University Archives and Records Center


IN the 1960s and ’70s Penn’s Annenberg students took on a more serious cinematic pursuit, learning documentary-making from Sol Worth. It was at Annenberg that the renowned painter and filmmaker developed the concept of the biodocumentary, “using film as a tool through which people, mostly young people, could [present] their world view,” says Dr. Larry Gross, who was the Sol Worth Professor of Communication at Penn before moving to USC’s Annenberg School for Communication in 2003. Gross recalls Worth as a close colleague and mentor.

“It’s important to remember that film technology then was much more cumbersome than it is now, so giving moving cameras to amateurs was not an easy thing to do. Now kids are doing Photoshop on their desktops and creating films—and in a way it’s sad that I can’t see how Sol [who died in 1977] would have responded.”

During his time at Penn, Worth put the same filmmaking tools in the hands of Native Americans living in Pine Springs, Arizona. The Navajo Filmmakers Project, which began in 1966, “was extremely influential because it was the first to do something that had been thought of but never implemented, namely seeing the world through ‘native eyes’ rather than outsider eyes,” Gross says.

“Today the idea that people can speak for themselves and make their own records and make their own voices heard is fairly commonplace, and I think in part this helped stimulate what became a major movement in anthropology—which was thinking of ethnographies as narrative statements rather than as objective science.”

According to Gross, the first “serious move” at Penn to introduce film analysis was a graduate course taught at Annenberg by historian Amos Vogel, whose Cinema 16 film society in New York was a showcase for avant-garde and experimental cinema from 1947 to 1963. Vogel also taught an undergraduate course through the College. (In terms of seriousness, Gross says, it was steps above a film-history course taught in the 1960s in the basement auditorium of the fine-arts building, where it was not unusual to pick up the scent of marijuana wafting across the back of the room.)

Dr. Paul Messaris, now associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, served as Vogel’s T.A. for one semester. “The more daring, adventurous, radical a movie was, the more Amos liked it,” he recalls, “and his courses were a dazzling showcase for his kind of movie.” Paul Sharits’ Razor Blades was such an example. “The only way I can describe it is by saying that it leaves the viewer feeling as if his/her eyes have been assaulted with a razor.”

In 1974 Vogel wrote Film as a Subversive Art, a book that Messaris says “reflected his interest in movies that challenge the social and aesthetic conventions of established mass-media cinema.”

Though his classes were popular with students, Vogel’s hiring was controversial, Gross says. “There was a great deal of resistance in the College, mostly in the English department, at that time. The prevailing view in much of the academic world was that film was beneath serious academic attention.”

Dr. Robert Lucid, professor emeritus of English, recalls it a little differently. The resistance to funding cinema studies “has always been about money and there has always been competition for dough from other special programs,” he says. “No part of the University had any money in the 1970s. It was a crisis period financially on every front, and cinema was a new enterprise. Being stone-broke and funding new enterprises are just contradictory ideas.”

Lucid himself recalls the struggle to get a faculty appointment in cinema studies when he became chair of the English department in 1980. “Every year we were told, ‘No way,’ so we started teaching a lot of cinema through part-time people. We did it on the side and on the cheap for a long, long time.”


Rather than simply catching up, however, Penn is “actually on the ground floor of a new wave of film studies in American universities,” predicts Decherney, noting the creation of several new Ph.D. programs in this field around the country. (According to Corrigan, Penn has no plans for a Ph.D. program in cinema studies, but is working on a graduate certificate.)

“Not too many of our peer schools have cinema-studies programs in their schools of arts and sciences and liberal-arts programs,” Rebecca Bushnell adds. “We think we can offer something unique with a cinema-studies program based in a liberal-arts education.”

So far nine students have declared cinema studies as their major (another 20 are minoring in the subject). “I try to balance the desire for it to be popular with the desire for it to be a tough major,” Corrigan says. “People aren’t majoring in this simply because it’s fun, but because they feel it’s going to challenge them and they’re going to learn something by doing this.”

In cinema-studies courses this spring, students will explore, among other topics, the changing shape of the road-movie genre; ethical dilemmas confronted by documentarians; how copyright law has driven art and entertainment; cinema as an instrument for social change in India; how film constructs and reflects attitudes about racial difference; and the use of visual propaganda in the communist cultural revolutions.

 “A university without a serious film curriculum  and an integrated film curriculum is going to be left behind,” says Jon Avnet C’71, a producer and director  whose long list of credits includes Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Fried Green Tomatoes. “The reach of the media with all of its tentacles is so ubiquitous that its impact has to be studied by people who are not in the film business—by sociologists and social-science people.”

To give one example of where such analysis is needed, Avnet points to a spate of historically inspired films—Gladiator, Alexander, Nixon, JFK—that provide “ridiculous interpretations of history. I think that has a big impact on people who are watching it. Not everybody gets a rigorous education. You have to counteract what you learn on television or the movies about [historical events].”

Avnet doesn’t have a problem with the lack of a production focus at Penn, noting that “60 minutes by fast train and 90 minutes by a slow one is NYU, a good film program in production. I don’t think Penn should be competing on a production basis. But there are things at Penn that don’t exist anywhere else, and taking advantage of that is smart.”

Marc Platt C’79, another alumnus who knows something about film, agrees. Platt served as president of production at Orion, TriStar, and Universal—helping to bring movies like Philadelphia, Sleepless in Seattle, and Jerry Maguire to the screen—before forming his own studio and producing such hits as Legally Blonde. “When aspiring filmmakers come to me, I say I think it’s best to get a strong liberal-arts education and to learn history and English and all the disciplines that intertwine with the development of making film as well as the history of film and film theory,” Platt says. “The [production training] you can save for graduate school.”

Both Platt and Avnet see the large number of Penn graduates working in the entertainment field as assets for the cinema-studies program.

Avnet believes he can help serve as a liaison between Penn and Hollywood, encouraging alumni—“many of whom are doing quite well out there”— to “bring it back as many ways as we can here.”

Platt believes that alumni who are successful in the film business “become sort of a walking commercial, if you will, for the University. I think there is also a lot the film community can do,” he adds. For his part, Platt tries to hire Penn students for film-production internships.

Corrigan would like to see more internships developed for Penn’s cinema-studies majors, though “academic and intellectual issues should be the centerpieces around which all of these other activities will make more sense and be more valuable.”

As the program grows, he also hopes to develop better connections with other parts of the University, such as the Annenberg School, the Digital Media Design program, and Wharton. For example, he says, “I think it’s really important for our students to get a good sense that [cinema] is a business, and that it’s not just an art and not just an entertainment.” 

Putting the concept of academic boundary-crossing into practice, new faculty member Karen Beckman has been teaching a yearlong course in conjunction with the ICA on the use of film and video in the contemporary art museum.

Last fall her students traveled around the country looking for works to include in their own show. This semester they’ll be “learning the range of museum work, doing installations, getting works of art, helping with fundraising and publicity,” she explains. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for exposure to every aspect of the art world and some of the film world.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

Now Playing on the Big Screen
By Susan Frith

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