“You’re having conversations about movies and about the work and about questions and disagreements… there’s so much that grows out of that so when someone graduates you’re not through talking to them yet about it all.”
As a newly admitted film major, one can imagine the anx-citement surrounding this interview. Jeanine Basinger, who is on record as “one of the most important film scholars alive today” and who built Wesleyan’s world renowned film program from the bottom up, is a name I have learned to revere since day one as a prospective film student. At the scheduled time, I dialed Professor Basinger’s office to be greeted with enthusiasm and an eagerness to get right to business. She expressed her hope that her husband would bring her a cup of coffee amidst her busy workday and we jumped right into the questions. She made the interview very easy for me, answering with depth and segue-ing effortlessly into questions I hadn’t even asked yet. We discussed the establishment of the College of Film and the Moving Image, which was announced just over a year ago, the liberal arts approach to cinema, and her relations with past film majors. By the end of the half hour, I was feeling reenergized, inspired, and more excited than ever to begin my journey as a Wesleyan University film major with Professor Basinger as a guide.
The following is the transcript of our interview, edited for clarity.
Could you tell me about the College of Film and the Moving Image – why the initiative was taken on and what differences it brings to the department?
The interesting thing is that all of the components that make up the college are things that we have in fact been doing for years. The designation of making it into the college is less of a change and more of a recognition of what we are and what we do.
The college consists of four main components. One is the department of film studies, which is how most people know us. The second is the Wesleyan Cinema Archive which is a major film archive; a repository of very important materials in the history of film studies where a lot of other colleges, scholars, researchers, TV stations, documentary makers, etc. come to study, research, and work. It’s also for us a teaching [archive]… we teach classes for our majors from it. We have a course on archiving methods and we teach courses with the materials so they learn how to handle primary documents and study from that point of view which is really quite unique.
The third is the film series, which is a very big programming wing. It is a student-run, student-funded organization. We provide all the support systems for it and we also build [lectures] into it by visiting people that we know – really big name guests. So that’s a huge complement that we actually are running [Wednesday through Saturday], with special events on other days every day of the week.
The fourth entity is the Center for Film Studies, which houses all of these things but also has its own events scheduled, part of which [is] doing things related to film studies but which also [serves] the entire campus. For instance, currently there are two film series running that are generated by other departments. We also do things for the community. We work with the Russell library, we have a summer film series, [and] we are working currently with the Connecticut Commission on the Humanities on a big project they were funded for that’s about how work is portrayed in film. [That film series will] start in May. So, it’s a giant outreach wing that goes outside the university but also which serves other departments and programs within the university including the administration. I think we do over 300 events in a year and we’ll work usually with about 19 to 20, 21 other departments. So this is what a college is; in fact, it’s a highly active college.
We’ve been doing this for over 20 years and so it was more of like, ‘well, wait a second, you have all of these things… it’s actually a College of Film Studies’ because so many people come from the outside also.
For us, it changed nothing. We go to bed at night without a college. We wake up the next morning, we’re a college. So, we don’t know the difference anyway.
So it really does go far beyond the academic department.
That’s exactly correct. It does. And it also means that although we have a film major where the major is grounded in the serious study of film as film, we also recognize film as a discipline that would be used in many other departments, and we crosslist those classes and we welcome those points of view.
We are an interdisciplinary major and people don’t often focus on that. We crosslist courses across all three division[s], [which] is really what a college is. It represents film studies not only as a pure major onto itself but also in an interdisciplinary way, crosslisting with the language department, with the sciences, with anthropology. That is really basically what colleges do, so it seemed suitable to label it for what it is. Some places wanting to form themselves into a college might need to add staffing, so they might need to develop new courses, or they might need to make connections across disciplines, but all of that was already in place in our case.
We have – as I’m sure you know – a very successful film major and one that is highly recognized outside of Wesleyan for its excellence. We get a great many requests from other universities to talk about how we define the major, how we set it up, how our courses work, because they’re interested in expanding their own film study and want to use our model.
Wesleyan was very foresighted in allowing film study to grow four decades ago, and most small liberal arts universities did not do it. Wesleyan was a pioneer in the study of film in a small liberal arts institution. So people looked to us for guidance, and out of these discussions they would frequently comment [that] what [we] have is a college.
Michael Roth understood this very well and brought leadership to this idea and we’re very happy with it. It allows us to organize ourselves again, just renew ourselves to what we’re doing with new eyes. And it enables [us] to review some of [our] curriculum, to look outside [ourselves] again and see what’s out there that we could be crosslisting that we’re not crosslisting. Are there relationships that we can have that are even stronger with other departments?
Having the minor really helps us a lot.
In terms of allowing more people access to the department?
Yes, exactly. The film major is a very high maintenance kind of major. I mean, we have to critique students’ work one-on-one – as indeed all arts majors do – but we have a very high number of majors and it’s growing all the time. And we don’t have enough equipment to have 100 film majors, but we have more than 100 people who want to be film majors. So, this way having the minor enables more students to have film courses and it allows us to be able to handle the numbers we have better.
We have 91 majors, juniors and seniors, this year, but the class coming in will be even bigger. [This year] we have the biggest number of applications we’ve ever had. So we’re on a constant growth pattern, which is why we have to have the application process. We can’t take everybody. We don’t have enough equipment or enough teaching staff. We have four permanent faculty members. We have some visitors, but if you think 91 majors and 4 tenure track faculty – that has to be the highest ratio on the campus of students to faculty. And it’s a 1-on-1 kind of major so it’s a lot.
We’re happy. We love our students. We love our field and we’re doing the best we can, but the numbers are getting huge. So having the minor makes it possible for us to be able to say to people, ‘look you can still study film in the way you would like to and not be a major,’ and that’s a good thing for everybody.
Are there any plans to add more faculty and resources to the department?
I hope so! [She laughs] We hope so! But it’s always a problem. A university has many departments and everybody needs things and I think [it] must surely pretty soon be our turn, but you know we’re always planning [and] looking to the future [and] addressing these issues as we go. We’re always trying to find a way to solve the problems and to make it work and adding the minor is one of those, and becoming a college is one because it enables us again to use the teaching archive, to use the minor, to use events with other departments – things that we can do that give students opportunities to be involved in film, see films, have film speakers, [and] immerse themselves in it with the resources that we have.
I think archiving is something that a lot of people don’t have a lot of experience with or knowledge about, could you tell me a bit about that?
Film archiving is a wonderful, wonderful new kind of field. It’s an interesting thing; people sometimes forget [that] the moving picture was not invented until 1895. It’s not like studying history or a language or music or something of that sort. It’s new. So, it did not appear seriously in the Academy until really in the ‘60s. The first PHDs in film studies began to be awarded towards the end of the 70s and of course Wesleyan already had a film major – I had already been teaching here 10 years by then.
There weren’t any archives, I mean people just threw stuff away and so you can find better primary documents if you were an Italian Renaissance scholar than a 20th century film scholar! So, people began to address this and we were one of the first to put together serious collections from major filmmakers for archival study. The field has emerged and now you can get masters degrees in it. Film archiving is a specialized field, both with primary documents and with films themselves – preserving them, learning how. We’re somewhat unique. I mean, there are big universities that have big archives such as USC, UCLA, and the University of Wisconsin, but we have a little gem of an archive because we have major figures like Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, and Ingrid Bergman. But we also have living people; we have Scorcese, we have John Waters, we have Clint Eastwood [and many others]. So we have access to materials and things that are very valuable for study.
We wanted to turn the archive into more than just a research place and so we offer a course on Capra, a course on Kazan, courses using their actual primary working documents: things written in their own hand, their own original scripts, their diaries, their ideas, their thoughts about their films as they were making them. We have a wonderful new archivist, Andrea McCarty; she came to us from the HBO Archive and she’s teaching a course this semester in archiving methods. The history of film archiving, what it means, how you do it, and kids get to work with primary documentation. I mean, they’re actually putting their hands on original material so it is quite wonderful and we’re very happy to have that class and to expand our teaching about archives with archived material. And that’s a big thing really.
The archive is very well known outside of Wesleyan because we do have major names and we do show them at a little gallery, and of course our own alumni who have been very successful, people like Joss Whedon or whoever, are giving us their materials so we are secure for the future in terms of having them available for students to study [firsthand and up close] how the business works, how creativity works, how things are designed and created and written and rewritten and what the problems of getting it done are. The interesting thing is you can give the archives from so many different aspects – [economics, history, language (we have Rosselini and Fellini)]. The archive is actually also an interdisciplinary research center. For instance, Frank Capra, the director, during World War II served as the head of the Office of War information, which means he was responsible for creating all of America’s visual propaganda. So we have an entire set of material that is perfect for a government student or a history student and we have documents that even the national archives don’t have. So it’s very interesting and it is much bigger than people realize. It’s much more interdisciplinary.
I think everybody thinks of the film major because it’s been so successful as being about Hollywood movies. But that is just a tiny, tiny part of what it is of what we do. I would say we have more documentary graduates than we do anything else. We have scholars, we have historians, we have critics. You know, it’s way bigger than people realize.
Would you say that’s one of the benefits of taking a theory-based approach?
Yes, absolutely. I mean that’s part of what becoming a college can do, is it helps people focus. It shows and reminds people that there’s something here for everyone. Film is an eclectic discipline. Film contains music and theater and history and photography and psychology and sociology and so many fields can use film, so it’s appropriate that it be interdisciplinary. Film is an ideal liberal arts discipline and we have designed our film major in [such a] tradition. At its core, is always the basis of our passion, which is ‘film as film.’
Film has its own history [and] it has its own unique properties that separate it from every other art form. It isn’t theater, it isn’t literature, it’s film and it’s different. Its properties of editing alone separate it from every other art form. But, you know, it’s also an ideal interdisciplinary liberal arts course of study and we have always maintained it that way. We’ve been able to survive with a small number of faculty because we were always interdisciplinary. Going back to the very beginning, I would mention that in creating the major and working on it, I‘ve worked very closely [with] Richard Slotkin, from American Studies, who’s now retired, with Joe Reed, from the English Department, who’s now retired, Ákos Östör, from Anthropology, who’s now retired, and Leo Lensing from the German department, who is not retired and is a very active part of what we do. So we defined it [as interdisciplinary] way from the beginning.
What are the advantages of this method of teaching over a solely production-oriented one?
All I can say to you is that the students who go to production school end up working under our majors and I think that’s a good answer. Our majors know something in addition to film. They’ve read some literature, they know history, they appreciate music; they have a broader, deeper sense [for film’s eclectic nature]. To make a great film you do have to learn about filmmaking. It is not like anything else and you don’t learn how to do it properly in grade school or high school – it’s very complicated. We take everybody back to the basics. We have people cut by hand, for instance, so they really learn the thinking process of editing before they go on to use Final Cut Pro. So what happens is they [gain an] understanding of the medium, how to tell a story with it, how to make facts clear with it, how to approach the audience – that’s a very important part of our teaching.
How you speak to an audience through images is just not the way the more technical school is usually teaching. We teach technical skills and our students go out of here and they become very successful filmmakers. But I think they would say, ‘you know what – when you get out there you’ve got a cinematographer, you’ve got a sound editor… what you have to have is an understanding of how the medium works and the ability to know how to reach and speak to an audience and the awareness of how technology and technique has to unite with ideas and content to make the film effective,’ and our students do learn that here. That’s what we do.
We never separate history/theory from practice. We have it completely wedded. Our film production teacher is an outstanding history/theory teacher. All of our history/theory teachers have made films and know how to make films. Most places separate those two things so that the ‘doing it’ is separate from the ‘thinking about it’ and we don’t do that and that creates a very highly educated and capable kind of film person and that’s why I think we’ve had – our alumni have had – so much success. That and the fact that Wesleyan students are very very smart. And [believe me] that helps. Plus they work hard and we make them work hard. We’re just cranky old people that make people work. We say, ‘no, you can’t cut class here, you gotta come on time, you gotta get in here and do the job,’ and part of that is to prepare anybody who wants to go into the film business to go into the film business because it is not a casual business in any way. But I mean, you know, not everybody does go into the field. Most do, but not everybody and they go into different aspects of it.
You were instrumental in bringing this approach to the school, right?
Yes, that’s right. It was always my vision that these things should never be separated from one another and it should always be in the liberal [arts tradition]. To have a film major in the liberal arts tradition is the thing that Wesleyan pretty much pioneered and has been the basis of the success of our program.
Obviously it’s effective. We’ve had so many notables and you’ve been there through all of it. Do you have good relationships with them? Are you in touch with anyone?
Yes. Ask anyone I taught beginning in the year 1969 and I know where they are, I know who they’re married to, I know what they’re doing, and probably I talked to them sometime in the last six months.
Wow, that’s incredible.
But that’s the fun of it, you know? Teaching is – you know, we plant sequoias and you’re supposed to stay with the growth and that’s the fun of it. When you’re teaching film studies you’re spending a lot of time with students. Every class we teach is a lab class, but we do our own labs. So, I’m sitting with my students year after year while they’re watching films, we’re sitting with our students while they’re editing their films, we’re together for many hours; it’s just by the nature of the discipline. So when that happens you begin to know each other better and you’re having conversations about movies and about the work and about questions and disagreements. There’s so much that grows out of that, so when someone graduates you’re not through talking to them yet about it all. The majority keep in close touch, everybody keeps in some kind of touch. I just talked this morning – before you – to someone who was in the class of 1980 and yesterday I got an email from someone [in] the class of ’84 and tonight I have a long conversation scheduled with someone from the class of 2006 and I have… you know, I mean it’s fun.
It’s fun. I’d recommend it.
After expressing my enthusiasm to begin my cinematic adventure in the program, Professor Basinger kindly offered me to follow up with any other questions I had. She’d be available until about 6:30, at which time she had plans to take her daughter’s family out to dinner and a movie.