<%@ Language=VBScript EnableSessionState=False %> <% on error resume next %> Salisbury University - English Department
Holloway Hall

Film Concentration Faculty present
“Film, Media, and Society Today”

English Department professors Elsie Walker and Dave Johnson and their Communication Arts colleague James Burton presented a humanities seminar entitled “Film, Media, and Society Today” for the Adventures in Ideas series of Humanities Seminars sponsored by the Fulton School and the Whaley Family Foundation. Drs. Walker and Johnson run the film concentration in the Department of English, and both talks stemmed from forthcoming research projects: for Dr. Walker, a book on film sound for Oxford University Press; for Dr. Johnson, a book on film director Richard Linklater, forthcoming in April 2012 from University of Illinois Press. Dr. Burton teaches in the Media Studies concentration in the Department of Communication Arts, and his talk grows out of his research on the film Forrest Gump.

Dr. Walker’s talk focused on her passion for film sound, a relatively new area of film scholarship in which she is emerging as a leading voice. This semester, in fact, she is offering a course on that very subject, one she hopes will become a permanent part of the curriculum here at SU. As Walker says, “Film is often spoken about as a ‘visual medium’ even though the interplay between what we see and hear is a crucial part of understanding cinema. Sound tracks often work upon us unconsciously, but nevertheless decisively. In considering all elements of sound tracks (including dialogue and sound effects, as well as music), we can ask some quite simple questions which lead to deep potential meaning. Asking ‘whose voice is loudest in this film?,’ for instance, can lead to greater understanding of which characters and concepts are given the most attention or power.” Walker paid particular attention to the emotional and psychological manipulations of film music, comparing scores of some Classical Hollywood films (those by Max Steiner for Casablanca and The Searchers), in comparison with Nyman’s rule-breaking score for The Piano. Dr. Walker emphasized the need for paying close attention to film sound throughout her presentation, an aspect of our filmgoing experience we so often take for granted. As she explains, “If we understand that everything we hear in a film is as designed as everything we see, we can have a much fuller perceptual experience of cinema. We can, in turn, better understand how films ‘speak to us’ in every sense.”

Following Dr. Walker’s talk, Dr. Johnson discussed his recent work on film director Richard Linklater. “For me, it was important in this seminar not only to discuss my interest in Linklater but to set that within the idea of studying directors more generally—why we study them the way we do.” Beginning with a general overview of Linklater’s career and his unusual choices in subject matter from film to film, Johnson led the group through a consideration of the history of studying directors before returning to his own approach to Linklater’s work, which has centered on the subject of time. He closed his talk with the opening of the film Before Sunset, one of Johnson’s favorite films and also one that he feels served as an important catalyst for the early stages of his book. “In a lot of ways, my project grows out of my experience with that film and my response to its self-consciousness about time. It was fun to reflect on that process as I prepared for the talk, and I enjoyed revisiting those ideas and others with this energetic group.”

The third talk of the day came from Communications Arts faculty member Dr. Burton, who discussed his fascination with the popular film Forrest Gump—in particular, how the American political right has seized upon the film over the years, claiming it for their own, and how that has, in turn, reinforced the received wisdom on the film within cinema studies, which tends to dismiss it as conservative. And yet, Burton observes, the film is far more complex than that. “Oddly, at least for an historical film, Forrest Gump eschews a straightforward message or point-of-view on the past. This may, in part, explain its incredible popularity: audiences were able to see the past that they wanted in the film.” Taking as his starting point a close reading of the film itself, Burton led the group through an impressive range of sources from the year of the film’s release, showing how, as its popularity grew on the right, the kinds of comments made by critics shifted as well. He ended with a look at the famous scene where Forrest is reunited with Jenny at the political rally in Washington D.C. “That sequence is Forrest’s happiest time against a backdrop of the most detailed representation of anti-war protest in Hollywood cinema. In an era when questioning the rationale for war is painted as un-American, the scene reminds us that public protest is legitimate in a democracy.”

Wrapping up the session, all three professors took part in an open-session roundtable where participants asked questions about the talks and about the field of film studies more generally, and they hope to collaborate for more ‘Adventures in Ideas’ seminars in the future.