First, note that some of the material on this page may be out of date. The information on this page was created and posted during the fifteen years that Professor Ray Carney was Director of the Boston University Film Studies program. He is no longer Director of the program. In the summer of 2005, he was replaced by a new Director, Assistant Professor Roy Grundmann ( As of that date, Prof. Grundmann and not Prof. Carney should be consulted by anyone seeking current information, recommendations, admissions standards, scholarship policies, application deadlines, and other advice about the program.

Even though many of the facts about specific admissions policies, scholarship amounts,curricula, and other aspects of the Boston University Film Studies, Film Production, Screen-writing, and Television Programs have changed since some of this material was posted, this page is being retained not only because some of the factual information about the Boston University program is still relevant and correct, but, more importantly, because of the great value many students have reported concerning Prof. Carney's opinions and advice about the educational process -- specifically his general perspectives about the meaning of undergraduate and graduate education, and the reasons one might want (or not want) to attend film school.

The list of recommended directors whose works should be viewed to prepare for film school; the list of other artists, writers, and books a student should familiarize him- or herself with; the other advice about how to prepare for graduate school and the differences between graduate and undergraduate education; the suggestions about the importance of reading books written by potential film studies faculty members and viewing feature films written and directed by potential production faculty (and how much more important doing this kind of "homework" is than taking a tour of the campus) in helping someone make a decision on whether or not they want to apply to a particular school; and many other pieces of advice offered in reply to the letters posted on this page have been reported by thousands of students to have been of terrific use to them. The article posted at the bottom of the page also stands as an important cautionary note about the kind of Film Studies Program students may want toto avoid! So even if some of the specific facts on this page are out-of-date, almost all of the general points and ideas about film education can still be relevant, important, and useful to many prospective students.

For a bit of "devil's advocacy" -- a bracing counter-perspective on why going to film school might NOT be the best course of action for every prospective film student, and might NOT be the best use of their time and money for many others interested in the arts, I also recommend going to two other places on the site. Clicking on this link will open a window to Mailbag page 97, where you can read a brief essay titled: "Reflections on the cultural hype about the glamour and importance of being a filmmaker, and how film schools take advantage of the myth for financial gain." And clicking on this link will open a window to some thoughts by noted independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson and others about the function of film school, and why it may actually be unnecessary for many students. (Note that the site has many related discussions about the purposes and value of education in general and arts education in particular, and you are encouraged to troll around and, if you are so moved, to click on other links you encounter on other site pages to read more about this subject.)

The second caution to bear in mind is one that applies to all other postings and every other page on the entire site: namely, that all statements represent Professor Ray Carney's personal views. They do not represent the official views of Boston University or the Department of Film and Television. Charles Merzbacher, Chairman of the Department of Film and Television, has insisted that this disclaimer appear on this page. Read the boxed material at the bottom of Mailbag page 101, particularly the last eight or ten paragraphs on that page, for background information relating to the Chairman's actions, and for an explanation of Prof. Carney's situation within the Department of Film and Television. Click here to open a window to the relevant section of Mailbag page 101.


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Film Studies at Boston University

Film Studies is offered at Boston University at both the undergraduate and graduate levels:

For undergraduates, the Film Studies major is part of a comprehensive liberal arts curriculum. Students are enrolled as Freshmen in the College of Communication (or apply to transfer into the college in their Sophomore or Junior years) and take a wide range of courses devoted to the study of film history, national movements, and genres. The emphasis is on the art of film and film as a personal expression. Hollywood movies are ignored or downplayed. The four-year program results in a Bachelor of Science degree from the Department of Film and Television in the College of Communication. For more information about the undergraduate course of study, click here. To apply, click here.

For graduate students, the Film Studies degree is a resident, two-year program resulting in a Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) degree. Students take four courses per semester for four successive semesters—a total of sixty-four credits. (Part-time, summer, or evening matriculation is rare and discouraged.) The program is small and extremely selective. Only the most talented applicants are admitted for study each year. Out of 40 to 50 or more applicants each year, generally not more than four or five, and frequently fewer students, enter each year's class.

A range of courses is offered, varying from semester to semester, with an emphasis on films which embody various forms of “personal,” “independent,” or “experimental” expression. Film is approached as an art fully on a par with any other artistic form of expression, and the study of mass culture, popular culture, Hollywood entertainment movies, and the business side of film production is minimized. During the final semester of residence, each Master's student works closely with an advisor writing a monograph-length (60-100 page) essay on a mutually agreed upon subject (projects range from in-depth studies of single figures or films to explorations of an artistic tradition or critical method).

The Master's program is focused much more on personal growth and development than vocational training, but possible career options following the completion of the degree include: programming and the preparation of program notes for film festivals, art film theaters, museums, or archives; teaching at the high school, junior college, or undergraduate college levels; and various forms of film reviewing and arts criticism. Since Boston University does not offer the Ph.D. in Film Studies, Master's students frequently continue their education by pursuing a Ph.D. at another university. Since the program is known for admitting only extremely talented students with demonstrated abilities and aptitudes (extremely high writing ability, verbal and analytic GRE scores of 650 or better, and undergraduate G.P.A.s of 3.5 or better are the rule), it has had great success placing graduates who desire to continue their educations in programs at other universities. Many of its graduates have gone on to take Ph.D.s in in Film Studies, American studies, English literature, interdisciplinary study, and other areas of artistic inquiry.

Beyond the customary financial aid package, a number of partial scholarships (in the $6000-8000 per year range) and teaching assistantships (paying $2000-$4000 per year) are available for a select group of entering graduate students. Since viewing films outside of the classroom is an important part of their education, all Film Studies graduate students receive free passes to attend an unlimited number of events at the three major film screening venues in Boston: the Harvard Film Archive, the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Remis Auditorium, and Cambridge’s Brattle Theater. Passes are valid for the entire period of the student’s matriculation, during both the academic year and the summer. The deadline for applications is February 1. For more information about the M.F.A in Film Studies, click here and here and here. To apply, click here and here.



Film Studies Program

Recommendations for Entering Students:

The most important preparation you can make prior to arriving at Boston University is to see as many “classic” foreign and American cinematic works of art as possible between now and the day you enroll. Go to a well-stocked video store and rent works by the following directors – or better yet, look in the listings of a local film archive, museum, or specialty house and see them on the big screen the way they were meant to be seen.

As a partial listing, it would not be a bad idea to attempt to master as many as possible of the works created by the following artists (listed in no particular order): Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov, Carl Dreyer, Lars vonTrier, Abbas Kiarostami, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Vittorio DeSica, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Chantal Akerman, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Elaine May, Robert Altman, Barbara Loden, Tom Noonan, Elaine May, Robert Kramer, Charles Burnett, Mark Rappaport, Paul Morrissey, Jay Rosenblatt, Su Friedrich, Bruce Conner, Matthew Barney, and Bill Viola. Don’t waste your time watching mainstream releases from the present or recent past. They are, almost without exception, junk. If you are on campus and have secured a Boston University ID card, Krasker Library and Mugar Library have videos of many of these works and viewing stations to study them. If you haven’t already, begin keeping a permanent viewing journal. Formulate your thoughts. Write brief essays (not “jottings” or “notes”). Wrestle with words, sentences, and paragraphs. Consciousness cannot precede expression. The struggle for verbal consciousness will be essential to your success in the Film Studies program.

If you are looking for critical material to compare your own responses with, Prof. Ray Carney, Director of Film Studies, has written books and essays dealing with a number of the above figures. His web site ( has excerpts from his writing, additional viewing suggestions, and information about obtaining his writing. His books on Mike Leigh, John Cassavetes, Frank Capra, and Carl Dreyer are highly recommended, but only after you have viewed several major works by each of these directors. Another member of the department, Prof. Roy Grundmann, has written a book on the work of Andy Warhol that is recommended as a follow-up to a viewing of that artist’s films.

If you are not familiar with works of art in other areas of expression, it would be a good idea to begin a self-study project this summer that continues during the period of your matriculation and afterwards. The arts are one. Other arts and artists have much to teach you about structure, form, and composition. Steal their secrets. Master their insights. Go to museums and study the paintings and sculpture; attend live performances or consult good recordings of drama, dance, opera, and stand-up comedy; listen to good music. In the next five to ten years, set yourself the goal of mastering as many of the past masters as possible. As a bare minimum, that would include – in music: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Stravinsky, Armstrong, Ellington, Holiday, Porter, Parker, Vaughan, Davis, Coltrane; in dance: Petipa, Fokine, Astaire and Rogers, Graham, Balanchine, Taylor; in painting and sculpture: Michaelangelo, Rembrandt, Hals, Degas, Sargent, Picasso, Grooms, Shapiro; in drama: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Bruce, Pryor; in literature (arbitrarily limiting the list to twentieth- and twenty-first century Americans): James, Faulkner, Stevens, Frost, Bishop, Welty, Lowell, Cheever, Elkin, Mailer, Oates. There are many other names that might be included in each group. Do not squander these years. This is a critical period in your neurological development. Your emotions, brain, and nervous system – your soul – is open and receptive in ways it will not be ten years from now. By the time you are in your mid-thirties or forties, it will be too late. (Click on the "Viewing Recommendations" ticket icon in the left menu for additional viewing suggestions by Prof. Carney. And consult page 46 of the Mailbag for other suggestions submitted by readers of the site.)

It is recommended that you bring the following books with you. To save money, they may be acquired, where noted, in used copies or older editions:

  • Robert Peters, Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. or Ph.D., Dimensions Publishing, any edition. (for an overview of the differences between undergraduate and graduate education)
  • Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, any edition. (for grammar and style questions). Read it.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style, University of Chicago Press, 14th edition, 1993, or 15th edition, 2003. (for writing and formatting issues and grammar and style questions)
  • A hardbound copy of a high-quality collegiate, desk, or unabridged dictionary published by Merriam–Webster, Random House, or Oxford University Press, any edition from the past 25 years. A used copy is fine. Acquire a large hardbound dictionary; you should not be using a paperback at this point in your career. Write in it. Underline entries. Circle problem words. Discriminate near synonyms. When you read, look up every word you don’t understand.

Read through as much of the first two books as possible before your arrival. In the second and third books, be sure to have read all of the entries that pertain to your personal “problem areas” (e.g. the use of “that” versus “which,” the maintenance of syntactic and intellectual parallelism, the use of the serial comma, the placement of punctuation with respect to quote marks and parentheses, the maintenance of tense, number and person agreement, the use of the semicolon and the comma, etc.).

Strictly for fun: David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 3rd edition, Knopf. Much stupidity and obtuseness, many mistakes and blind spots, a lot to disagree with; as an intellectual exercise, formulate responses and rebuttals to Thomson’s entries. What artists has he left out? What entries should he have left out?

There is no need for you to acquire or read a film survey or history text with listings of names, dates, events, periods, and genres. The art and artists listed above are themselves your best textbooks on how to understand these works. The works of art document the history that matters most: not the trivial, external, superficial history that is marked by events, but the deep, inner history that creates actions and events – the history of consciousness.

You can probably get by with whatever you presently have in terms of a computer and a laser or ink-jet printer, assuming that your equipment is in good working order. It doesn’t really matter whether you use a PC or a Mac, or a desktop or laptop model (although a desktop computer and full-size screen is recommended as being considerably easier to type on, read text on, and revise manuscripts on for extended periods of time). However, you would be wise to have fairly recent versions of Microsoft Word (Word 2001 or later) and Internet Explorer (version 5.1 or later) as parts of your software arsenal. This will make file sharing and exchange much easier. Virus protection software is also recommended. A floppy disk drive is not necessary but is a definite plus. Image editing or presentation software (Photoshop, Powerpoint, etc.) is not required.

A closing note on course registration: As a Film Studies graduate student, you cannot be “shut out of” any Film Studies course taught by Prof. Carney, Prof. Grundmann, Prof. Kelly, or Prof. Warren. I point this out since, on occasion, the university server may seem to have the final say and tell you that a Film Studies course taught by a Film Studies faculty member is full and “closed.” This message applies to other students but not to the group you are in. If you receive such a message at any point in your four semesters’ residency, simply ignore it, show up at the first meeting of the course or courses in question, and ask to be manually “added” to the class. You will never be denied admission to a Film Studies course taught by a Film Studies faculty member. (While I am on the subject of course registration, I would also remind you not to overlook upper-level film study offerings in other departments of the university that may dovetail with your interests.)

All best wishes. Welcome aboard!

Ray Carney


To read some of Ray Carney's course syllabi, click here.

Frequently asked questions about the graduate Film Studies program. Sample emails to and from Prof. Carney about the program and the application process.

For more information about Prof. Carney's philosophy of teaching and classroom methods, see the syllabi pages of the site as well as the following publications by him: "Why Art Matters," "Necessary Experiences," "What's Wrong with Film Courses.... and how to do it right." All are available for purchase in the Bookstore section of the site. Click here to go there.

To read an excerpt from an interview with Professor Carney about teaching Film Studies, click here.

* * *

As of 2004 and later years, the graduate Film Studies admissions standards, program size, and curriculum are being changed. Please note the following corrections to what is posted elsewhere on this page:

Admission has been made much more lenient and the emphasis on prior writing excellence has been downplayed. In the most recent application cycle, approximately two-thirds of the applicants to the Film Study program were admitted for study. GRE scores in the 500s and undergraduate GPAs of 2.7 or better have recently been sufficient for admission. The candidate's writing samples and writing ability have become less important in admissions and scholarship decisions than they were in the past (and less important than is indicated in other places on this page).

Note: The Film Production Program and the Television Programs recently have admited an even higher percentage of their applicants for graduate study. Admissions sometimes runs as high as 70 or more percent. In some programs, most or all of the students who have applied have been admitted.

The size of each entering Film Studies graduate class has been increased. Two to three times the number of students who previously attended are currently being enrolled in each entering graduate class.

The film studies curriculum is cutting back on the total number of film studies courses required for the degree and requiring students to take one-quarter of their courses in film production, acting, screenwriting, and areas outside film studies.

After being unsuccessful in maintaining past academic standards and practices, and having the above changes (and others) implemented against his recommendation, Professor Ray Carney resigned as chair of graduate admissions and director of Film Studies and has been replaced by Assistant Prof. Roy Grundmann.

All admission inquires and questions should be directed not to Professor Carney but to the new program director at:


Subject: Bursting through the concrete

Dear Professor Carney,

Hi.  I'm Wes Tank, I'm a filmmaker from Milwaukee.  I first came into contact with your work four years ago when I was writing the screenplay for my first feature film.  It was Cassavetes on Cassavetes, and it changed everything for me.  We spent a little over a year shooting the film, and shot nearly 60 hours of footage.  I was revising it, going in new directions and keeping it intuitive every step of the way (this proved very difficult as I found out that change made some people very nervous and sometimes paranoid...I wonder if this was the case on Cassavetes' sets).  I have been editing for over six months now, and I am just beginning to find the structure.....

.... I want to mention that I have been seriously looking into Boston University for grad school after I finish up my film.  I have a BFA in experimental film production from UW Milwaukee.  My fiance wants to get into Tufts to get an MA in Law and Diplomacy and an MS in Nutrition (food systems and society) so it seems like a step in the right direction.  I'm planning to go into Film Studies so I can teach the films of Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Herzog, Mallick, and others. while making my own.  Do you often take on graduate students as a professor at BU?  If you do, I would be interested in the possibility.  I feel that I could learn a lot from you.

Thanks again, and all the best to you,


RC replies: You might enjoy and benefit from Boston U; you might not. I just can't say. That would be true of every university. The best thing is to come to an Open House (several take place every year) and then do the same thing I would tell anyone in your situation thinking of attending any university in America: Take time and talk hard with the faculty, not in a group but one on one--hard, hard, hard. By hard I mean: refuse to indulge in "small talk" or "chit chat" or "cocktail party talk." Refuse to do that. Get them in private, off to the side, and ask hard, specific, focused questions: ask them what films they have made and how you can see their work; ask them to send you a copy of their syllabus for the first class you would take with them; ask them what films they like, and -- if they name some work you know --  quiz them about why they like it and what it does to them. Don't let them try to avoid answering. Don't let them give you vague responses. If they do, you can be sure they are frauds. If they do, you can be sure they will have nothing to say in class of interest. If they don't want to have this conversation with you, if they say they are too busy, that's the way they will be as teachers. Also keep in mind the obvious: I am not the Department. Many of them hate and despise me and my work, many of them hate this web site, many of them love Hollywood movies, many of them dislike filmmakers like Cassavetes or know little or nothing about independent film. That's just the reality -- See page 101, the boxed material at the bottom, for more on that subject. Read the last five or six paragraphs in particular. Finally, for more background about the program go to the menu at the top of this page, where it says "Boston U." and read the material on that page too. Good luck! May our paths cross (I don't come to all Open  Houses, but I am at a couple of them each year.) If you come here, I do have many grad. students in my courses. But keep "blasting" (that was Cassavetes' word to me--harder, tougher than "bursting!") through that concrete!!! Blast away! It's the only way to go!!! Love, Ray

P.S. All of the above quizzing can be done by email or on the telephone. And be sure you look at their films or read their essays. That will reveal their minds, just as my writing (here and in my books) reveals mine. Every potential student should do this before spending a hundred thousand dollars or more. You'd kick the tires on a car. Quiz, cross-examine your future faculty. Beware of salesmen and salespitches!

P.P.S. An afterthought: I just re-read your note to me and now am thinking that you are almost certainly wildly over-qualified for the program. Though it varies from year to year of course, most of your classmates will not have made films or even know very much about filmmaking. Don't faint but, based on what you tell me, you're actually better qualified -- with more film experience at least -- than many of the faculty you'd be taking courses with! You actually have experience with writing and directing a feature film. They don't. I could be forgetting someone of course, but I don't think a single one of them has made and released a single feature film -- ever -- at least nothing I've ever heard about or seen screened in my years here. In other words, you've wrestled with narrative issues and organizational problems and editing concerns they themselves haven't..... You could teach them a thing or two.

The larger and more important question to grapple with is why you feel you need to be a student again? What's the pull, what's the fear, what's the need? Most of the greatest indie filmmakers in America (Robert Kramer, Mark Rappaport, John Cassavetes, Tom Noonan, Elaine May, etc. etc.) never went to film school at all. So I'm asking an emotional as much as a technical question: Why do you need this certification? Why do you want to be a student sitting comfortably in a classroom rather than a creator struggling out in the world? The first is easier, of course; but is that the right reason to do it? And wouldn't the hundred thousand dollars (or more) that you will have to spend on your film school tuition be better spent making a movie? You can learn the technical stuff in six weeks by apprenticing yourself to Rob Nilsson or Tom Noonan or Caveh Zahedi. Why this need for school? (Click on this link to open a window to some more thoughts about the function of film school, and its being unnecessary for many students.)


Hello- could you please send me more information regarding the requirements for gaining entry into the graduate program? How much previous experience is considered the minimum? Would a background in photography be enough?


1. No previous analysis/criticism/film course experience is necessary. But writing skills and the love of verbal expression are sine qua nons. The struggle for verbal consciousness. Read the letter on my site to entering students. It's in the About RC: Boston University area

2. I am forwarding this to "" They should send you application materials.

3. My site has more than you want to know about my own personal interests. The BU site lists course offerings and matriculation requirements.

Dear Professor Carney,

My name is XXX and I am interested in examining and exploring the portrayal of women and minorities in film. I was told, after some inquiry, that you are one of the people who can provide me with some definite answers.

I hold a masters degree in English Literature. I specifically focused on the depiction of Asians, Caribbeans, Latinos, Africans and African Americans in literature and would love to continue this study in film and therefore need to know how or what I need to do in order to do so.

Any information with which you can provide me will be extremely helpful and beneficial. Thanks in advance for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.



PS. I would love the opportunity to meet with you if you are available. Please e-mail me the days and times that work for you.

Dear XXX,

Thanks for contacting me. You should look on the web site for an application form or write for application materials to be mailed to you.

I would be delighted to meet you and probably delighted to have you as a student, given your interests and your background. One of my perennial complaints is that most of my students only know film, and not literature, painting, drama, and other arts. You would probably be a valuable addition. An exception to that generalization.

However, I must tell you that I am not sure our course offerings would suit your needs or address your interests. The areas you are interested in are some of our curricular weaknesses. You might piece together a series of courses that met your needs, but it would be difficult. I would encourage you to look elsewhere for programs that more definitely meet suit your interests. Perhaps NYU. Possibly Wisconsin. But those are off the top of my head, I am just not sure what to recommend, but I have your interests at heart in saying this.

As to a meeting: The ideal time and place for this sort of conversation is at one of our fall Open Houses. The web site should have the dates. You could also chat with students and other faculty. We are all available at such times. Let me know if one of the Open Houses would work for you.

All best wishes,

Ray Carney


Dear Prof. Carney,

I would like to have some information regarding the graduate Film Studies Program at Boston University.

I have completed my M. Phil. (2 years program) in English Literature from the University of Delhi, India. Prior to this, I completed my bachelors (3 years) and masters degree (2 years) in English literature from University of Delhi, India. I have also been doing Graduate-level teaching for the past two years at Delhi University.

As part of my M. Phil. Program, I have done work in the area of film studies, studying primarily the medium of film and its relation to world literatures and exploring related issues of adaptations and questions pertaining to the translatability of a given narrative form from one medium to another. The study focused upon ideological and political implications of this translatability which are sometimes repressed in aesthetic discourse, the image text relationship, narrative, point of view, representation, problems of interpretation and the production of meaning in literature and film, space time relationships in literature and film, and the constitution of the spectator as a subject and auteurism and the questions of cinematic genres. My course project was an interdisciplinary study between Kozintsev’s King Lear and the Shakespearean King Lear. It examined issues of adaptation working with the idea of film as a hyper text variant of the hypo text, and engaged with the relationship of text performance and film, the (re) definition of Shakespearean text by Kozintsev, the technique and form employed by him for this purpose, and the contestatory, as well as, collusive relationship of literary theory, film theory, and the practice of making and viewing films.

Apart from my mphil course and project, I have also worked specifically on the cinema of Russian filmmaker Eisenstein and engaged with his film aesthetics not just thematically, but also visa vi Benjamin and Vertov’s theories on art, thereby delving into the questions regarding the questioning of the aesthetic as a paradigm for understanding art against the paradigm of artistic processes by technology. Another area of engagement has been the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock and his influence on subsequent directors like Spielberg, De Palma, Tarentino and David lynch. To this effect I did a course under Prof Richard Allen and learned a great deal about the aesthetics of Hitchcockian and post Hitchcockian cinema, engaging with questions of Romantic irony, the fine distinction between surprise, shock and suspense, the various hallmark camera movements and narrative structures orchestrating these movements used by Hitchcock and others influenced by him. I also delved into many thematic issues like those of morality, humor and entertainment.

I am keen in broadening this engagement with cinema in the form of a PhD program where I would like to study cinema as a cultural phenomenon. I want to study cinema as a cross disciplinary enterprise where I do not wish to explore merely the differences and similarities between literature and cinema or study cinema as a "stand-alone film studies" as it risks being haphazard or anecdotal or overly formalist or responsive to the culture industry. Instead I aim to engage with cinema as a form of a cultural “signifying practice” and analyze the increasing transactions between cinema and other cultural “texts” (with literature being merely one of them). I wish to “read” cinema as both a product and a producer of cultural energies and codes – cinema as one of the seminal set of signifying systems that constitutes as well as is constituted by a culture. It therefore needs to be closely analyzed in order to recover the meanings it has and the patterns of codes and modes of thinking that invest it with those meanings. This would involve attention to the conditions of its production, meanings, effects, critical receptions and evaluations, as well as, its engagement with various other cultural discourses. This would also involve a study of theories, concepts and analytical techniques that have traversed across disciplinary boundaries, enabling us to rethink the dynamics of cultural life in refreshingly new ways. I also wish to address questions like - how do we theorize the specificity and commonality of film and other cultural forms as modes of cultural expression in an age of increasing interplay between these forms? What happens when borders and boundaries that are not just topographical, but more importantly, mental, ideological and disciplinary are transgressed and dissolved, whereby art (literature, philosophy, history, science, technology, and other art forms) and other social practices and discourses outside the realm of art are brought into collusive as well as combative relations with one another, and so enriching our perceptions, challenging our presuppositions, and thereby initiating dialogues and debates that cut across disciplines? How do we understand the technological transformation of cinematic representation in contemporary times? How do changes in the public sphere – through state intervention and regulation, changes in structures of dissemination and spectatorship, or processes of globalization – inflect the history of cinema in various locations? Also I aim to address host of new challenges and new forms of theoretical inquiry, when theory travels across cultural, political, and disciplinary boundaries.

Since postcolonial cinema is another of my area of interests, I am contemplating working on this cinema within this framework. Post-colonialism for me is a contemporary sensibility, which in general terms, foregrounds elements of difference, heterogeneity and pluralism. I wish to analyze how the postcolonial cinema involves a deconstruction of 'grand narratives' of history, modernization and progress, and enable a recognition and celebration of difference and 'unspoken' narratives. Also how this cinema emphasizes the local, the specific and difference, and the idea that no one can speak unilaterally for another. My work aims to analyze this cinema not as a finished cultural product awaiting interpretation. I wish to delve not just into its processes of reflecting and re-assembling the colonial and pre-colonial past or its moments of celebration of the recognition of pre colonial ‘culture’ and ‘language’. But I also wish to engage with the contemporary modern and postmodern processes of its production and the various ways of its consumption along with the addressal of the question as to how do the construction and articulation of identities shape the life of this media, especially in postcolonial cultures? This would also involve a discussion of the attempted categorization of postcolonial cinema within categories like “art” or “popular/mass” cinema. The other issues I aim to address are those involving the cultural politics of identity and nationalism, political, cultural and historical constructions of race and ethnicity, workings of power and desire with a special focus on women and their cinematic representations, audience reception and status of the female movie stars in society.

I would like to know if it’s possible to engage with this area of studies as part of graduate Film studies program at Boston University which I understand has a strong standing not in just cultural theory and film studies, but also in its encouragement to interdisciplinary studies?

It would be immensely helpful if you could clarify these doubts regarding the PhD program and help me with the necessary information.



Ray Carney replies:

Dear xxxx,

A brief response to a fascinating and complex long question, or series of questions: It would be remotely possible to accomplish your goals by creating a hand-crafted program on your own at
Boston U. I would do everything in my power to assist you and make it happen. However, having said that, I must tell you candidly, and in your own interest, that we are not the ideal place for you to study. Our faculty is too small, our course offerings too limited, our offerings not really "interdisciplinary" enough to fit your needs and fulfill your goals.

I don't know what to recommend as an alternative, but would encourage you to shop around. There may well be something much better available. My understanding is that programs in the UK are more open to "cultural" approaches than American programs, but there might be an American program that would be right for you (and better than ours).

The problem is that I am the only faculty member in our program who is really working in the ”interdisciplinary" vein you have in mind, and even many of my courses are strictly cinematic in nature. Perhaps what you should look for is not a film program at all, but a "comparative literature" program (at least that is what it is called in the US) that allowed film to be a component of your curriculum. Or a "cultural studies" program that included film. (Brown and U.California San Diego -- if I am not mistaken-- have the latter. Many major schools, e.g. Harvard,
Princeton, Yale, Rutgers have the former.)

Sorry to be so discouraging, but what matters is what is right for YOU. You are clearly already working at an advanced level and deserve a program that will not hold you back. I'm afraid ours would not be able to offer you what you really need.

All best wishes. You sound like an amazing student!


PS – My web site has more info about the BU program under About RC: Boston U. Note that the reason my "letter to incoming students" places so much emphasis on interdisciplinary study is that virtually none of my entering students has any experience of it. You are far beyond them in this respect, which is why you might not be happy here.

PPS – An afterthought: At Boston U. you might investigate something called the "University Professors" program. It could include film. But you would have to make inquiries of them about that. I have nothing to do with it directly.


Dear Mr. Carney,

I am writing in regards to information on the Graduate Film Studies program at Boston University. I recently graduated from the University of Missouri in Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Recently, I have been researching graduate programs that offer an M.A. or M.F.A. in film studies so I can pursue a teaching career with the subject.

The courses on the web site look incredible and I am interested in learning more about the program. Is it possible for you could send me an information packet?

Dear xxx:

I shall forward your request to our grad. admissions office.

Look for the grad. open house schedule on the BU web site. That's the best way to find out more and meet faculty.

My web site has more info too, fyi. Look under About RC: Boston U. and elsewhere if you're interested. Also look at my course syllabi in the same area of the site for an idea of what happens in the classroom.

All best wishes.


Dear Sir:

I am unable to fathom whether the graduate film degree at Boston is for those interested in Production or those interested in Film theory or is a combination of both. I prefer a degree that is exclusively devoted to fulfill my needs.

Dear xxx:

We have separate degrees in each area. No combination degree. I have forwarded your inquiry to our admissions office at They should be in touch with you.

Leola Harlow, Ray Carney, and the hat from <i>Husbands</i>.  Cindy Conti is on the right.Hello,
My name is XXX, and I am nearing graduation at XXX University from the Film and Media Arts program. I am interested in learning more about the graduate cinema studies program at your university. What I am interested in is the following:

- Does the University offer any assistantships or fellowships?

Two different kinds: half–tuition and stipend. The first involve general teaching the second are straight scholarship.

A few of our best admits get a half–tuition deal via a special Dean’s Fellowship by teaching in a special freshman course. But that can’t be counted on for any but a few of the students. Only one or two or three a year.

The stipends are in the 6000 to 12000 dollar per year range if you are granted one. Most students we admit get one of these. But a few do not.

That means that almost everyone has to take out student loans to make ends meet. But with loans it can be done.

- After a certain period of study, is there any teaching jobs available to graduate students while they are still at the university?

Yes. See the above. Also we have teaching assistantships that require twenty hours a week of work. You can teach in the intro to film course for sophomores and juniors, if you qualify. But the TA pay is not that great, only about $ 4000 a year total with no tuition rebate. It hardly makes a dent in the tuition and other costs. It’s more for the experience of doing it than for the money.

- Can you give me a rough estimate of what the cost of living is like around the university?

The grad admission office has that info. I don’t. But brace yourself. It’s pretty expensive. For an apartment and meals I’d guess about fifteen grand a year. But that’s just my guess. Then of course there’s the tuition. That’s astronomical. And with the small dollar amount of the stipends and TA–ships, most students end up paying a large proportion of this amount. (The one or two or three who get the half–tuition–off special Dean’s Fellowships are the only exceptions.)

Please e-mail me this information, if it is available. I am greatly interested in the university and am looking towards starting graduate studies in the Fall of 2005.

Ok. Shall do.

Note: Admission and scholarship support come down to your ability, credentials, achievement. No general rule applies. Contact the Grad. Admissions office ( for more info.


Hi. I am interested in applying for acceptance into BU's graduate Film Studies program, but I have one small question regarding the program's requirements. From what I gathered on the Web site, it appears that completion of the GRE is required, but I was wondering if the program requires that a minimum score or percentile rank be achieved on the test. I thought I remembered reading this information on the Web site at one point, but I can't seem to locate it now. Any type of assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

Dear xxxx:

No min. test score or percentile required. GRE factors in as the third or fourth item in your application. Writing ability and depth of thought are numero uno. This is fundamentally a writing program. We are engaged in a struggle for verbal consciousness. Film happens to be the subject, but the program would be very little different if the subject were drama or poetry or painting. You must live to write and love to write. Or at least be prepared to enter into the fray and be open to learn how to express yourself verbally.

Hope that answers your question. Applications may be obtained from

My web site has more info about my own personal interests, fyi. Also look at the course syllabi I include on my site. They will show what goes on in classes.



Dear Mr/Ms Carney,

My name is xxx I'm an independent videomaker -at heart- and a commercial video editor -for living- currently working in NY and soon to relocate to Boston to work for "Panache" editorial.

Since my ultimate goal would be to become a documentary production teacher I was applying for the Media Studies Grad Program at Hunter College and now I'm looking forward to find a similar program in a Public Boston College. hunter program is very interesting, affordable and also flexible, allowing me to attend part time.

I will apreciate very much any lead or sugestion you may have regarding which school or program to apply to.

(Oh, by the way, if you're wondering why my written English is so clumsy, I'm Argentinean)

Thanks in advance for your time and help.


Dear xxxx:

I have asked our grad. application office to send you material, but want to tell you that we do not accept part time students so this probably won't work for you.

My web site has more information about my own work if you are interested. See my syllabi as well.




My name is xxxx and I am interested in Boston University's Graduate Program in Film Studies. I recently graduated from xxxx with a BA in Media Arts Studies and am looking to further my education. I am looking at your website and I like what your program has to offer from what I understand about it. I noticed that the acceptance rate for the program was very few students. About how many people typically apply for this degree? Also, are there any contacts that I can make from within the program, either instructors or students, to find our more about the types of courses and information covered therein? Thank you so much for your time and help!


Dear xxx,

Thanks for your note. I read applications and determine acceptances but I have nothing to do with providing application materials. That is handled by the graduate application office.

To obtain a course catalogue and application, write and ask for a catalogue. Check out the BU web site. That has much of the information in it also.

We receive approximately 35-50 applicants per year and enroll a class of between 0 and 8. Four or five is most common, but the zero is there as evidence that in several years because of the weakness of the applicant pool, we have matriculated no students at all. But this is the exception.

You would do best to read faculty members' books if you want to know what or how they teach. If you want to learn about me, I'd recommend my Shadows, my Films of Mike Leigh, or my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book for a good, hard, challenging read. But of course you should know the films inside out before you read the books.

People take a tour of a college or university to decide whether to attend, but what they forget is that a university is not its campus, its buildings, its views, its bricks and mortar -- but its courses. The other things don't really matter. If you want to know whether you should attend a school, skip the campus tour, ignore the photos in the catalogue, disregard how pretty the views are, and study the content of the courses that are offered and the publications of the faculty members you will end up working with. It doesn't ultimately matter how gorgeous the campus is or how many trees are visible from your dorm window. The works taught in the courses and the books and essays written by your future faculty members will show you what you are in for. Are the books boring, academic, footnote-clotted, filled with impenetrable jargon? Well, that's what your classes will be like. Are the books about stupid trashy Hollywood movies? Well, that's what you will be looking at in your classes. Are the faculty films tiresome educational documentaries? Are they silly entertainment movies? Do they make you really think? Do they shake you up? Do they attack the powers that be? Do they try to make a difference or just tell a cute story and entertain you? Well, that's the person who will be communicating his or her values to you. And of course if the faculty have not made any important films or written any important books, that too will tell you a lot. You can learn much, much more about a program by reading a little or viewing a little than you can by visiting the campus (where they will promise you the moon to get your tuition dollars out of your pocket).

By the way, don’t take my web site as being representative of my interests. It’s chiefly a place where I blow off steam.

Our program differs from others in that it is much more about art and personal expression in film than pop culture/mass culture dreck, garbage, and schlock. Little Hollywood. Lots of Bresson, Ozu, Tarkovsky, Kiarostami. Trained drivers on a closed course. May be too intense for younger children. Matrix boys and Titanic girls need not apply.

We treat films less as sociology, anthropology, and history lessons, than as works of art. A complex task, that. Harder done than said, which is why most schools take the other, easier path.

As mentioned in the note near the top of this page (click here to go there), there have been a number of changes in the Film Studies Masters program as of 2004 and later years that are at odds with what is said elsewhere on this page. Please note the following changes in admissions and scholarships standards and in the program and curriculum:

Admission has been made much less selective. In the most recent application cycle, approximately two-thirds of the applicants to the Film Studies program were admitted.

The size of each entering Film Studies graduate class has been increased. Two to three times the number of students who previously matriculated are now being enrolled in the program.

In contradiction to what is asserted at the end of the reply to the preceding letter, more mainstream films and Hollywood "blockbusters" are now being screened and a "sociological/ideological/historical/cultural studies" approach to understanding film is being taken in many courses.


Dear Mr. Carney,

My name is xxx and I am a graduate of Cornell University, class of xxx. Recently, I have been thinking of attending graduate school to pursue an MFA either in film production, or film studies. I was reading up on the graduate film program at Boston University, and was impressed by the descriptions I read online. I would like to know more about the MFA in Film Studies, and I had a few questions I thought I'd ask you. My background may seem peculiar, and perhaps unlike most people's, but maybe I'm just being presumptuous. I currently hold a B.A. in English, and was a College Scholar in the school of Arts and Sciences at Cornell. The College Scholar program at Cornell is quite unique. It allowed me the freedom of choosing my own course of study without any restrictions. I was exempt from Cornell's core distribution requirements. I therefore indulged myself with a rich schedule of film courses. As a College Scholar project, I completed a 32 minute experimental film, which I produced independently. I worked on this film for a year, and it reflects a deeply personal vision. The reason I mention all of this is because I do not hold a degree in film studies, or film production, but wonder if my experience, undergraduate course work, and my ambition is enough to warrant my interest in BU's graduate film program--or, am I wasting my time? Currently, I am working as a xxxx in upstate NY. This is my first job ….. and now I feel like I may want to teach at the college level. I assure you, my interest in film studies is no mere impulse. As an undergraduate at Cornell, I was dedicated to my studies in film, and took film production courses during summer session, while volunteering at local access television studios to learn Premiere on my own. I am extremely proficient at digital editing, and have worked with 16mm Bolex cameras since my freshman year. I have also produced several shorter films. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, and hope to hear from you in the near future. Thank you for your time.

Dear xxxx,

I am not a salesman so I will not try to sell you on anything in particular, but here are some perspectives. I would note that they apply to almost any program in America.

1. Production and studies are totally different, almost unrelated, areas. If you are burning to express yourself as an artist in film, production is for you. Studies is about the appreciation, understanding, and analysis of film.

2. So that may sound biased against studies. After all, who wants to be an analyst when they can be an artist? But on the other side of the argument keep in mind that most production courses at every school in America have very little intellectual or philosophical content. Very little high-level discussion of aesthetics, values, morality, the meaning of art. Very little consideration of what makes a masterwork different from a mass-market work. In fact, most of them are in hock to Hollywood values. I hear it all the time from production students. They stream into my office or write me e-mails saying how hungry they are for artistic discussion, for talk about ultimate things, for considerations of why art matters (or doesn't!). Over and over again, they tell me they don't get that in their production courses and are very frustrated by the fact. Their production courses teach them how to make a movie, focused almost entirely on the mechanics of the task. They are about where to put the lights. How to load a camera. How to budget a production. How to pitch it to a producer. How to create a "saleable" script. (To read an interview with Ray Carney about the way Film Production is taught in many American universities, click here.)

Is that what you want to do with two years of your life? Do you need someone to teach you those things? Are they worth tens of thousands of dollars to learn? (Can't you learn them on your own?) I don't know about you, but I'd hang myself before I signed up for two years of that. I need something deeper than vocational training. And that's what Film Studies offers. It is not about business and technical skills. It is about the love, appreciation, and cultivation of art as a way of knowing. It would compare with arts courses in the analysis of literature, painting, dance, drama, or music. Studies asks big, hard questions about the meaning of art and life.

2B. So far I have been talking about production programs in general and Film Studies programs in general. Now I'll switch to Boston University's program in Film Studies. All of the things in the paragraph above are what we specialize in. The big questions. The considerations of truth and morality are what we do. And, if I say so myself, we do it well! The major difference between Boston U.'s particular studies program and those at most other schools is that Boston University's minimizes the silly, academic theory and jargon while maximizing the study of the artistic side of film; other studies programs will have a higher quantity of such things, while minimizing the "appreciation" and "love" side of the study of film. Our program is also more about art film while others tend to focus on popular culture more.

3. You really have to decide which you want to do. Become an artist or become a critic, reviewer, appreciator, loving connoisseur of the art. It's your call. I can't decide for you.

4. My personal feeling is that you may actually (to your surprise) be over-qualified for our production program (and others). If you can shoot with a Bolex now, you are not far from knowing how to use an Arriflex or a good video camera (even easier). But don't worry about getting in. You would almost certainly be admitted to the Film Production program, since you're so qualified, and they generally admit the majority of their applicants, with the obvious exception of a few applicants who would be clearly unable to do academic work for one reason or another. So admission in your case would be virtually guaranteed. But the question is do you want to be in a program that admits such a large proportion of its applicants? Is that the kind of group you want to pay so much money to be part of for the next two years of your life?

5. You want to deeply search your reasons for continuing your formal education. What can you now do? What if you took your tuition dollars and applied them to making a film right now? Why do you think you have to go to school to do it? (Most of the great filmmakers of the past did not come out of film programs.)

6. Of course you would learn something from either studies or production, but the question is what do you want to do with your life. And how a two year graduate degree will help or only delay it.

7. To make a decision about a particular program, if you are considering more than Boston U., you should look at the work of the faculty you intend to study with: What kinds of films have the prod. faculty made? What kinds of books have the studies faculty written? Don't accept their rhetoric. They will lie to you (without knowing it). Look at their work. What have they done? That will show you how good (or not good) they are, what they value, what they believe, what they will teach you.

Of course if your future faculty members have not written any books, or any interesting ones, that will tell you a lot in itself. If they have not made many feature films or many interesting ones, that will also reveal a lot. Beware of teachers who don't do things in their own lives and careers, but claim they will tell you how to lead yours. If they aren't creative, daring, original in their own work, how can they be creative and inspiring in the classroom? Their words will only be so much hot air and empty rhetoric. Look at what they have done to change the world, to affect things, to further the art. You want to work with artistic and intellectual movers and shakers, people who are making a real difference in their areas, not people hiding out in an ivory tower. Looking at these films and reading these books will tell you much more about the school than ten tours of the campus or a thousand stupid photographs of grass and trees and classrooms in the catalogue will.

8. To answer 7 in terms of me, you can go to my web site, or to a library and read some of my books. To answer it about others, you will have to be resourceful in other ways.



I am currently a graduate student working on my M.S. in Communications. I have completed undergraduate degrees in Psychology, Criminal Justice, and Film/Video Production. My GPA was 3.59. I have mastered many operating systems and editing software including Adobe After Effects, AVID, Final Cut Pro HD. I am currently working on Shake 3.5 and Motion. Projects I have completed include reproducing the "bullet time" from the Matrix using over 40 cameras.

While I very much enjoy film and video production I realize that film studies would be a good place for me to start before I pursue a production degree. My M.S. includes research and theory. I feel my broad education and life experience put me in a good position to succeed in such a program.

I am currently a graduate assistant. I function as a marketing, logistics, and research assistant in the Autism Education Center located in the graduate office at XXX. I have interned with the XXX Medical Examiner and the Sherrif department. I have traveled through europe multiple times through art history courses in XXXX Seminary.

I have two questions to ask:

1) Are there GA positions available either in your department or university?

2) Is a GRE required for consideration? If so, is there ever any special circumstance?

Thank you for your time and consideration,


Dear xxx:

Thanks for your inquiry. You seem to have many filmmaking skills, but they would be completely irrelevant to acceptance in the Film Studies program. We are looking for critics, analysts, thinkers, not filmmakers. We are looking for people who can write on paper, not in film or video.

About your questions:

1) The largest GA scholarship we offer is half of the tuition. TA positions pay only a tiny amount, like $2000 to $4000 per year. There is no chance of a free tuition. The way someone makes ends meet is to take out a student loan. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to get one.

2) GRE is required but you still have time to schedule it before the review process in March.

3) Previous study of film is helpful, but NOT required. What is required is verbal awareness and ability (or at least potential). Life experience can contribute to that of course. But it must be life experience that is or will be converted into written and spoken expression. Consciousness cannot precede expression.



Dear Professor:

What constitutes a strong application? What’s the most important part? What should I concentrate on?


Dear xx:

To adapt the joke about real estate values, the three most important parts of the application are 1) your writing; 2) your writing; and 3) your writing. The writing samples are the single most important factor in the admission process. We require academic essays (usually submitted and graded course papers) for the writing sample. Those essays are the deal–maker or breakers. (Just as the essays in your courses once you arrive here are the deal–makers or breakers in terms of your subsequent success in the program.)

Everything else is far, far down the scale in approximately this order:

4) Class rank if that is provided on the transcript
5) Course selection and grades achieved, judged in a complex way: For example, an “A” in a demanding history or English or classics course may count for more than an “A” in an easy horror movie course. The choice to take challenging courses in other areas is a plus. The undergraduate grades of admitted students are generally in the A or A- range with the occasional B+ in a difficult course outside their major areas of study. (This roughly translates to a GPA of 3.5 or better.) Anything lower than this is clear evidence that one did not apply oneself or excel as a student and scholar, particularly given the rampant grade inflation at most American colleges and universities, where getting a grade of C, C-, or C+ is equivalent to failing a course.
6) Verbal and analytic GRE scores in the 650 to 800 range. Quantitative scores do not matter.

As mentioned in the note near the top of this page (click here to go there), the following changes have been made in admissions and scholarship standards and in the program size for Film Studies Masters students admitted in 2004 and after:

In contradiction to what is said on this page, GRE scores and GPAs now matter more and the writing sample matters less than previously. The essays are no longer the decisive admissions factor they were in the past. Test scores and grades are now the most important factors in admissions and scholarship awards. (See the following points for information about changes in those standards.)

Undergraduate GPAs of 2.7 or better have recently been sufficient for admission.

GRE verbal scores in the 500s or better have recently been sufficient for admission.

Admission has been made much less selective. In the most recent application cycle, approximately two-thirds of the applicants to the Film Studies program were admitted.

The size of each entering Film Studies graduate class has been increased. Two to three times the number of students who previously matriculated are now being enrolled in the program.

Finally, please note that the film studies program does not have an independent series of courses, either at the graduate or undergraduate levels, exclusively for film studies students. Very few or none of the film studies classes are limited to film studies students or are devoted exclusively to their interests. Film studies students take classes with production students, screenwriting students, and students in other academic areas. There are only a few film studies graduate classes limited to graduate students. Most film studies courses have large numbers of undergraduates and non-film studies students in them and must serve their needs as well.

7) Letters of recommendation are the least important part of the application. They generally matter only insofar as they reveal new facts or information about you. Any praise expressed within them is generally discounted since referees tend to exaggerate and praise almost everyone.

If you understand what I am getting at, the answer to what you should concentrate on is nothing that you can do or that is in your control at the time you are applying. The writing samples you submit are course papers––material not written at the time you are applying but that reflect your performance in previous college courses. So I guess the answer to what you “should do” is be the best (most daring, courageous, hard–working) student in your previous academic career. Write the best papers. Then include them in your application. That is what will create the best possible application.


A final thought about the meaning of film school (a brief excerpt from a longer reply to someone else about the meaning of film study):

Education is not about making a living, but making a life. A deep, spiritually meaningful life. It is a time for exploration and discovery. Every day after you graduate, the world will be demanding its pound of flesh from you. There will be pressures placed on you to compromise, to put your values aside and do things the established way, the way that makes money, the way that makes for worldly success. This is your one chance to do something for yourself. Not for money. Not to get ahead. Not to curry favor with someone. Not to please anyone but yourself. It is a special time of life, a unique opportunity to go as far as you can, to dig as deep as you dare into the meaning of life. It is a time to study your heart and soul and not worry about the ridiculous, wasteful, stupid things the world wants you to care about. To go to school to try build a resume, or to learn secrets about how to get rich or famous is to waste this glorious opportunity to break free from that oppressive system. The only right reason to go to school or to make art or to study art is to begin to understand truths the world suppresses and denies, and eventually to be able to share your understandings with others in acts of love and giving.

Just this afternoon I just spoke at a Boston U. open house "visiting day" for grad students who were visiting a number of different schools, and told them if some teacher or Dean stood up in a meeting and told them that if they attended their school they could becomes rich or famous some day, they should run for the door. I told them that the only reason to go to grad school was to have a chance to explore themselves and our crazy, messed up culture so that they might begin to understand themselves and it-and eventually be able to communicate that understanding to others. To do anything else is to waste your education, and ultimately to waste your life. It is to sell your soul to the devil. Life is not about making money or getting famous or being successful. In our brief time here we must try to understand who we are and what really matters, and try to bring our feelings of love and kindness and understanding to others. That's what grad school is about—or what it should be about. Starting out on—or continuing—that great adventure of discovery and self-discovery.


Dear Prof. Carney,

I was reading an interview on your website and felt a little surge of unease when I finished this paragraph: "I should say, tried. Those days are past. I recently tendered my resignation as director of the program. I'll step down this summer....."

I am in the midst of getting a packet together to apply for BU's graduate film studies program for the Fall 2006 semester, and my primary reason for applying is your work and the filmmakers and other artists you champion and teach. I haven't found any other programs where my enthusiasm for Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Bresson, Ozu, Noonan, May and lots of other artists in lots of other arts would be even slightly rewarded. With you gone, will the BU program become business as usual? What are your future plans, and will those plans involve teaching? I guess that last question is none of my business and too vague in scope to be answerable, anyway, but please keep at it. Academia needs people who don't think "art" is a dirty word. Do you have any recommendations for someone who wants to study what you teach?

Josh Krauter

Ray Carney replies:


I'm still teaching in the program. I just resigned as Director of it.It was over a number of issues, mainly connected with lowering of admissions standards, the cutting back on the number of film courses required for the film studies major, and the shift in emphasis from the teaching of "artistic/personal" films to "mainstream/Hollywood" work. That is unclear because part of the interview is cut before that that explains the situation. (Click here to read an excerpt from this interview.)

Thanks for the kind words. But my world involves constant struggles for excellence. That's just the way life is. I'm used to it. Proof that you're doing something valuable is that you meet with resistance. Anything else is entropy. What's Blake's aphorism? No progression without contraries. I think that's it. Translation: Take the path of greatest resistance. Nothing excellent comes easy. If it was easy, the world wouldn't need my work. Someone else would be doing it. In this instance, I'm a minority of one in the program. I guess people should be told that. The most popular course we have this semester is in Hitchcock! One of the largest last semester was in the work of David Cronenberg. And as a counter example, last semester, almost none of the students (grad or undergrad) was interested in viewing films by and learning about the work of Bresson, Ozu, and Leigh. Their work was the most under-enrolled. So what's the moral? It's not hard to figure out and it's true at every university in the United States. We live in a culture of celebrity and most faculty teach and the overwhelming majority of students want to study the work of the super-star celebrity figures everyone is already familiar with, the names that draw, the stars and star directors who have box office appeal. And faculty are only former grad. students, which means that in ten years the students now fighting to get into a Hitchcock course will be offering one as faculty members.

I touch on this issue higher up on the same page. See the mention of Yoda earlier in the interview. I am not the Boston U. Film Studies program. There are others with other values. Both faculty members and students.

And see the link on the same page for some (partially tongue in cheek) reactions to the way academic film production programs are run. The dumbing down is just as pervasive there.



Prof. Carney,

Thank you for responding. I'm glad you will still be teaching there. I'm going ahead with my application, though I do realize you aren't the BU film program, just a part of it. At 28, I'm still young but too old to look for a Yoda. I agree with most of your ideas and opinions, but part of what I enjoyed about my undergrad days was the exposure to new ideas and people, many of whom I disagreed with vehemently. I don't think of you as a Svengali, just as a teacher and writer whose books and recommendations have consistently made me a better thinker.

A couple of quick questions. Will you still be on the admissions committee? Also, you mention being a minority of one in the department. After seeing one of the professors in the catalog list "Baywatch" and "Beverly Hills 90210" on his resume, I see what you mean. However, are there any other profs in the film department whose classes you recommend? I've been able to find some of Roy Grundmann's work, but I haven't had much luck finding writing or information from some of the others.

Thanks for your time.
Josh Krauter

Ray Carney replies:

Thanks. I appreciate your kind words about my work.

On to your question about books and publications: Save your time looking. Assistant Prof. Grundmann is the only Film Studies teacher who has published anything beyond a brief film review or some such. He has a book on Andy Warhol's Blow Job. It's not my idea of a great American masterpiece and Warhol not exactly my cuppa' tea as a filmmaker, but he is a name to conjure with in art circles. To the best of my knowledge you won't find anything else in print by other full-time regular film studies faculty.

In the last cycle I stepped down from the admissions committee also. Admissions changes were a large part of my decision to resign the directorship.

Be sure you keep Film Studies and Film Production separate in your mind. The faculty are divided into different groups. Baywatch and Beverly Hills 90210 would have been done by production faculty. That doesn't make the fact any less embarrassing, of course. (Click here for Ray Carney's take on film production programs.)

I don't know what else to say. USC, NYU, and Columbia have excellent Film Study programs I am told. I am still at Boston U., still teaching my heart out, writing like crazy, and trying to help students in every way I can. That hasn't changed and won't.


For more information about Prof. Carney's philosophy of teaching and classroom methods, see the syllabi pages of the site as well as the following publications by him: "Why Art Matters," "Necessary Experiences," "What's Wrong with Film Courses.... and how to do it right." All are available for purchase in the Bookstore section of the site. Click here to go there.

To read an excerpt from an interview with Professor Carney about teaching Film Studies, click here. To read a statement by Professor Carney about the limitations of academic film criticism, with an essay about Alfred Hitchcock as the example, click here.

To read an essay by University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson about nature of education in the arts and humanities, click here. To read related reflections on similar issues by Ray Carney, click here and here and here.

To read an interview with Ray Carney about film production programs, "Why Film Schools Should be Abolished and Replaced with Majors in Auto Mechanics," click here.

To read Andrei Tarkovsky's thoughts about Film School, click here.

Click here to read how Screenwriting is taught in a major university film program.

For a taste of what other film programs are like, read the following article, which appeared in the July 13, 2003 issue of The Los Angeles Times. Is this the best Film Studies can be?

Lights, Camera, Action. Marxism, Semiotics, Narratology.
Film school isn't what it used to be, one father discovers.

By David Weddle
Special to The Times

July 13, 2003
(Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times)

"How did you do on your final exam?" I asked my daughter.

Her shoulders slumped. "I got a C."

Alexis was a film studies major completing her last undergraduate year at UC Santa Barbara. I had paid more than $73,000 for her college education, and the most she could muster on her film theory class final was a C?

"It's not my fault," she protested. "You should have seen the questions. I couldn't understand them, and nobody else in the class could either. All of the kids around me got Cs and Ds."

She insisted that she had studied hard, then offered: "Here, read the test yourself and tell me if it makes any sense."

I took it from her, confidently. After all, I had graduated 25 years ago from USC with a bachelor's degree in cinema. I'd written a biography of movie director Sam Peckinpah, articles for Variety, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and written and produced episodic television.

On the exam, I found the following, from an essay by film theorist Kristin Thompson:

"Neoformalism posits that viewers are active—that they perform operations. Contrary to psychoanalytic criticism, I assume that film viewing is composed mostly of nonconscious, preconscious, and conscious activities. Indeed, we may define the viewer as a hypothetical entity who responds actively to cues within the film on the basis of automatic perceptual processes and on the basis of experience. Since historical contexts make the protocols of these responses inter-subjective, we may analyze films without resorting to subjectivity . . . According to Bordwell, 'The organism constructs a perceptual judgment on the basis of nonconscious inferences.' "

Then came the question itself:

"What kind of pressure would Metz's description of 'the imaginary signifier' or Baudry's account of the subject in the apparatus put on the ontology and epistemology of film implicit in the above two statements?"

I looked up at my daughter. She smiled triumphantly. "Welcome to film theory," she chirped. (To read Ray Carney's semi-comic reflections about the lamentable influence of film theory on Film Studies and the meaning of Christian Metz's work in particular, click here.)

Alexis then plopped down two thick study guides. One was for the theory class, the other for her course in advanced film analysis. "Tell me where I went wrong," she said.

The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as "diegetic," "heterogeneity," "narratology," "narrativity," "symptomology," "scopophilia," "signifier," "syntagmatic," "synecdoche," "temporality." I picked out two of them—"fabula" and "syuzhet"—and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. "They're the Russian Formalist terms for 'story' and 'plot,' " she replied.

"Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' "

"We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.' "

Forget for a moment that if Alexis were to use these terms on a Hollywood set, she'd be laughed off the lot. Alexis wants a career in film. She chose UC Santa Barbara because we couldn't afford USC and her grades weren't lustrous enough for UCLA. Film programs at those schools have hard-core theoreticians on their faculty, as do many other universities. Yet no other undergraduate film program in the country emphasizes film theory as much as UCSB, and the influence of those theoreticians is growing. We knew that much before Alexis enrolled. In hindsight, we had no idea what that truly meant for students.

I flipped through more pages and landed on this paragraph by Edward Branigan, the premier film theorist at UCSB: "Film theory deals with basic principles of film, not specific films. Thus it has a somewhat 'abstract,' intangible quality to it. It is like looking at a chair in a classroom and thinking about chairs in general: undoubtedly, there are many types and shapes of 'chairs' made out of many kinds and colors of materials resulting in different sizes of chairs. What must a 'chair' be in order to be a 'chair'? (Can it be anything? a pencil? a car? a sandwich? a nostalgic feeling? a ledge of a building that someone sits on? the ground one sits on and also walks on? Can a 'chair' be whatever you want, whatever you say it is?) Here's another question: what must a chair be in order to be 'comfortable' (i.e., what is the 'aesthetics' of chairs?)?"

My daughter was required to take 14 units of film analysis and theory before she could graduate with her bachelor's degree in film studies. That's the equivalent of going to school full time for one quarter, which made it relatively easy to crunch the numbers. Including tuition, books, school supplies, food and rent, it cost about $6,100 for Alexis to learn how to distinguish between a chair and a nostalgic feeling. I don't like to complain, but that just didn't seem like a fair return on my investment.

Is there a hidden method to these film theorists' apparent madness? Or is film theory, as movie critic Roger Ebert said as I interviewed him weeks later, "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented that only the adept can communicate in"?

At USC cinema school a quarter-century ago, one of the most popular teachers was Drew Casper, a young, untenured professor with an unbridled love for movies. Casper didn't lecture, he performed: jumping on a chair to sing a song from the musical he was teaching, covering his blackboard with frenetic scrawls as he unleashed a torrent of background material on the filmmaker's life, the studio that produced the movie, and the social forces that influenced it.

Casper, and most other film studies professors at USC, approached film from a humanist perspective. He taught students to focus on the characters in the movies, the people who made the films, and the stories the movies told and what they revealed about the human condition, our society and the moment in history they dramatized.

Yes, students read theoretical essays and books. But they were about the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Aristotle's "Poetics" laid out the basic principles of dramatic writing. Sergei Eisenstein explained the intricate mechanics of montage editing, which used quick cutting to provoke visceral emotions from audiences. And André Bazin described how directors Orson Welles and William Wyler used a "long-take" method of filming scenes that was the opposite of montage, the camera and actors moving poetically around one another in intricately choreographed shots.

Students also studied the first French cinematic doctrine to reach American shores, the auteur theory. It held that directors were the primary creators of films and that they, like novelists, created bodies of work with recurrent themes and consistent world views. At the time, the auteur theory seemed revolutionary, and in Hollywood—particularly among members of the Writers Guild—it remains controversial because many argue that movies are created not by a single auteur but by a complex collaboration of hundreds of craftspeople, beginning with the screenwriter.

Whatever its merits, the auteur theory remained solidly within the humanist tradition Casper once taught. Perhaps he knows what happened to film theory in recent decades.

He does. "Unfortunately, film studies has moved away from humanist concerns," says Casper, who now holds the prestigious Hitchcock Chair at USC's School of Cinema-Television.

The change began in France in the late 1960s, he says, offering explanations echoed by other film and English professors interviewed for this article. French theorists of the New Left pushed their own liberal social agendas. They discredited the auteur theory as sentimental bourgeois claptrap. Auteurists, they believed, had constructed a pantheon of great directors, almost all them white males, whom they worshiped as demigods. Moviegoers passively allowed the genius to spoon-feed them his interpretation of their socio/political system, and they never dared question the validity of those perceptions.

New Left theorists decided film viewers should liberate themselves, bringing their own thoughts, interpretations and responses into the process. Moviegoers should look at films not as the product of a unique creative spirit, but as cultural "artifacts." Films could be analyzed as a series of Rorschach inkblots, providing insights about the collective unconscious of the society that produced them. Thus it was no longer the artists' views of the world that counted. They were merely channeling the zeitgeist. Theorists became the new high priests of culture, and they followed their own concrete, left-wing social agenda.

By the '70s, film theory was spreading to the United States, and moving beyond simple politics. A kind of metaphysical inquiry into the nature of cinema was underway. Discussions about movie characters, plots and the human beings who created them were on the way to being replaced by theories such as semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, psychoanalytics and neoformalism.

Film metaphysics, to use an Edward Branigan-style analogy, is like looking at a statue of a man and instead of asking what it expresses about the human psyche, wondering what it reveals about the nature of marble. Or studying a painting to find what it says about the meaning of the color red.

Hershel Parker, respected author of a two-volume biography of writer Herman Melville, says the transformation of film studies mirrored that in many college English departments. "There's no room for anyone in English departments who wants to talk about author intention," says Parker, who goes into Old Testament rage at the mention of the subject. When the New Left theories invaded American English departments, Parker believes it all but wiped out serious scholarship. "I was a freak for wanting to go into the library manuscript collections."

Since authors no longer matter, Parker says, many researchers believe they no longer need to go back and read the author's correspondence and working manuscripts, or study the events that shaped his or her sensibility. "It's naïve New Criticism, where all you do is submit yourself to the text," says Parker. "These people have no clue about going to do research. They don't know you can find out about a person's life or work. They have not, and their teachers have not done real research."

Annette Insdorf, director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, recruits film theorists for her faculty because she believes her students should be exposed to a discipline that has had a major impact on cinema scholarship. But she remains ambivalent.

Film theory caught on in the 1970s and 1980s, she points out, a time when many cinema professors were struggling to win the respect of their colleagues. "Don't forget that film studies always labored under the handicap of being perceived as too easy and fun within many universities," Insdorf says. "I sometimes suspected that professors were trying to ensure their own job security by utilizing an increasingly obfuscating language. The less understandable film theory became to faculty from other departments, the more respectable it seemed."

As curriculum shifted, students moved further from the practical considerations that have always driven filmmaking—and continue to drive Hollywood today. "You get people who are graduating with master's degrees who know nothing about the history of movies," Casper says. "They have never even heard of Ernst Lubitsch, have never even seen Hitchcock movies. They know the different film theories—they know their Marx, their Freud, their Althusser, Derrida."

Constance Penley is a thin, plainly dressed woman in her late 50s, her short white hair combed forward in the manner of Gertrude Stein. She speaks in a soft Southern accent, her slender ivory hands shaking ever so slightly as they gesture to illustrate a point.

Penley is director of the UCSB Center for Film, Television and New Media. She also is one of the founders of Camera Obscura, a highly influential feminist film journal, and is one of the primary architects of film theory in the United States. As author or editor of nine books on film and media theory, she is constantly on the move, whisking off to speak in Rome, London, Warsaw, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and at UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard.

Like many theorists, she exudes an almost religious fervor for film theory and its power to transform. Penley vividly remembers the moment of her conversion. She arrived at the University of Florida in 1966 with the intention of becoming a high school or community college teacher. But the campus' burgeoning counterculture quickly radicalized her. She marched in peace demonstrations, got tear-gassed, worked on the underground newspaper, attended feminist consciousness-raising groups and came to realize that becoming a mere teacher would be to surrender to the pressures of a patriarchal power structure.

One night she went to a screening of "Pierrot le Fou," a labyrinthine, perplexing, yet mesmerizing film by the premier French New Wave director, Jean-Luc Godard. The plot was impossible to follow, but the spontaneity of the acting, the unconventional staging and elliptical editing seemed to Penley to burst beyond the screen. "I walked out into the steamy Florida night and I was baffled. I set out to try and figure out: 'How is this a film?' "

She went to see more European movies, hallucinatory concoctions by Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini that catapulted beyond all traditional notions of genre or narrative. Her excitement and questions multiplied, even if she still didn't know how to define what she was seeing.

Then she took a film class from W. R. Robinson, who had edited a book titled "Man and the Movies." "He was one of these crazy English professors who loved movies and wanted to legitimize them so he could show them in class," Penley says.

At the time, only a handful of universities had film programs, most prominently USC, UCLA and New York University. At most colleges, the notion of seriously studying cinema was mocked or ignored. But gradually, instructors on some campuses persuaded the English, philosophy, or even the rhetoric departments to allow them to teach a film class or two.

At the University of Florida, Robinson taught a number of courses, including "Narrative Analysis." One of the textbooks was "Structuralism," by Jacques Ehrman. "It was one of the very, very first things on structuralism translated in this country," Penley says. Derived from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralism is an investigation of the "deep structures" found in a society's myths, artwork, literature and films—structures through which the society defines itself.

In it, at last, Penley had a tool for picking apart works of literature and these new foreign films, a tool for bringing order to the chaos, understanding to her confusion.

After earning a master's in English education in 1971, Penley wanted to go to the "the most radical place, the farthest away I could get" from Florida. "That was Berkeley." There she found a fantastic Day-Glo wonderland, a frothing kettle of New Left politics. She joined a Marxist study group, attended classes at the East Bay Socialist School, screenings at the Pacific Film Archive and film theory classes and seminars taught by professors in Berkeley's French and rhetoric departments.

She abandoned the idea of getting a PhD in English. "I thought: If I go into English, I'll have to be like everybody else. I'll have to find one Shakespeare sonnet that hasn't been done to death and spend the rest of my life doing it to death. Film seemed so wide open."

She decided to get a doctorate in rhetoric and write her dissertation on film theory.

Then the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. Bertrand Augst, a French professor who taught courses in semiotics and structuralism at Berkeley, started the Paris Film Program. American college students could study in France with the great film theorists, including Christian Metz—whose name I encountered on Alexis' final exam.

Metz founded the theory of cinema semiotics. He presided over a think tank in Paris where scholars did not make movies or interview filmmakers or do archival research. Instead, they pondered the metaphysics of film, the manifold neoplastic mysteries that semiotics revealed.

Semiotics is the study of the myriad "signs," verbal and nonverbal, that human beings use to communicate: body language, images, icons, social rituals, and, of course, written language and movies. A semiotician sees an ordinary advertising billboard as a complex "hierarchy" of signs: the slogan, the image of the product, the people consuming the product, the clothes they are wearing, the colors used in the graphics and so on. By closely analyzing each sign, or visual element, and their relationships to each other, the semiotician can glean a treasure trove of insights about the social system that both created and now consumes this pattern of images.

First developed at the end of the 19th century by American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics was later picked up by French theorists such as Lévi-Strauss, who applied it to anthropology; Jacques Lacan, who applied it to Freudian analysis; and Metz, who turned its prism upon the cinema. "In his books 'Film Language,' and ' Language and Cinema,' Metz was trying to look at the way film is structured like a language and if we could study its elements with the same precision with which structural linguists were studying language," Penley says.

She spent two years in Paris with about 40 other scholars. "Metz was a beautiful, beautiful, gentle man in his 50s, trained in linguistics," Penley says, with the I-can-hardly-believe-I-actually-got-to-hang-with-him glow of a teenager who's met a rock 'n' roll idol. She also attended seminars and lectures by some of the great French researchers in the pantheon of semiotics: Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, Raymond Bellour.

Penley returned from Paris after two years with the academic cachet to establish herself as one of the leading film theorists in North America. She earned her PhD at Berkeley and, in 1991, was hired at UCSB, where the film program was being methodically constructed by professor Charles Wolfe, who holds a doctorate in film studies from Columbia University.

"I wanted to build a strong core curriculum stressing film history, theory and analysis—the way I was trained," Wolfe says. The practical side of filmmaking—how to write dramatically sound screenplays, elicit performances from actors, light a set, place a camera and edit film—became secondary. "Students who had strong interests in production could take classes" in addition to core curriculum.

Penley joined Branigan, who had been on the faculty since 1984 after earning a doctorate from a leading film theory school, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wolfe now had two major film theorists—and the momentum to turn the film program into a full-fledged department in 1996.

Any way you slice it, UCSB's small band of radical theorists has pulled off a remarkable feat. They now hobnob with the Hollywood elite and are building a complex that will put their film studies department on par with UCLA, USC and NYU. They have overthrown the old school humanists and broken free of the fascist thought control designs of the artistic genius auteurs.

How did they do it? "We were right, that's how!" department chair Janet Walker says with a triumphant laugh.

The department has 11 full-time and three tenured part-time faculty members and 456 undergraduates, twice that of a decade ago. Wolfe has in many ways created a strong department. It offers courses in screenwriting, 16mm film production and animation, and a number of Hollywood professionals have come to teach classes, including director John Carpenter, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and the late Paul Lazarus, a production executive who worked at Columbia, Universal and Warner Brothers. Guest lecturers have included Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jeff Bridges, Michael Douglas, Jodie Foster and screenwriter John Lee Hancock.

The cinema history classes are demanding. Students cannot get away with regurgitating passages from encyclopedias; they are required to pull original production files on movies from such archives as the Motion Picture Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. But film theory remains at the core. Students are required to take 14 units of film theory and analysis, and just one four-unit production course that deals with the actual writing, shooting and editing of a film or video project.


Wolfe argues that the rigorous intellectual regimen produces better filmmakers, noting that for three consecutive years (1999-2001), UCSB alumnae were nominated for Academy Awards. The most prominent is Scott Frank, nominated for his screenplay for the thriller "Out of Sight" in 1999. Frank has since written the script for "The Minority Report."

It's worth noting that Frank graduated in 1982, before Branigan and Penley and the greater emphasis on theory. He credits Lazarus with helping him to hone his craft and says he learned a great deal from Wolfe's film history classes.

Frank co-chairs the advisory board for UCSB's Center for Film, Television and New Media. The board is peppered with other Hollywood heavyweights, including Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, "Ghostbusters" director Ivan Reitman, TV producer Dick Wolf and Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. The center is scheduled to break ground in 2005 and will include an editing room, production space and a theater.

When I show Frank examples of the film theory that mystified my daughter, he is bewildered. "This is the first I've ever heard of these terms. 'Narratology?' 'Symptomatic interpretation?' 'Syuzhet, fabula, analepses, prolepses'—my goodness! I'm really shocked that they even teach anything like this."

Other Hollywood professionals and film experts offered harsher reactions. Some criticized the curriculum or the political agendas at work. Some simply couldn't get beyond the turgid academic language.

I read from my daughter's study guide to Gary A. Randall, who has served as president of Orion Television, Spelling Television, and as the executive producer of the TV series "Any Day Now." "That's what your daughter's being taught?" he says. "That's just elitist psychobabble. It sounds like it was written by a professor of malapropism. That has absolutely no bearing on the real world. It sounds like an awfully myopic perspective of what film is really supposed to be about: touching hearts and minds and providing provocative thoughts."

From movie critic Ebert: "Film theory has nothing to do with film. Students presumably hope to find out something about film, and all they will find out is an occult and arcane language designed only for the purpose of excluding those who have not mastered it and giving academic rewards to those who have. No one with any literacy, taste or intelligence would want to teach these courses, so the bona fide definition of people teaching them are people who are incapable of teaching anything else."

From Kevin Brownlow, the world's leading silent movie historian, author of "The Parade's Gone By . . .," and co-producer, with David Gill, of acclaimed documentaries: "You would think, from this closed-circuit attitude to teaching, that such academics would be politically right wing. For it is a kind of fascism to force people practicing one discipline to learn the language of another, simply for the convenience of an intellectual elite. It's like expecting Slavs to learn German in order to comprehend their own inferiority. But they are not right wing. They are, regrettably, usually left wing—quite aggressively Marxist—which makes the whole situation even more alarming."

UCSB's film studies faculty is upfront about its political agenda. The professors are, as in most other film programs, almost uniformly on the left end of the political spectrum. Penley's generation forged their political beliefs in the 1960s counterculture, and they show a strong preference for hiring younger professors who share their liberal beliefs.

Lisa Parks, 35, joined the faculty in 1998 as a specialist in global media and broadcast history. While an undergraduate at the University of Montana in 1991, Parks and other students lay down on the basketball court at the start of a nationally televised game to protest the Gulf War. She passionately opposed the war in Iraq, and believes that film and media theory can win the hearts and minds of her students back from the mass media conglomerates that Parks says are controlled largely by conservatives.

"Many of our faculty are really concerned about the relationship between media images and social power outside of the screen," Parks says. "Even though in our classes we're often watching stuff and trying to segment, analyze and discuss it, we hope that by the time our students graduate, if they do go into the industry, it affects the way that they actually produce."

In some respects, it's not fair to single out UC Santa Barbara's film theory and analysis curriculum simply because my daughter went there. On the other hand, UCSB does consider its film theory program to be its signature.

Faculty members are aware that many students are reluctant if not outright hostile to being force-fed so much theory, but they maintain that the curriculum is valuable even for production-oriented students. "We want them to be able to understand other ways of thinking and looking at these works of art that perhaps exceed their own reactions," Wolfe says. "That may be people from different time periods, cultures, genders or social orientations."

When I share the criticisms of film theory with UCSB staff, they look truly wounded, then quickly mount a vigorous defense.

"Film theory is philosophy, and people have made the same criticisms of philosophy for years," Branigan says. "They say, 'What relevance does philosophy have to the real world? It's merely idle thought, personal feeling, pointless speculation.' If we listened to them, we would do away with teaching and studying the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein and Sartre. Do we really want to do that? I think not."

Anna Everett, an associate professor who specializes in new media, says, "It's galling for me to hear those kinds of charges when we expect our students to be able to grapple with complex ideas in math and science and a lot of them won't go on to use them. Math and science are part of our everyday lives. So why is it then illegitimate for us to ask students to be just as rigorous with something that has a much greater impact on an everyday basis?

"Art, film and video games really do help to shape their ideas and experiences and their relationships. I think the critics are unfair. It's a way of thinking that doesn't really take into account what the university is about. We're not a trade school. We're trying to develop minds, to create a better world."

Is it working? The voices of two students:

"I love film theory," says Chris Scotten. "When I graduate, I want to write, direct and produce. I'm shooting for the moon. The great thing about UCSB is, I could have gone to USC and sat around holding a microphone boom pole, but then I wouldn't understand the theory behind filmmaking, to understand how film exists in relation to our lives. We learn how film psychologically manipulates us, and the power inherent in the language of cinema. It can be two things, a useful propaganda tool in a communist revolution, or part of the capitalist superstructure, a way of lulling the working class into a haze to subdue them and give them an escape from the pressures of reality. The old communists writing about film theory in Russia and Germany really had something to say, and it's still relevant today. You've got about six companies that own the biggest, most awesome propaganda machine in the history of the whole wretched world. What are the consequences of that?"

Yoshi Enoki Jr., who graduated in 1995, believes he has succeeded despite the film theory classes, not because of them. He has built a thriving career as a location scout and manager for such films as "American Beauty," "Terminator 3" and the Coen brothers' forthcoming remake of "The Ladykillers."

Some of his fellow students were not so lucky, Enoki says. They took to heart the portrayals of Hollywood as the embodiment of corporate evil that inevitably corrupts authentic artists and crushes their spirit. "That world view has given them a rationalization for failure," he says. "So they don't even try to break into the industry. These kids—I call them kids because they behave that way—have developed this cynicism, so much so that it eats them alive. Everything becomes negative. They don't want to connect with people. One of my best friends said to me, 'When I'm in Hollywood, I can't be myself.' But they don't even know what Hollywood's all about because they've never really been a part of it."

During my interview with Janet Walker, she glances at the clock and gets a sudden inspiration. Branigan, the department's premier cognitive film theorist, is teaching a class this very moment. "You've got to see Edward lecture," she says, leading me to a lecture hall. "It's a theatrical experience."

Walker ushers me into a 147-seat theater that is about three-quarters full. Branigan stands before a blackboard covered with rectangles and hexagons heavily notated with abbreviations. They appear to be the complex equations of an astrophysicist, but are in fact illustrations of semiotic theories of "narratology." Branigan has tangled brown-gray hair, a shaggy beard, large glasses coated with flecks of dandruff and fingerprints, and wears an oversized gray sweater and corduroy pants. As he speaks, his hands grasp at the air, shaping it as he shapes his thoughts. He punches certain words out with an odd, inflectionless emphasis. "The nature of the photography: Benjamin says the camera strips people who are in front of the camera lens—like actors—and alienaaaates them from their labor! Alienaaaation! False coooonsciousness!"

Branigan's oratory mesmerizes many of the students. They lean back, deep into the seats' red upholstery, eyes staring blankly into space. Some give up and close them altogether. A brunet with a Huck Finn cap pulled over the bridge of her nose shifts about for a more comfortable position and drifts off again. A fellow traces the stubble on his cheek and squints, trying to follow as he takes notes. A tall young man in a backward baseball cap doodles a series of spirals, and at the back of the hall another reads a paper. Two girls in the back whisper to each other.

Branigan takes no notice. He leaves them far behind as he ascends faster and faster along a spiral of rhetoric into the pure white ether of theory. "Benjamin says the camera does not show the equipment that's used to make the film. It obscures or hides or masks THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION! Now in Marxism if you hide the process of production, you are obscuring and further alienating the labor that goes into that, the BOOODILY labor that yoooou are contributing to that manufacture. OK? Which is a bad, bad fact. . . ."

July 13, 2003, Los Angeles Times
(Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times)

To read an excerpt from an interview with Professor Carney about teaching Film Studies, click here. To read a statement by Professor Carney about the limitations of academic film criticism, with an essay about Alfred Hitchcock as the example, click here.

To read an essay by University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson about nature of education in the arts and humanities, click here. To read related reflections on similar issues by Ray Carney, click here and here and here.

To read an interview with Ray Carney about film production programs, "Why Film Schools Should be Abolished and Replaced with Majors in Auto Mechanics," click here.

To read Andrei Tarkovsky's thoughts about Film School, click here.

Click here to read how Screenwriting is taught in a major university film program.

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©Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.