Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Mapping the Roads of Education and Influences: An Intellectual Autobiography

As far back as my brain will take me into the history of my educational career, I am able conjure up the memory of sitting at my windowsill in Irvine, California at the age of five with my mother cutting images out of a magazine that start with the letter “K”. There was a kitten (snip snip snip), here was a kangaroo (snip snip snip).

Alright, Katharine: what else can you find that starts with the letter K?

This weekly project was an attempt to enrich our knowledge and comfort level with the alphabet. We kept a small, lined journal in which we could paste these images to keep as a collection and for further personal and educational reference.

Look Mom, there’s a kite! That starts with a K, doesn’t it? (snip snip snip)

What I find compelling about this example of my intellectual history is that my education has literally come full circle back to its onset. Almost twenty years later, during my first week of classes in graduate school at The New School’s Media Studies program, I am asked by my Media Practices: Concepts professor Brian McCormick to cut images of design preferences and prejudices out of a magazine and paste them in a large (albeit unlined) sketchbook to keep as a collection and for further personal and educational reference. Just like when I was in kindergarten, I sat now in my New York bedroom judiciously cutting and pasting images that best represented the assignment at hand. Not since I was five years of age have I been allowed so much creativity and flexibility. While I certainly blame Mrs. Renden, assigner of aforementioned alphabet exercise, for my love of collage, I can also credit The New School for allowing me a forum in which I can express my long-suppressed imagination and creativity in visual arenas.

Somehow, a number of things between the ages of five and twenty-four have guided me to become the thinker, writer, reader, media theory- and analysis-obsessed person I am today. I will now attempt to define, explore, and reflect upon those years in terms of my intellectual, educational, and developmental history, for it is these twenty years that have molded me into the person I am today.

Throughout high school I sincerely thought I would become a theatre actress(1). Actually, that urge and passion began around the same time I was cutting alphabet-themed images out of newspapers. As a result, I took numerous acting, improvisation, dancing and history of theater classes up until my young adulthood when I was completing my general education at Orange Coast College(2). Needless to say as an aspiring actor, I fancied myself somewhat of a movie buff, partly due to my mother and her love for the cinema. Raised on classics ranging from American film noir to the hilarious Mel Brooks to Chaplin to Gene Kelly musicals, it seemed only logical (and, I’ll admit, an easy A) to take a Film as Literature class concurrently with my Intermediate Drama course during my last year in community college.

A cross-referenced class of the Film and English departments, Film as Literature spent 4 hours a week watching and picking apart movies, taking a minimum of eight pages of notes per film, and usually watching each film twice. We watched films ranging from the American The Shining (dir. Kubrick, 1980) to the French The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste, dir. Haneke, 2001). While the text we read focused more on film form and history than theory, stimulating and exciting class discussions made up for lack of textually based analyses(3).

After finishing my Film as Literature course, a basic History of American Cinema course, and a Video Production and editing course I moved on to finish my Film Studies degree at the University of California Santa Barbara. Now that basic math and science requirements were out of the way, here I was able to really focus on what I loved, taking classes as widespread in topics as The War Film, Italian Cinema, Auteur Theory, and Documentary Studies. The required core classes, however, were the place where I really fell in love: we were required to take Film Studies 101 A (invention/conception to 1927), B (sound film to the 1950s) and C (history of New Wave cinemas), as well as two heavy theory courses, one classic and one contemporary (and cultural) based. Deeply fascinated by the work of Eisenstein, M√ľnsterberg, Benjamin, Bazin and Arnheim, I became obsessed with theories surrounding montage, the close-up and direction of attention as well as semiotics, linguistics, and what is not being said when it comes to film and new media. My final extensive paper of my undergraduate career involved an analysis of new media discourse, language (especially internet lingo and “leet” speak) and its effects on societal interactions, a project that marks the shift of my interest from strict film studies to that of media studies.

To extrapolate a bit on why I adore these five writers and theorists, I will attempt to explain Eisenstein’s concepts of montage and why I think it is so important to keep in mind: Eisenstein explicitly states that “cinema is, first and foremost, montage”(4) in several of his writings, and this fact is personified in the films he created(5). Similar to the way that Marshall McLuhan compares film to cubism in his article “The Medium is the Message”, Eisenstein believes that the filmmaking would be nothing without the use of montage, and that a film is not a film without it(6). Think about it: a theatrical play that unfolds before the camera without any change of camera angle, zoom or focus is nothing more than a recorded play; just because this play is being documented on film stock does not make it a film. Editing (and montage), if done well, evokes feelings, implies ideas, and can be the element that makes a film a piece of art. While there are many formal elements that allow film to be a unique narrative form, some could argue that editing sets cinema apart from painting, literature and theater, for it allows for multiple possibilities in continuity and focused spectator attention. Much like the stylistic brushstroke of a painter or the turn of phrase of an author, the unique approach to editing that a filmmaker employs speaks volumes about their narrative and formal style of preference. I think it is important for any filmmaker to keep the ideas of Eisenstein in mind if they plan to produce an effective, strong piece of cinema.

Now that I’ve spoken a bit about one of the theorists I find incredibly important, I will attempt to explain more of my interests in the realm of film and media. Within the field of Media Studies, my interests range from the very general to the fairly specific. While I want my emphasis to remain on film, I want to branch out a bit more than strict analysis and criticism of the cinema. Before I came to The New School, my aspirations were to become a film critic, or at least write about film for a publication in some capacity. This inspired me to begin my blog, which I have been working on for about 6 months, where I now collect everything I write that is related to media or other areas of interest in my life (occasionally sports, politics, personal stories) much like the journal I’ve been keeping for my Practices class(7). Self-archiving and collecting are certainly passions of mine in my personal as well as academic life. I still have aspirations of being a writer (I have loved writing papers, stories and poetry from a very young age), and The New School is a forum where I might learn to do so in a more academic, professional and educated manner.

In a bit more specific realm of interest on which I have yet to take any professional action, I am also passionate about archiving efforts and restoration of damaged and forgotten works of cinema. I blame this on my antiquarian nature. Inspired by an essay read in my History of Silent Film class at UC Santa Barbara, I wrote a paper on actress Cleo Madison in undergrad in which I focused on her virtual erasure from filmic histories, even though she was one of the first female directors in early American cinema and made 14 films during her career(8). Also, the fact that a mere 10% of the thousands of silent films produced before the 1930s remain today is a testament to early sentiments about film as trash and spectaculars, film as a commodity, and film as fleeting. I believe we know better today, and archiving efforts of older filmic works need to be viewed as just equally important to modern day databases.

After brief discussions with my theory professor Paolo Carpignano as well as my academic advisor Rafael Parra, I am interested in possibly performing a research (and maybe my thesis) project around the interweaving of film and new media that is occurring and changing daily. From the integration of You Tube videos in the early primary debates to embedded portions of interviews and discussions within online articles to the accessibility of television, film, and music videos via sites like You Tube and Hulu.com either for free or for a small fee, the internet that was once a literary landscape is now becoming more and more of an oral one. This also extends into personal devices like the cellular phone (BlackBerrys, iPhones) and myriad MP3/DVD players (the iPod Video, the new Fisher Price Kid-Tough® DVD player(9)), but this could constitute an entirely different area of research. Ideas from Marshall McLuhan(10) along with Jack Goody and IanWatt’s writings on orality and literacy in their article “The Consequences of Literacy” have informed my proposed research, and I’m sure that the more I continue to read in my Media Studies: Ideas course the more I will become inspired to incorporate past theories into my modern day quest for answers and analyses.

When I think of my future beyond my Masters degree, I am currently fancying the possibility of a PhD in Media Studies that could someday enable me to be a professor at a University or community college. Some of the people responsible for my shift from Theater to Film Studies were teaching at the community college level, and I would like the chance to give back to eager learners and thinkers and possibly inspire creativity and critical thinking. I think it is essential for young adults to understand the mediated world in which they live, and provide them with ways to successfully navigate through the murky waters of morality, “truthiness” and accuracy. I am also hoping to complete a thesis during my time at The New School, and possibly submit other papers and works to conferences around the world in the hopes of one day being published and recognized.

But for now, in this first semester as a Masters student, I am completely comfortable sitting down in my room with a pair of scissors prepared to cut and paste illustrations of the Gestalt principles and list examples of design prejudices (come on, Ed Hardy, you can’t be serious with that website!(11)) in my highly personalized, and now quite beloved, sketchbook. The bigger ideas will come, and my research ideas will form themselves with each passing week of reading, lectures, and discussions. So here’s to scissors, glue and unbridled creativity!
(1)Woodbridge High School in Irvine, CA; 1998-2002.
(2)Costa Mesa, CA; 2002-2005.
(3)Phillips, William H. Film: An Introduction (Second Edition). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002.
(4)Eisenstein, Sergei. “Beyond the Shot” from S.M. Eisenstein: Selected Works, Volume I. 1929.
(5)Most notably Battleship Potemkin (1925), especially in the Odessa steps sequence.
(6)McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Message.” From Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet, 1964.
(7)My blog’s title is “You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet!”, which can be found on the web at http://aintheardnothingyet.blogspot.com.
(8)The article that inspired me to write a paper about Ms. Madison: Hastie, Amelie. “Circuits of Memory and History: The Memoirs of Alice Guy-Blache” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
(9)Go to www.Fisher-Price.com and search for Kid-Tough DVD Player to see images and product information. This media player is meant for kids as young as 3 years of age.
(10)McLuhan, Marshall. “The medium is the message” from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet, 1964.


Princess Leah said...

Really like the full circle that you are tracing through your educational experiences! Good work!

Diana Marie said...

eff ed hardy.

i'm so proud of the seastar...getting all acclimated to new waters of the east coast.

Diana Marie said...

and tiny mulleted kaffin. weef.

Princess Leah said...

And it is no wonder that you like Beck & The Shins--musical artists who create aural collages, no?

Katharine Relth said...

This is the exact reason that I love Beck. And Of Montreal, for that matter.