MSE Symposium Unspools Tuesday at Shriver Hall
At 100, Why Do Movies Matter?
Special to The Gazette
Not that turf-conscious professors need worry about one of the main campus buildings being converted into a nine-screen multiplex theater, but the movies have arrived on the Homewood campus in a big way.
Most immediately, the Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, "Framing Society: A Century of Cinema," opens this week to examine the roles of the motion pictures in American society. Its undergraduate co-chairmen, Matt Gross and Chris Aldrich, are no strangers to the subject of film. Each is involved in film classes, student film organizations, film production, screenings and a just-launched magazine. All of which, considered together with the symposium, they hope will provide a new frame of reference at Hopkins for the only art form that proceeds at 24 frames per second.
Lest anyone still harbor the prejudice that movies should be accompanied by popcorn and not term papers, young filmmaker Gross is quick to defend the academic worth of their symposium offering.
"Chris and I always felt it was an appropriate topic for the symposium," he says. "It wasn't so much deciding whether to do it as how to do it. We want to explore how cinema fits into our culture. Can a particular movie or stream of movies change things in society?"
By way of example, he dips into film and political history for the famous anecdote about President Woodrow Wilson's proclamation that D.W. Griffith's controversial 1915 film Birth of a Nation was "like history written by lightning."
Gross says, "It's a historical fact that Wilson was one of the first people to give legitimacy to film. Since he went to Hopkins, he's like this guy sitting on top of the ivory tower saying this is a way of reporting history. That legitimizes film as a historical pursuit. And the 100th anniversary of cinema is an opportunity to look back on film in a cultural and intellectual way."
Gross adds that a visit to Paris reinforced his sense that the French, whose visionary Lumière brothers began showing movies commercially in 1895, have a much keener sense of film history than do Americans.
"It's not just that Americans don't have a grasp of film history. There's not a good grasp of history among the American people," he says.
There's yet another reason why Gross believes movies haven't always received the respect they deserve in this country.
"Also, possibly, the business of film has gotten in the way somewhat," he says. "Because it is big business--it's a product--some people may not feel it's worth looking at" in an academic forum, he says.
Gross looks on this year's symposium as a springboard for a broader discussion, both on campus and in the larger community, of the role played by movies.
"The symposium is a way to get everybody who is interested together in one place to talk about movies. Beyond the symposium, we're trying to create at Hopkins a kind of cinematic culture. And we need to expand so that the Baltimore public knows about what's at Hopkins," Gross says. "Being on campus for four years, everything feels so isolated. Many students know a lot about film but not always about what's going on off campus, and people off campus in Baltimore know about film but not about what we have here.
"We'd like to integrate Hopkins into the Baltimore community at large. We want to be a regular part of the movie scene. So we want the symposium to act as a catalyst for everything else," he says.
One impact the symposium will have on and off campus will result from the outfitting of Shriver Hall with a new 38-foot screen.
"The old screen had been subjected to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and other things," says Mary Ellen Porter, special assistant to dean of students Larry Benedict. The film is noted as much for its campy content as for its cult following, who make viewing the film an interactive experience replete with vegetables and other substances tossed at the screen.
Also added were 35mm film projectors, and there are plans to add "surround sound" equipment next year. These technical enhancements will make the 1,174-seat hall the largest and potentially one of the best movie theaters in the Baltimore area.
Existing film series such as the long-running Reel World and Weekend Wonderflix will look better on screen. Porter says the booking of preview screenings and other special programs "will give us a chance to reach out to the greater community in a way we don't now."
Better campus screening facilities can enhance both a weekend date for the latest Die Hard movie and a student taking notes on the mise-en-scène in a Renoir film.
"In terms of facilities, film is a machine art and machines are a part of it," notes Richard Macksey, a longtime Hopkins professor of humanities and film and an active member of Baltimore's cinema culture. He cites the upgrading of 110 Gilman several years ago as an instance of how film courses prosper when projection moves closer to state of the art.
Indeed, the cinematic zeitgeist on campus seems healthy. Last summer saw the birth of yet another film series, The Snark, which offers classics and avant-garde fare. Also recently arrived on the screen scene is the Animation Club.
The recently established Johns Hopkins Film Society and its magazine, Frame of Reference, promote film culture at Hopkins, including criticism, theory, history and production. Mardi Gras Baltimore, co-directed by Gross and 1995 graduate Gil Jawetz, will premiere at the symposium at 8 p.m. on Nov. 15.
Gross hopes the diversity of symposium speakers will provide the insights and inspiration to support and nourish the
confluence of Hopkins' film-related activities.
For example, James G. Robinson, founder and CEO of Morgan Creek Productions, will talk about the business of making movies. Veteran screenwriter Millard Kaufman and young director Rose Troche will each talk about their place within that industry. Critic Molly Haskell will talk about the role played by women in filmmaking and criticism. And Thomas Cripps, among the world's leading scholars of black film history, will add his reflections on the representation of blacks in the movies and the social effects of those images.
It's a lineup that has won over at least one initial skeptic.
"Frankly, I was a little skeptical of it at first because a lot of money goes into [the symposium], and I didn't want to see speakers who'd stand up there schmoozing and then vanish into the night," says English professor Jerome Christensen, who directs the Film and Media Studies program.
Established in 1991, Film and Media Studies is a cooperative program of the departments of English, French, German, Hispanic and Italian Studies, Writing Seminars, Humanities and Philosophy. Presently, students may minor in this area, but Christensen expects that the eventual addition of a film production course will enable students to major in Film and Media Studies. Although he says Hopkins "will never be a film school" on the scale of New York University or the University of Southern California, it is taking its place with other academic pursuits at Homewood.
"I'm glad [Gross and Aldrich] have used [the symposium] in a way that will be educational," Christensen says. "I'm hoping the symposium will demonstrate the range of opportunities both in terms of careers and the intellectual challenges that contemporary film represents. It also gives us a push to do other things."
Christensen suggests the symposium visit of Indian filmmaker Girish Karnad will likely figure into classroom discussions in a course on Indian film being offered in the spring. Undergraduate internships with Robinson also are under discussion.
"My aim is to have some institutional pay-off to these things," he says.
"Film is especially adaptable to an interdisciplinary approach and it's used for so many pedagogical purposes now," says Macksey of the Hopkins approach to teaching film. Having mentored such future Hollywood talents as Walter Murch and Caleb Deschanel during their student days in the 1960s, Macksey has been a constant advocate for film studies on campus.
And what would the students like to see on the classroom screen scene in the semesters ahead?
"I'd like to consider how the film study is done at New York University, Columbia, USC and elsewhere and then find a different and original way to go at it at Hopkins," Gross says. "Many of those film schools examine how movies are made and not as much attention is paid to movies as literature. That's something Hopkins can do."