Well, obviously, to become rich and famous. And sexy. Studying film, particularly at a grad school level, makes you about 30-40% sexier, according to the Associated Press. Which is pretty impressive, given that film students spend about 75% of their time in darkened rooms, shut out from the healthy light of day, staring at a screen on which flicker the pretend adventures of a variety of people pretending to be other people. I understand that this is also the pastime of many mental patients.
No, just kind of annoyed, which is my perpetual state of existence, so I don’t really notice it anymore. But my annoyance turned to righteous indignation when I rolled across this excerpt from an interview with Chris Dumas, a film scholar who has written a book about Brian DePalma. Now, I will dismiss the concept of a scholarly book on Brian DePalma, which is obviously impossible, and focus upon what Dumas said about a film studies degree only being useful for picking up people after you get off of work at Wal Mart. He is a film scholar himself, and in the interview this is excerpted from he’s obviously being far more sarcastic than the excerpt reads. Still, it bugs me to hear a film scholar denigrate the acolytes of his own discipline. It’s essentially saying ‘I succeeded, but you won’t. All you can really hope for is a job at Wal Mart.’ But Dumas’s attitude is one that I’ve heard far too often.
Why study film? How often have I heard that? I have even been the recipient of the ‘well, it’s a not a REAL academic discipline, is it?’ comment, which predictably ended in bloodshed. But let’s dismiss that right now. Film studies is a real academic discipline, with theory and rules and a breadth of scholarship that changes with each passing day. I’m not going to try and define it for those who want to question its academic validity; if you’re that closed-minded, we have nothing to discuss. The issue I’m worried about is the ‘service industry, what’re you going to do for a living’ mentality.
Education, in anything, should never be reduced to the mere ‘here’s what you’ll do for the rest of your life’ prospect. Why? Because the world does not work like that. If we all did only what was guaranteed to make us money, no one would be an painter, a writer, or a filmmaker. Nowadays, getting any kind of a degree does not guarantee you a job. There’s no straight line to a career; I certainly never wanted to be one of those people who hit 40 and realize that I did a job I hated for 20 years. There is still a sense that if you went to college or graduate school for something that is not immediately applicable to a specific vocation, you wasted your money and your time. I take offense at that. Obviously I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time, so why the hell should anyone get to tell me that I was?
Most – not all, but most – film scholars are not disappointed filmmakers, actors, or screenwriters. Most film students do not long for a place behind the camera. If you’re doing a film studies degree, you are likely doing it because you love film, all films, every film. You want to learn more about approaches to scholarship, about how to approach a film from a point of view beyond the ‘I liked it/I didn’t like it’; which is apparently all a lot of people think we do. Perhaps you want to be a film critic, or a professor, or a blog writer. Or perhaps – my God, is such a thing possible?! – you’re doing it because you want to learn. You want to be educated in a discipline you find compelling.
To return: why study film? Well, why did you (I) (we) study film? Here, from my own experience, is what I think. Because we love it. We love it so much that we want to know and understand everything about it, to investigate it inside and out. We want to understand how a shift in lighting, a line of dialogue, a note of music can change a scene. We want to build meaning out of it; not just the meaning of the plot, but the meaning that lies below the plot, that lies with every choice the director, the actor, the cinematographer and the script writer made. What’s more, we want to build multiple meanings, multiple understandings of the same work of art. We want to understand how cinema affects our lives, our culture. It is the art form of the 20th Century, whatever Man Ray wants to say, and like any art it does mean something beyond its entertainment value.
Which is not to kick entertainment value. I might be in the minority in this, but I find the more I study a film, the better it becomes. I spent an entire semester pouring over The Lady Vanishes, one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I could probably quote that entire film from front to back. Did it ruin it? Can I never watch it again? Not in the least. The time I spent only made it richer, deeper. For such a frothy entertainment, it has brilliance in every frame, and I loved the film (and Hitchcock) all the more for it.
That’s why I study film, that’s why I did a degree. I don’t believe that you HAVE to do a degree to be an expert in cinema, or to enjoy it and talk about it intelligently. It’s one option, and certainly helpful for those who want a structured approach. Film school gave me a chance to approach cinema in a way I had not considered; it opened avenues of study that I never would have come across on my own. I had a great time; I loved my professors and my classmates. I found like-minded people with whom I could discuss Godard, Zizek and Ed Wood in the same breath. Oh, and without film school, I never would have seen Death Bed: The Bed that Eats. So there’s that.