Villard Hall, the second oldest building on the University of Oregon campus, opened its door in 1886, 10 years after the school admitted its first student, and was home to the Film Studies Department when I attended Oregon 35 years ago.
Film Studies was a featured major when I attended the University of Oregon from 1977 to 1981. I was in the last class that graduated with a degree specifically in Film Studies; the following year the size of the program was reduced and coupled with the other prevalent media of the day to provide the opportunity for a degree under the combined banner of Telecommunication and Film. Another decade passed, and in 1992 the Telecommunications and Film Department shuttered altogether, seemingly putting an emphatic period at the end of the days when one could pursue an education at Oregon in a field which was still thriving academically in other, larger schools geographically closer to production hubs on the East and West Coasts. My own experience in the film department at Oregon was geared much more toward criticism, but not because I didn’t still harbor hopes/delusions of making films myself—I certainly did. The fact of the matter is, the production end of the department was seriously underfunded— we split probably three Bolex 16mm cameras, some lighting equipment and a few other items necessary for the DIY filmmaking of the day between the 20-30 students per term who needed access to them. According to the department’s own mission statement, the film studies program was never geared as a way station for artistic and technical grooming before hitting the road to Hollywood, and if you didn’t believe it before you signed up, you certainly would by the time you hit the production office in Villard Hall and tried to borrow a camera for a weekend shoot.
The student and the master: Dean Martin and John Wayne in Rio Bravo
But instead of fretting that I wasn’t at USC or UCLA, I took advantage of the fact that the department was enthusiastically operated from a history and criticism standpoint, and it was here that my lifelong relationships with artists such as Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, John Ford and countless others were seeded and nurtured and a whole new way of seeing the world was opened up to me. And the absolutely crucial coexistence of the film studies department with the countless on-campus screenings and terrific programming available at Eugene’s premier art house, the Cinema 7, provided all the supplementary rounding out a green film geek could ever hope for. I was lucky enough to have terrific, intuitive professors like Bill Cadbury, Jean Cutler, Bill Willingham and Don Frederickson, and teaching assistants like Terrea Bryson, who were exceedingly good at guiding their students to connect the art of film to the experience of life. This pale, none-too-worldly-wise country boy sometimes had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of his safety zones during those classes in the late ‘70s, but I relish the memory of my resistance being broken down, not only by the dawning light as I got exposed to a more and more expansive universe of international film, but also by the patience of folks like Bill Cadbury in guiding me down the path to wrestling with and expressing ideas about all those complicated images and sounds. Sometimes I didn’t like what I heard, but that just made me try a little bit harder next time. And by the time we got to Coppola and Altman, I was in heaven for seeing familiar works from a rich, new perspective.
As fellow student Sean Axmaker (who arrived at Oregon two years after I left) told Bill and I in a recent Facebook exchange, the film education we got at Oregon was important because it threw light on “how form and style informed meaning, how films reflected their time and the artists who created them, and how art is always political, especially in the absence of overt acknowledgment of a point of view, and why we should pay attention to these things.” For Sean, for me, for countless others, seeing films with Bill Cadbury and the rest of the professorial staff in the Film Studies Department wasn't just about watching movies and getting credit for it. It was, as Sean so aptly summarized, “about paying attention to how we were told to really understand what we were told,” a critical difference in relation to a viewer’s assumed passivity that has only become more critical 30-some years later in a world saturated by film and other media that have, if we are honest, probably eclipsed film in terms of fusion with a general audience.
Fast-forward from 1992 to 2012. That’s 20 years, kids, without a viable film program at the University of Oregon, an unfortunate drought which has, as all things must, finally passed. I was thrilled when I opened my mailbox earlier this week and found a letter from Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, who received her Ph.D. from the Telecommunications and Film Department in that final graduating class of 1992, and who is now a Professor of English at University of Oregon as well as the director of the newly established Cinema Studies department on the Oregon campus. “During the nearly two decades between our programs,” Karlyn says, “film and television studies never totally disappeared from (the university).” Instead, students continued to push for advances in study programs that could meet their needs and interests, while faculty continued to form bonds with like-minded colleagues from all areas of the campus who shared scholarly interest in all aspects of media in the 21st century. As a result, the new Cinema Studies program now spans three separate schools—the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Journalism and Communication and the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, more accurately reflecting, it seems to me, the connection and influences that inform films beyond the age-old iteration of our most traditionally popular art as simply a technological variation on literature or theater. “(The program has) more than 300 majors, a state-of-the-art computer lab and screening space,” wrote Karlyn in the letter which was addressed to all alumni of the Telecommunications and Film Studies department, “and a critical mass of faculty members working in fields ranging from Japanese cinema and Bollywood to digital culture and new media.” And I thought a whole semester on Altman, projected on 16mm, was neat!
This is, of course, extremely welcome news, if perhaps a bit humbling when considering what comparatively little there was to work with when I was a student there. But then again, it truly is a different, more complex, perhaps more intimidating world than it was 35 years ago when I entered the program, and for all alumni and for all the students who stand to gain so much from the rekindling of the long, important legacy of film study at Oregon, this is a tremendously happy announcement. I cannot (and would never) degrade my own experience, much less begrudge the blessing of seeing film as a visual art, with all of its new technological wrinkles and manifestations, being represented so vividly as a field of study again, and by so rich and diverse a staff as this. Among those names listed if you click on the link is one Bill Cadbury, Professor Emeritus of the English Department and founder of the first film studies program at the University of Oregon some 50 years previous. In the flier accompanying Karlyn’s letter there’s a wonderful picture of Cadbury looking every bit as vital and engaged as he was when he accompanied me at three screenings of Nashville in a single day back in 1980. (When I get a chance, I’ll scan it and include it here.) And beside that picture is a quote regarding the field into which he has poured so much passion and energy at the University of Oregon for so many years: “I am ecstatic that film studies is taking its place in the way that it deserves. It’s marvelous that it is happening.” I can only second that with great enthusiasm, Bill, and look forward to the day when I can return to campus and tour the facilities and the program that I honestly never imagined I would see.