Since July of 2010, I have been Editor-in-Chief of the Cinema and Media Studies portion of Oxford Bibliographies. Cinema and media studies may be the fastest evolving discipline in the Humanities, constantly redefining itself as technologies and audiences change. Scholars are also trying to keep up with new theoretical paradigms, even those with no connection to the latest technology. In the last few years, a large group of academics have been writing about YouTube, Instagram, Twitter feeds, and everything else on which people fix their gazes when they could be going to the movies or just sitting in front of a television set. But trauma theory, in which scholars engage with the aftermath of horrific events that have little to do with technological innovation, has also become a growth area in cinema and media studies. Would someone who left cinema and media ten years ago recognize what is happening in the discipline today?
I asked myself this question because I had published a “snapshot” of cinema and media studies in a 2006 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (issue 52.24, dated Feb 17, 2006). As chair of the Program Committee for the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS), I had read through several hundred proposals for papers and panels submitted before a September 2005 deadline. After working with the committee to decide which proposals should be accepted and rejected, I spent several days designing panels and populating them with “open call” proposals that had come in one at a time. As I tried to arrange the proposals into coherent panels, I began to see patterns emerge, especially when I took into account the proposals that had been rejected. Emboldened with the conviction that I was suddenly in a position to assess the state of the discipline at that particular moment, I sent off my impressions to the Chronicle. I reported that, at least for cinema and media scholars in late 2005, psychoanalysis was out, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze was in, and the cult of the director was essentially over.
Now I find myself in another unique position that gives me the courage to comment once again on the state of my discipline. In 2010, I signed on with Oxford Bibliographies (OB). There are now more than 200 articles at the online site.
In many ways, OB is the Anti-Google, providing paths around the Internet Infodump with carefully annotated bibliographies of essential books, articles, book chapters, Web sites, and quality journalism. When you Google a subject, you see multiple sites where someone – with or without in-depth knowledge — has delivered a set of opinions. And you never know exactly what axes the author has to grind. By contrast, each article in OB is written by an established expert in the field who lists only the most important items and then provides annotations explaining why each resource is useful. The article is then vetted by another expert in the field and by members of OB’s Cinema and Media Studies editorial board. In addition, the contributors to the project may update their articles as often as four times a year.
My editorial board and I were originally asked to commission 300 bibliographic essays. But the project has become so successful that we no longer have a limit on the number of articles we can publish. In addition to the more than 200 articles now published online, there are at least 150 additional articles in some stage of development.
Cinema and Media Studies is one of more than eighty “modules” being assembled by OB. Bibliographies for Sociology, Victorian Literature, Public Health, Buddhism, Communication, Classics, Music, and several other disciplines are already online. More will be appearing in the next year or two. When I came in as Editor-in-Chief of Cinema and Media Studies, one of my first assignments was to create a taxonomy of 300 items that would present the discipline in a coherent order. Breaking down all of cinema and media studies into 300 parts was not nearly as impossible as I had feared, if only because I was able to circulate my first halting efforts among a start-up editorial board of twelve trusted colleagues. I also reached out to scholars in some of the more arcane areas — arcane at least for me — to learn what was still missing.
My taxonomy now has more than 450 entries. It is constantly evolving, and some items inevitably overlap with others. So, there is an entry for “Latin American Cinema,” but there are also entries for “Argentine Cinema,” “Mexican Cinema,” and “Brazilian Cinema.” There is an entry on “Women and Film” but also on female directors such as Dorothy Arzner, who flourished in the 1930s, and Jane Campion, who directed the Oscar-winning The Piano in 1993 and is still active today. In addition, an article on “Feminist Theory” that is now in the works will also address Arzner and Campion, but primarily in terms of how scholars using feminist methodologies have regarded them.
Here is what a small segment of the taxonomy now looks like:
Chien andalou, un
Children in Cinema and Media
Cinema and the Visual Arts
Cinematography and Cinematographers
City in Film
Cognitive film theory
Colonial education films
Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory
Comics, Film, and Media
Comolli, Jean Louis
Coppola, Francis Ford
As you can see, there are essays on stars, directors, film theorists, individual films, national cinemas, genres, technical features, academic debates, and issues within the industry. Anything that can generate at least 100 useful citations. What is useful will be decided first by the author of the bibliography with advice from at least one outside expert, then from the editorial board, and ultimately from anyone who wishes to press the Contact Us button on the website.
In the early stages of asking people to write on various topics, I was surprised that some subjects have not attracted the substantial amounts of scholarship I had anticipated while others have become growth industries. As I have suggested, the literature is rapidly growing for “alternative media” like computer games, Facebook, and blogs. YouTube has only been up and running since 2005, but the Australian scholar Jean Burgess had no trouble putting together a substantial list of books, articles, and journalistic pieces back in 2011.
An even larger literature has developed around “exploitation cinema,” all those disreputable movies that our parents told us to stay away from. Ernest Mathijs of the University of British Columbia has assembled a list of works that address the various exploitation genres, including the slasher film, “mondo” and snuff films, Nazisploitation, Blaxploitation, and porn chic, to name just a few. He has also divided the many attempts to theorize these films into the categories of freakery, paracinema, transgression, and fan studies. Who knew?
When I put together the panels for the SCMS meeting in 2006, I was amazed to discover that there was not one panel devoted to a well-established director. In the middle of the twentieth century, French critics declared that a handful of Hollywood directors consistently gave their films their own unique artistic signatures and were thus the authors or “auteurs” of their films in much the same way that Flaubert and Zola were the authors of their novels. In the 1970s, American scholars looking to justify their desire to teach cinema studies were happily embracing what had become known as the Auteur Theory. Contemporary American film studies began when deans and curriculum committees first decided to give the green light to courses built around genius directors. But auteurism was soon exposed by feminist critics and other revisionists who persuasively argued that Hollywood films were all pretty much the same when it came to their portrayal of women and their perpetuation of a few basic American myths, regardless of the fact some directors worked a few of their own obsessions into the mix. The auteur theory went out of style in the 1980s and was still on the outs in 2006.
But for OB’s Cinema and Media Studies module, there is no ignoring a huge body of literature on American directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, and Orson Welles, as well as international art house favorites such as Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Michael Powell, and Satiyajit Ray, to name just a few. Some of the more recent work on these directors does not portray them romantically as creative geniuses but as workers in an industry who may or may not have figured out exactly why they make the same kinds of films over and over again. Nevertheless, scholars continue to focus on directors. To paraphrase an essential article by Yale cinema scholar and OB contributor Dudley Andrew, “the unauthorized auteur refuses to die.”
Even with the knowledge that auteur studies have not quite reached the stage of zombiedom, I have been impressed by how some brand-name directors have not generated one hundred essential citations. Lisa Coulthard, who contributed the essay on Quentin Tarantino, found a long list of articles in newspapers and magazines but very little academic scholarship. Tarantino may be too recent to have generated a solid critical tradition. But then maybe cinephiles prefer to point out the many ingenious references to other films in Tarantino’s movies rather than to write about his work in academic journals and university press books.
Something similar seems to be the case with Ernst Lubitsch, who gave us Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be or Not To Be (1942), and my own all-time favorite film, Trouble in Paradise (1932). When I asked William Paul of Washington University, who wrote an excellent book in Lubitsch in 1987, if he’d be willing to write the bibliographic essay, he told me there was not enough material to reach the minimum of 100 citations.
So, I wrote to Sabine Hake, who studied at the University of Hannover before coming to the University of Texas to teach German cinema and culture. I thought there might be a substantial scholarly literature on Lubitsch in Germany, where he began his career and where he directed more than 25 films before striking out for greener Hollywood pastures in 1923. Prof. Hake also told me that there was not enough material to reach 100 citations, even if we listed German sources. (Oxford’s bibliographies are primarily for Anglophone scholars, but every effort is made to include the best scholarship, regardless of language.) Lubitsch appears to be so loved by film scholars that they believe him to be above criticism. Or perhaps his films say what they have to say so elegantly that there is no point in saying it all over again it in scholarly prose. Nevertheless, I was eventually able to convince two excellent scholars at the University of Wisconsin, Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster, to write the article on Lubitsch, but only after I assured them that they did not have to come up with a hundred citations.
In fact, my editorial board and I have been empowered to scrap the 100-citation goal and start commissioning “boutique” articles that may have substantially fewer items. Cynthia Lucia of Rider University, for example, has written on the intriguing career of Natalie Wood, who was prominent in the transition from the “Old Hollywood” to the “New Hollywood” in the 1970s. Not much has been written about her, but what is there can be extremely useful to cinema scholars intrigued by those transitional years.
Let me conclude by saying that I have learned even more about my discipline than I had expected when I signed on as an OB editor. If I have learned to embrace the nerdiness of searching out errors, big and small, in the material I oversee, I have also learned to celebrate the breath-taking variety of scholarship taking place in every corner of the world as my discipline continues to expand and redefine itself.