Professor DVD

In his 1959 essay "A Call for a New Generation of Film-Makers," Jonas Mekas founder of the journal Film Culture identified an emerging cadre of filmmakers who "seek to free themselves from the over professionalism and over technicality that usually handicap the inspiration and spontaneity of the official cinema." He went on to say that "Obviously, this is not what the 'professionals' want. These filmmakers will be severely criticized and, perhaps, even accused of betraying cinema. However, they come closer to the truth with their nakedness than the 'professionals' with their pretentious expensiveness."

What has come to pass in cinema--radical experiments ranging from French New Wave to New American Cinema to the Dogma movement to the digital experiments such as Time Code and Tape has not come to pass in university-based film studies, which, as Robert Ray suggests in his book The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, is an academic field that has inadequately responded to the dynamic changes of the films it studies:"[T]here is an increasingly widespread sense that after twenty years of exhilarating work, film studies has stagnated," he writes.

Film studies professors pride themselves about how their work "demystifies" and "denaturalizes" the ideologies (usually oppressive) that govern films, especially Hollywood films. And rightly so. Work by Laura Mulvey, Robert Ray, bell hooks, Christian Metz, and others has shown in sometimes breathtaking and exciting ways how films operate as strong agents of ideology in culture.

But here is what they don't want to admit: that DVDs threaten to supplant their authority in fundamental ways. If part of the film professors' job--especially in introductory classes--was to supply students with historical, technical, and sociological information regarding the film (in other words, to situate the film) then DVDs do much of this for them. Indeed, professorial authority in fact depended on a special kind of mystification, on their ability to introduce students not only to the technical vocabulary of film studies (mise-en-scene, long take, dissolve, jump cut, etc.,) but also to screenplays, storyboards, interviews with directors, and other production material. Tracking down an interview where Arthur Penn talked about the ending sequence to Bonnie and Clyde required some work and produced a bit of magic when presented in class: here is the scene from the movie/here is the director talking about how it was staged and edited. Good teaching always depends on maintaining some aura of mystique, and for film professors this mystique has traditionally emerged from the ability to marshal diverse sources (film clips, screenplays, interviews).

In the same way that punk showed how it was possible to make music without the experts, so too DVD shows us how to learn about film without the expert professors, whose role it was to guide students into cine-literacy by investigating the technical, narrative, and ideological ingredients of a film. One obvious place where this happens is in the Director's Commentary, which is now a standard feature on many DVDs. But it happens in other supplementary features of the DVD, which in fact functions like a transportable, easily accessible archive.

If part of the job of film studies was to introduce students to the film discourse--the key terms, concepts, and theories that govern filmmaking--then much of that information is now available on DVDs. Consider the classic introductory film textbook, Film Art, by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. Here are the authors writing about narrative theory and identification: "When a shot's framing prompts us to take it as a character's vision, we call it an optically subjective shot, or a point-of-view shot." Here, by way of comparison, is director Julie Taymor in her director's commentary on the Titus DVD, speaking about the boy in the film, Lucius's grandson:" It is from his perspective. Now we're not always looking through him, but it's through his eyes that the entire story of extraordinary human violence is seen."

Here again are Bordwell and Thompson on the concept of montage:

In other cases it is necessary to show a large-scale process or a lengthy period--a city waking up in the morning, a war, a child growing up, the rise of a singing star. Here classical continuity uses another device for temporal ellipsis: the montage sequence. . . . Brief portions of a process, informative titles (for example, "1865" or "San Francisco"), stereotyped images (e.g., the Eiffel Tower), newsreel footage, newspaper headlines, and the like, can be swiftly joined by dissolves and music to compress a lengthy series of actions into a few moments.

Compare this to Wes Anderson in his director's commentary on the Rushmore DVD:

This montage, I liked the idea of showing all these different clubs that he's [Max] doing and telling this kind of key fact about him which is that he does all these things in a way that doesn't have any dialogue. It's just music, and pictures, and then I also liked this idea of putting words on the screen.

Beyond the directors' voiceovers, the supplementary features on many new DVDs "deconstruct" a film's narrative in immediate, visceral ways. For instance, the DVD for Following (the feature debut of Memento director Christopher Nolan, 1999)--a film rich with flashbacks and forwards--offers as part of its bonus materials the "Ability to Restructure the Story Chronologically," allowing viewers the aesthetic opportunity of reassembling and resequencing the film. And Time Code (Mike Figgis, 1999) offers two complete versions of the film; the theatrical release version (number 15) and an alternate version (number 1), as well as the ability to manipulate the sound of the film, highlighting different quadrants of the screen. In effect, features like these allow the viewer to actively take apart and reshape the narrative experience in ways that were traditionally the domain of the film professor, whose job it was to expose a film's narrative skeleton.

Indeed, on some DVDs the extras threaten to undermine the film itself, burying it in so much context that it becomes practically lost in the network of supplementary material, links to web sites, etc. Star Wars--Episode One, The Phantom Menace contains--in addition to the 133 minute film--hours of supplementary material, including commentaries not only by George Lucas, but by the film's producer, editor, animation director, and three visual effects supervisors. It also includes a deleted-scenes documentary with seven new sequences, an hour-long documentary on the film's production and another twelve-part web documentary, as well as a multi-angle storyboard, and multiple other features. The actual film Phantom Menace--bundled in so much archival context--actually occupies a relatively small portion of the DVD.

This technological and viewing revolution threatens to marginalize film professors and puts them in a curious sort of bind. Since the 1960s--when film scholarship shifted from a formalist to a cultural studies model of criticism--professors have (with very few exceptions) privileged the unofficial, subversive reading of film against the dominant, official forces of its production (Hollywood, marketers, global capitalists, etc.).In other words, most film scholarship implicitly (and more often than not explicitly) endorses the democratic and subversive against the bureaucratic and official. Yet now--when faced with a technological shift coupled with an increasingly cine-literate population of students--professors are understandably reluctant to admit their increasing obsolescence, they find themselves as conservative gatekeepers struggling to find ways to stay relevant when much of their traditional authority has been supplanted by DVD. Recent articles have already begun to call for "DVD studies," suggesting that film and media professors need to "deconstruct" and "interrogate" the packaging and bonus materials on DVD. But the question they don't want to ask is this: do today's students require the same kind of guidance and tutelage as in the pre-DVD past.

Consider, for instance, the DVD-ROM version of James Monaco's classic textbook How to Read a Film, which the publishers (Harbor Electronic Publishing) promote as "an entire film course--the history of film, the origins of film technology, discussion of films, filmmakers, traditions and genres." The multimedia edition of the book includes features such as over 130 film clips, audio interviews with Hollywood "movers and shakers" (there's a hint of desperation in that phrase), and Virtual Reality tours of Hollywood studios. In other words, a glorified DVD. Why, one might ask, should students purchase this when they can rent or buy the DVD of Julie Taymor's Titus, which includes commentaries by Taymor, as well as articles from American Cinematographer, and a question and answer session with film students from Columbia University, where Taymor discusses narrative structure, identification, etc.?

Blame it on Scream, which ushered into the mainstream a popularized form of film theory. In contemporary film theory, the articulation of the rules of classical cinema (suturing, shot-reverse-shots, continuity editing, cause-and-effect narrative development, etc.) has become a genre of academic writing in itself, providing a reproducible teaching and research model. But the open mockery of the slasher film's rules in Scream threatened to dethrone film professors, who found in their students an audience which shared with Scream an ironic understanding of the redundant archetypes that underlie genre films. Scream's demystification of its own rules--even as it adhered to them--spawned a series of films, such as Scream II and III, Scary Movie, Urban Legend, Not Another Teen Movie, and Jeepers Creepers--that depended upon audiences' meta-ironic position of superiority towards the exhausted genres on the screen. Film studies has traded for too long in its own theories, even as those theories gradually became absorbed into the mainstream. Attempts to ply them now are read--as is everything--as parody. On the DVD for Scary Movie (2000) for instance, among the bonus features is "Scary Movie: Guide for the Culturally Challenged Pop Up: descriptions that explain cultural references and inside jokes as you are watching the film." In the reproduction and skewering of its own dependence on broader cultural forms, Scary Movie offers its own parodic version of a very serious form of film scholarship, which aims to contextualize and historicize films. For instance, a routine exercise in introductory film studies classes asks students to investigate the historical and cultural events during the period of a particular film's making (i.e., "what Cold War events occurred during the era of the making of Kiss Me Deadly [1955] and in what ways do you think the film is a product of those events?")

Although the Scream sequence is well known, it bears repeating. In the sequence, kids are sitting around drinking beer, watching John Carpenter's Holloween when one of the guys pauses the movie, and proceeds to give a little "lecture" to his audience about the generic conventions of slasher films:

That's why she [Jamie Lee Curtis] outsmarted the killer in the long chase scene at the end. Only virgins can do that .Don't you know the rules? There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, Number One, you can never have sex. Big no-no. Big no-no. Sex equals death. Okay, Number Two, you can never drink, or do drugs. The sin factor. It's a sin, it's an extension of Number One. And Number Three, never, ever, ever, under any circumstances say, 'I'll be right back,' because you won't be back.

This unmasking of the generic narrative conventions of the slasher film--so familiar in academic readings, such as Carol Clover's Men, Women, and Chainsaws--threatens to undermine the relevance of film theory by co-opting it (or, like punk, by doing it better, faster, and more energetically).Or--more scary yet--it serves as a parody of film theory.

This erasure, whereby the film itself is only but one of many options on DVD, embeds the film in language that, until recently, was the province of film professors, whose authority depended upon limited access to such materials. Indeed, it was precisely because such information was largely unavailable to lay audiences that professors derived their aura and authority. Hunting down obscure film clips, decoding intertextual references, finding interviews with directors and screenwriters, unearthing storyboards--all these activities constituted the professor's realm of uncontested authority. Yet now we have the specter of directors providing detailed commentaries on their films as they unfold, offering theoretical discussions of representation, historical and cultural perspective, and pragmatic, technical discussions of practice.

Just as the rise of literate populations in Europe and the United States in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undermined the authority of priests, clerics, and political leaders, so too the emergence of a cine-literate population speaks to the coming obsolescence of the film professor as the gatekeeper of official, legitimate understanding and interpretation. Over thirty years ago, Pauline Kael was among the first to note this gap between how "officials" (teachers especially) want us to respond to movies and how we choose to respond to them on our own, unaided by the discourse of academia. In her 1969 essay "Trash, Art, and the Movies," Kael wrote that "Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses."

Today--when many of the strategies of film studies itself have been absorbed into the supplementary, archival features of the DVD--the question confronting film professors is no longer "how can I get my students to 'see through' the movies?" but rather "what do I do now that my students have already learned to see through the movies?" The first step is to recognize that DVDs are more than a simple technical advancement--that they signal the emergence of a new and more complex sensibility on the parts of many viewers. In a strange way, because film studies has triumphed as the dominant discourse, it is now threatened with its own obsolescence. There's nothing more dangerous than victory.


Jonas Mekas, "A Call for a New Generation of Film-Makers," Film Culture, no. 19, 1959.

Robert Ray, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, McGraw-Hill Companies, 1996.

Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, New Haven: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Nick Rombes is a professor of English at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he teaches courses in film, web theory, and American literature. He is co-founder of a new degree program in Electronic Critique and co-edits the journal Post Identity.