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."