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Film Teaching At Swarthmore



by T. Kaori Kitao, William R. Kenan Jr., Professor Emerita of Art History


On 27 April, 2004, I gave a short talk on the early years of film studies at Swarthmore at an event presided by Associate Professor  of English Literature Patricia White.This is a modified version of that talk.

Paleolithic is the word that comes to my mind when I think of Film Studies in 1966, the year I arrived at Swarthmore. There was no film studies; there was no single film course. This was no surprise. Film studies existed only sporadically in large universities, normally in the department of English Literature or Modern Languages, where film was discussed as literature, or in the department of Religion, Anthropology, or Sociology, where film was used as visual documentation, or, occasionally as an aspect of journalism. Otherwise, film courses were found in community colleges. So, it was to be expected that Swarthmore had no film courses.

The surprise in stock was in the college library. The library holding of books on film at McCabe took up no more than two feet of one shelf. It was unbelievable; I was appalled. By luck, however, Jim Govan, the librarian at the time, was sympathetic and supported my interest by finding me the Fund of the Class of '43, which made provisions for purchasing books on the subjects that are not taught in classes. I submitted a list of two hundred basic film books; all were added to the collection immediately except for a handful of out-of-print titles.

Film in those days lacked academic pedigree. Film was entertainment. Peter van de Kamp, professor of astronomy, who collected Chaplin films, held what he called Chaplin seminars. These were occasional evenings where he showed silent films from his collection for the amusement of interested students; he accompanied himself at the piano. It was understood that film was not serious enough to be a subject of study in a respectable liberal arts college like Swarthmore.

Studio art, after all, was still extracurricular in those years. You don't get credit for an activity that makes your hands dirty, some distinguished professors argued; creativity was a natural inclination, not a scholarly effort. Painting is for fun; movies are a diversion.

A year after my arrival, students got restless and instituted student-run courses in subjects that Swarthmore did not offer. One of them was film. The instigator was Howard Gold, '71; he got interested students together, proposed a syllabus, and came to me to ask if I would serve as faculty supervisor. My qualification was that I filled several library shelves with film books.

In the Spring of 1969, on the urging of the art department, I let the film course emerge from the underground and offered the course, Film as Art. Thus dawned the Neolithic Era in the history of film teaching at Swarthmore. Two years later I gave the course an even more pretentious title, The Cinema, and still later Film: Form and Signification. I had to give the course an intellectual aura in order to placate the hardcore skeptics. My point was that any subject becomes intellectual if it receives a scholarly treatment.

If passion for movies qualified a person to teach film, I had it. Back in Japan I was deep into Kabuki theatre. When I came to the States, opera was its surrogate; and movies were for me operas I could more readily afford. I still believe, with Noel Burch, that cinema and opera are near of kin. Contrary to the widespread misconception, film is not an art of realism; like the opera it is an artificial construct, and it is visual, audial, and literary all at once. But what did I know about teaching film? Very little. I had no formal education in film. So, I was sent one summer to the American Film Institute Workshop at Kent School where I met and became acquainted with Jim Kitzes, Molly Haskell, and Andrew Sarris, who were our teachers. It was heavenly. We watched movies and talked about them day in and day out.

Aside from my passion for movies, however, I had three things going for me to make the course intensely intellectual. First, I knew Giotto and Michelangelo and Rubens. As a specialist in Renaissance and Baroque art, I was trained to deal with visual art as narrative art. Second, I knew some semiotics. As a specialist in Italian art, I knew Umberto Eco's works before English translations started to appear; they gave me theoretical underpinning to make the film course oh so serious. Thirdly, one of my youthful aspirations were to become a scene designer; so, I was quick in my understanding of the nature of the mise-en-scene in film, the notion that aside from the dialogues on the sound track, the figures on the screen, and their setting construct a film narrative.

I had my obligation to art history, however, and was able to give only one film course each year. This was a blessing in disguise. I was forced to pack history, theory, and criticism of film into one course; so my film course was exceptionally dense and, therefore, conspicuously respectable despite the seeming frivolity of the subject matter. In my conviction that film is first and foremost a visual art (as sitting in the movies with eyes closed should attest), I also required an introductory art history as a prerequisite so that the students came with some basics of visual analysis. I also had the students make short super-8 films because editing is more efficiently learned by doing it than by reading about it.

I taught a yearly film course for thirty years with occasional special courses: The Documentary, Film Theory, Visual Semiotics, Hollywood 1939, and Filmmaking. Those were the decades of the French New Wave and of Ingmar Bergman, and we all loved their movies. For the first decade I was alone in my effort; but soon others joined force from other departments. Marion Faber taught German film, Robert Roza French film, and more recently Sunka Simon and Haili Kong, among others, taught film in their special fields.

In 1991 Alex Juhasz, trained in cinema studies, joined the English Department, and in 1994, Patricia White succeeded her. Under Patty White's guidance, Film Studies at Swarthmore finally began to take shape and the faculty approved it as a major in 2000. Film teaching at Swarthmore was ready for the new century.

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