Campus Observer

Film School

It’s lights, camera, action for budding filmmakers and cinema buffs as SU launches new film studies program

by Tina Potterf

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This fall, the next Scorsese or Coppola may cut their filmmaking teeth in a Seattle University classroom.

Movie buffs, aspiring cinematographers, directors and screenwriters can now learn the ins and outs of all things film through a new film studies program.

Offered as a major or minor through the College of Arts and Sciences—and housed in the English department—the program enables students to explore nearly all aspects of film, from its genesis to genres and everything in between.

“The film studies program is really a program about visual literacy at its most fundamental level and how to understand images and what they say,” says Edwin Weihe, associate professor and director of film studies.

While SU has offered individual film-related classes for years, this will be the first comprehensive program of its kind not only for the university but also in the region. Plans for film studies have been in the works for some time, but it was about three years ago, while Weihe was on a sabbatical that he discovered that many other Jesuit schools offer some variation of the program. Considering Seattle U’s location, in the heart of a city with a strong film community—many notable actors, screenwriters and directors call Seattle home—it was time the university had its own such offering, Weihe says.

Drawing from an abundance of local resources, one goal is to have guest lectures from those in the industry as well as involvement, and possibly sponsorships, with festivals such as the popular Seattle International Film Festival.

“The biggest resource we have here is the vibrant filmmaking community,” says Weihe, who will teach several courses, including screenwriting and a section on films of the late ’60s and ’70s. “I want to celebrate it.”

The study of film history and movies that define cinematic high points is a central component of the program. It will also examine the increasing role of digital filmmaking and animation in motion pictures.

Students will also be exposed to films, genres and directors they are unfamiliar with. This will be accomplished through a rotating selection of courses that focus on genres such as Westerns, horror, musicals and science fiction, and movies that exemplify visual storytelling at its best. There will also be a course on important directors. This fall Associate Professor Bill Taylor will teach this course, which will look at select works of Woody Allen.

A strong advocate of film studies, Taylor has taught film-related classes at SU for the past 30 years, including film history and the art of film. For the latter, a film is approached and studied from the perspectives of a screenwriter, director, cinematographer and an editor. Through movie clips, lectures and classroom discussions, students get a better comprehension of storytelling and narration as well as an education in the technical side of filmmaking, such as how lighting and camera angles are used to achieve a certain mood or to elevate a scene.

In both his history and art of film classes Taylor pulls from seminal movie classics (Chinatown, On the Waterfront, Federico Fellini’s 8½) to more contemporary fare, as will be evident with his focus on director Allen’s films. With more than 40 films to Allen’s credit, Taylor has the enviable task of plucking a handful of films that best reflect the director’s work. Likely to make the cut: Annie Hall and Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Sean McDowell, associate professor of English, will also lead classes in the film studies program. He’ll tackle the ever-popular science fiction genre.

“The purpose of the sci-fi film course is to introduce students to the genre and get them to look at these films as artistic productions,” he says of such sci-fi classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Forbidden Planet and the original War of the Worlds. Students examine the rhetoric and ideas presented in these films and then look at their artistic merits. One challenge McDowell and other film studies professors face is how to best present a genre while limited by the length of the course and the volume of material to choose from. In most cases they will screen a sampling of must-see movies, while recommending other films of the same director or genre for students to watch outside of class.

“This is going to be a landmark achievement for the university. It’s literally the first bachelor’s in film studies in the entire region,” McDowell says.

Associate Professor Jim Forsher, a prolific documentary filmmaker whose work has aired on the Discovery Channel, PBS and A&E, has been making movies that tackle social issues for some 30 years. A film studies program at SU was long overdue, he says.

The biggest resource we have here is the vibrant filmmaking community. I want to celebrate it.
—Edwin Weihe, associate professor and director of film studies

“Film is such a critical part of American culture,” he says. “A program that can examine it and look at it is something I think will be popular.”

Because of the overarching nature of the program, Weihe believes it will speak to a broad range of students—from those who want to make films or work some aspect of the industry to others who see it as a way to complement their professional lives. “Anyone who becomes visually literate through film will be able to go out into a large world where visual imagery plays a part,” says Weihe. This includes law students who want to work as entertainment lawyers, architects who may one day build sets or graphic designers who decide to venture into the world of animation. “All of those things are complementary or fed by a major in film studies.”

Adds Taylor, “You don’t have to be an actor or on the screen to be interested. There are enormous opportunities in an increasingly visual world. If you want to make movies or be involved in films, this major is for you.”

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