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Soon to Be a Motion Picture Major
Cinema Studies Premieres at Penn

by Randall Couch

Sociology professor Tukufu Zuberi laughs and leans his elbow on the bar. “Yeah,” he says. “Mos Def is it!”

Robert Cort

It’s the afterparty for the East Coast premiere of Paramount’s Against the Ropes, and Zuberi, himself no stranger to the cameras from his role in the PBS series History Detectives, is listening to the movie’s producer, Robert Cort, C’68, G’70, WG’74, talk about his next movie-making project. In the background, people cluster to compare notes on the film. Cards change hands. A young director in a black bomber and a baseball cap positions himself next to the producer while two reporters lean in, taking notes.

Cort’s newest venture is an HBO feature called Something the Lord Made, about the 34-year partnership between white surgeon Alfred Blalock and black lab technician Vivien Thomas, who together pioneered open-heart surgery at Johns Hopkins. Rapper Mos Def plays Thomas, and Cort is recalling some friction with the director. “Mos didn’t realize this older Italian-American man had been on the freedom rides and the civil rights marches. Finally the director says, ‘Okay. Play it however you want.’” In the disputed scene, Thomas sees a flag being lowered to half staff, signaling the death of his white colleague who had received most of the glory.

“ So they start the take,” Cort continues. “It’s a long shot, and Mos is walking away from the camera. All of a sudden, his legs give out. Completely collapse. And he just sits there, with the camera on him, pulling away. It wasn’t in the script. It came from somewhere in his own experience, and it was just right. It may be the best acting moment I’ve ever seen.” Cort’s listeners nod, composing the shot in their heads.

This conversation is not happening in New York or LA, but at the Bridge, a movie theater on the edge of campus. Alert Penn students make up the crowd, along with community members and faculty like Zuberi, Ira Harkavy, C’70, Gr’79, director of the Center for Community Partnerships, and Italian lecturer Nicola Gentili. Moving among the groups, keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings, is the new director of Penn’s Cinema Studies Program, Timothy Corrigan.

An English professor and internationally respected film scholar, Corrigan is the author of several books, including A Cinema without Walls and New German Film as well as standard textbooks like The Film Experience and Writing about Film. To him, events like Cort’s premiere enrich the learning environment in several ways. Personal access to a big producer offers students unique insights into the process and business of moviemaking. The premiere shows how films are “platformed” for distribution—with free-preview audiences and release locations chosen for their likelihood of generating positive buzz. And they contribute to building what Corrigan envisions as a “dynamic center of visual culture” at Penn.

Professor Timothy Corrigan

Anchoring that vision is a rigorous curriculum and a dozen core faculty, from eight SAS departments and from other Penn schools, teaching cinema courses. In the spring of 1999, through the efforts of a faculty committee and the encouragement of College dean Rebecca Bushnell, a film studies program was formalized with the offering of an interdisciplinary minor. Millicent (Penny) Marcus, the Mariano DiVito Professor of Italian Studies, and James English of the English department directed the fledgling program. These faculty members, says Corrigan, “don’t see cinema studies as just a trend they want to support. They have a real intellectual and academic commitment to it. That’s why it’s been such a solid program for the last four years, and why I’m convinced it’s going to be better than ever.”

Corrigan’s mandate was to consolidate, coordinate, and focus faculty efforts and student enthusiasm for film. Plans for a cinema studies major are on track for September, and Corrigan also intends to develop a graduate certificate. The history of art department is appointing a full-time cinema scholar to its recently endowed Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professorship in Film Studies, further nourishing the program’s roots in that discipline.

As Corrigan expected, momentum is building quickly. “I’m learning my way around with the help of Nicola, the program’s associate director, and Penny,” he says. “I’m certain the new Jaffe professor will play a large and crucial role in moving cinema studies forward. Penn was clearly a place with enormous opportunity. The only question for me was whether I’d have the energy to direct all this incredible activity. And my answer is yes,” he laughs, “I do.”

As a discipline, cinema studies bridges high and popular culture, and stands at the intersection of visual media, storytelling, and cultural and social history. The new major will not focus on production, screenwriting, or the movie business, though Corrigan expects some students to follow those paths after graduation. Instead, like any arts and sciences major, it will stress research skills, analytical rigor, and critical interpretation—teaching students to see, as Bushnell has said, what they have only watched. An understanding of human behavior and the ability to weigh and manipulate ideas will take priority as outcomes.

In this, Corrigan has the support of many alumni in the industry. “Those I’ve spoken with have said—with students standing there—that if you want to work in films, don’t get specialized, just get smarter.” Robert Cort put it like this: “Undergraduate education ought to prepare you to operate in a world you can’t possibly imagine. Because wherever you are, it’s not going to look like that 20 years from now.”

Filmmaker and producer Jon Avnet, C’71, agrees. Avnet is chairman of the Board of Directors of the American Film Institute and producer of the forthcoming movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. “It doesn’t hurt to have a good education,” he advises aspiring filmmakers, including “some knowledge of the history of film, and critical studies of film, and maybe even certain production elements” as analytical tools. “It’s our world today. A movie like Mel Gibson’s Passion will have a global impact. Wars are being fought on audiovisual terms. And if you think that it’s only going to become more important, then it seems to me Penn should be leading the way with an integrated approach to studying this field.”

If cinema is so important, why have elite schools been cautious about making it a core subject? The history of literary study offers
a clue.

It’s easy to assume university students have always studied Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that literature courses were regularly offered. Penn listed the nation’s first under-graduate course on the novel in 1889 and did not offer an English major until 1914—three centuries after Shakespeare’s death. It wasn’t that literature’s importance went unrecognized. Every cultivated person was expected to appreciate it, but its evaluation relied on “taste” and modern literature
was viewed as too popular for serious scholarship.

Today, we take it for granted that literary study provides effective training in critical thinking and cultural awareness. Cinema, long taught as a craft and long an object of serious intellectual attention, has likewise come in from the cold to claim an overdue place as a university major—after a mere century of existence. Given a strong academic core, what Corrigan and Avnet expect to distinguish Penn’s program is the sheer number of things going on: screenings of classic and independent films at the Bridge; closer ties with the Philadelphia Film Festival, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and other film venues; and more contact with working professionals.

“ Penn has put a lot of people in the film business,” notes Avnet. “There’s a ‘Penn mafia’—it runs from executives to filmmakers to writers. It’s great to bring people of that caliber to [campus], but I’d like to have something much more integrated with the film program so students would know how to take advantage of it—as a learning experience and not just an inspirational moment.”

Junior Wesley Barrow and his friends are there already. They’ve just organized several Penn entries to the third Ivy League Film Festival, hosted by Brown. Barrow recently transferred to SAS from the engineering school and hopes to be one of the first cinema studies majors. He is chairman of Talking Film, an organization that consolidates several student groups. “There’d be one club that was into making movies,” he says, “and one into showing movies, one into dissecting movies, and one into getting jobs in the movies. This way, we can do a better job of getting our word out, and pool our resources to do more ambitious programs. It’s also easier for Tim to keep track of us all.” Talking Film averages 80 attendees for its events and already has a mailing list of 600.

Barrow and Talking Film are committed to Corrigan’s vision of Penn as a dynamic center of visual culture. He’s excited about the progress already made. “There are so many underclassmen who are gung ho about this,” remarks Barrow. “There’s a big future ahead. It’s a good time to be a student interested in film at Penn.”

Randall Couch is a Philadelphia poet, critic, and moviegoer.

Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated September 1, 2004