not everyone is as optimistic about the discipline's state or as certain of its direction.

Historian Lee Grieveson, director of film studies at University College London, believes the disappearance of the set of ideas on which the subject was based in the 1970s leaves it facing an uncertain future. "Screen theory, which drew on Marxism and psychoanalysis, is dead; but nothing has replaced it," he said.

Noting that TV replaced cinema as Britain's most influential medium decades ago, he added: "Cinema has become a humanities subject and so ceased to be hugely important to broader society. I don't have a great deal of faith in my discipline."

The "digital transformation" and the emergence of websites such as YouTube have provoked "navel-gazing" among academics on the nature of film and the role of cinema, he said.

"Cinema is no longer central to audiovisual culture," said Dr Grieveson, suggesting that the discipline might adapt to this by connecting with other forms of media such as TV or broader online culture. "It always struck me as odd that film studies was positioned as separate from other media. It's anachronistic," he said.

Media studies departments have, of course, treated film alongside other media for decades. Sussex University has a tradition of examining interrelationships between media.

Lizzie Thynne, a practitioner in documentary film at Sussex, said: "Film studies tried to establish itself as an academic discipline using literary reference points and methods, which has become very dated as a means of analysis."

There are similar questions about media studies, such as whether it should move from "classic" texts and traditional media and embrace independent and international forms, such as those found on websites.

Other universities have avoided the media studies route but are broadening the scope of their film studies degrees. Sheffield Hallam University is offering new courses in film studies and screenwriting and film sound and music. Glasgow University launched a masters in film journalism in 2006.

Differing views on the subject's future and its positioning in departments reflect a long-running split over whether degrees should contain practical film-making modules.

Ginette Vincendeau, director of King's College London's film studies programme, said the lack of a film-making module has not affected the subject's popularity within King's.

"We are launching a single-honours degree in film studies in October, which is recruiting very well," she said. "Students recognise the value of studying film as a cultural subject."

Dr Littau does not think film practice is essential for studying film, but said: "Like creative writing, it is popular with students and good for recruitment."

Other academics believe a knowledge of film practice is key to understanding the discipline.

Michael Chanon, professor of cultural studies at the University of the West of England, believes the most forward-looking departments will integrate theory and practice. "I consider myself a theorist and a practitioner," he said.

Most students at UWE expect to enter the film industry, but few will fulfil that ambition, Professor Chanon said.

Universities have a responsibility to inform students of the odds they face, he said. "The number of film graduates is going up faster than the industry can take. We have more film schools and departments per head than anywhere in the world except the US, but little film culture." He advises students serious about careers as film-makers to take masters.

One subject that unites theorists and practitioners is worry over the cost of keeping up with technological advances.

Professor Vincendeau said: "If you're putting on a new English course, it's a matter of a few extra rooms with tables and chairs. If it's film studies and you want to do it professionally, it's a matter of tens of thousands of pounds."

King's is considering whether it should charge film studies students more.

"If you are teaching a science subject or medicine, which requires expensive equipment, it's reflected in the fees, whereas film is billed as a humanities subject. There is a discrepancy there," Professor Vincendeau explained.

Digital technology has brought costs down, but some universities such as Sheffield Hallam still show films by hiring prints.

Students are also posing new challenges for lecturers, not least because many of them are film buffs, and dealing with film buffs can be a challenge.

Many academics report an obsession with Hollywood among students. "They tend to think film history started in 1999 with The Matrix ," Professor McDonald said. One of the biggest challenges for departments is to widen students' appreciation beyond Anglophone cinema, he added.

This suggests there could be even more students studying Nigerian horror and Turkish trash in future.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

XAVIER MENDIK'S 10 CULT FILMS TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE

1 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) A seminal film that offers a graphic portrayal of America's underclass

2 Suspiria (1977) For its shocking gothic artiness

3 Society (1989) Splatter movie with a socio-political message

4 The Blues Brothers (1980) A road movie that pays homage to the influence of black music on American culture

5 Cabin Fever (2002) A shocker for the post-9/11 generation

6 To Live and Die in LA (1985) A film full of dark moral twists and great car chases

7 Enter the Dragon (1973) Ground-breaking Kung Fu film with a political punch

8 Deranged (1974) Acting hystrionics and gore. So bad, it's good.

9 The Hills Have Eyes (1977) Moral ambiguity in a middle-class-meets-mutated-underclass shocker

10 Universal Soldier (1971) George Lazenby, on the rebound after being dropped as James Bond, turns hippy and discusses philosophy with a dope-smoking character played by Germaine Greer.

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