• Founded
  • Seminar Number

This seminar is devoted to exploring interdisciplinary influences in the ever-changing, ever-expanding field of cinema and media studies. Internationally acclaimed scholars—from the New York metropolitan area and well beyond—have presented their works in progress, sharing their innovative and often groundbreaking insights, and often receiving valuable input from seminar members. These presentations have led to numerous pioneering publications, as well as further presentations at international conferences. As a center for ongoing face-to-face and hybrid scholarly exchanges in the field, the seminar enjoys an international reputation among film and media scholars.

Cynthia Lucia

William Luhr

Bjorn Long

Meeting Schedule

09/29/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
To Be Real: Portrait of Jason and the Political Aesthetics of the Documentary
Paula J. Massood, Brooklyn College, CUNY


Portrait of Jason is perhaps Shirley Clarke’s most recognized film in a career that spanned over four decades and crossed cinematic genres (dance, experimental, documentary, fiction). It focuses on a Black gay hustler from Harlem, who through the course of the film reminisces about his youth, while also performing moments from Hollywood films, Broadway, and his own cabaret act. The film received a mixed reception upon its release in 1967, with most of the criticism centering on Clarke’s choice of subject at a time when “respectability politics” significantly factored into African American representation. In the following decades, and with changes in representational expectations, particularly around race and sexuality, the film has again undergone critiques accusing it and its director (along with Carl Lee, her collaborator), of racism and homophobia. And yet, such arguments overlook the film’s self-conscious approach to nonfiction film conventions, particularly those of direct cinema, cinema verité, and the portrait film. Such a cinematic approach calls into question the invariably complex relationship between filmmaker and subject. Indeed, many critiques suggest that Jason was either objectified or made a victim by the film. I argue, instead, that the relationship between Clarke and Jason is much more dynamic, with the latter in fact acting as an unrecognized co-director of the project. Indeed, Portrait of Jason is just as much Jason’s film as it is Shirley Clarke’s.

David A. Gerstner, College of Staten Island, CUNY

10/20/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
Author, Auteur, Actor: Notes on Bergman, Ullman, and Persona
James Schamus, Columbia University


The actor's speaking - and silent - body is, in Ingmar Bergman's films, the unavoidable site of the antinomy between text and image out of which Bergman's cinematic authorship is forged. But actors, especially women actors, say, as they say, the darndest things, even when they are ostensibly written by the male auteur. Through a reading of Bergman and Liv Ullmann's many, various, and, over time, changing and contradictory accounts of their collaboration, Schamus will make the case for the specific contributions of Ullmann to Bergman's authorial persona, from Persona (1967) through to her perhaps less-than-faithful directorial adaptation of Bergman's screenplay, Faithless (2000).

Rob King, Columbia University

11/17/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
In Defense of the Junk Print: Early Cinema’s Vital Decay
Jennifer M. Bean, University of Washington-Seattle


Cinema’s liveliness is often construed in terms of the represented image and/or sound designed by humans to be seen and/or heard. In like manner, film restoration is often conceived as the intentional (and most often laborious) act of recovering a representation that existed at some point prior to the current existence of the filmic thing itself. These common conceptions involve many fallacies, among them a disregard for the material composition of a given print—silver, gelatin, chemicals, plastic—that are never static or stable, that transform, mutate, or decay with every projection, every unspooling, every touch. When a print no longer conveys the self-same images it presumably once indexed, it is classified as junk: useless, discarded, and utterly lacking in appeal.

This talk places junk at the center of film historical inquiry, urging a materialist conception of cinema over the precepts of aesthetic philosophy. It takes as a case study the extant reels of several mystery-crime serials starring that icon of transgressive femininity, Pearl White, that were produced in New York in the 1910s, distributed from Winnipeg to the Yukon in the early 1920s, discarded as trash in 1929, discovered in the late 1970s, transferred to acetate safety stock in the 1980s, and forgotten today in archival vaults in Washington, D.C. I argue that the decayed, blurred, warped, and shrunken images are not obstacles that need to be overcome, but rather fundamental signs of the countless, dispersed, anonymous historical forces—both human and non-human—on which the vitality of cinema depends.

Maggie Hennefeld, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

12/08/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
The Road (Back) to Ishtar: Revisiting a Cinematic “Flop”
Elizabeth Alsop, CUNY School of Professional Studies


Widely regarded as one of the most notorious flops in film history, Elaine May’s Ishtar (1987), not only tanked at the box office; it also derailed May’s directorial career. Yet recent reappraisals of Ishtar have revealed the extent to which studio interference and press coverage at once predetermined its post-release fate, and inaugurated a discourse of Ishtar’s failure that has remained perversely detached from any substantive evaluation of the film itself. As May herself commented, in a 2006 interview with Mike Nichols, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.”

This talk will examine the discursive construction of Ishtar as a “flop,” and the politics of the term’s application to the work of female filmmakers like May, for whom the consequences of the label proved catastrophic. Through close analysis of contemporary publicity, I demonstrate
that Ishtar’s treatment by the press reflects the gendered double standards perpetuated by a largely male critical establishment. In the second half of the talk, I redress the film’s critical dismissal by offering a reading of Ishtar as a showcase of some of the most characteristic aspects
of May’s cinema. Framing May’s final feature as an insider’s critique of Hollywood commercialism, I explore Ishtar’s satirical transformation of popular genre traditions, and its singular approach to mise-en-scène, editing, and characterization.

Joe McElhaney , CUNY, Hunter College

01/19/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
A Place in Stone: Richard Brooks Meets Maggie the Cat
David Sterritt, Maryland Institute College of Art


Tennessee Williams regarded the making of a play as both a profoundly personal and inescapably collaborative enterprise, conceived by the playwright but shaped by contributions from directors, producers, and others. Screen adaptations carry this reality a step farther, and an intellectually inclined auteur on the order of Richard Brooks was bound to exert a powerful influence on the contours of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof even as he respected the most vital properties of the hugely successful stage version. Its necessary compromises notwithstanding, his film brings Williams’s themes of capitalism, clannishness, masculine entitlement, and insecure sexuality to the screen with intelligence and force.

R. Barton Palmer, Clemson University, Emeritus

02/16/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
The World Which Seems: Film, Television, and the Nonlinear Universe
Martha Nochimson, David Lynch Graduate Program for Cinematic Arts


We have long examined works of literature in terms of how they define reality in terms of the belief systems of the eras in which they were created. Paradise Lost is studied in the context of Milton’s contemporary Christianity; many Renaissance works are studied in the context of belief in the Great Chain of Being. Film and media studies have done likewise, but we veer toward the unmasking of false realities that inform movies and television because of cultural sexist, racist, and classist belief systems. In The World Which Seems: Film, Television, and the Nonlinear Universe, Nochimson’s new book-in-progress, she undertakes a variant of this kind of criticism. Studying eleven cinematic and televisual works, she explores how they unmask the unreality that passes for ordinary reality--if we are to believe the nonlinear map of the cosmos that the natural and social sciences have been drawing for over a hundred and fifty years. According to evolving ideas in physics, biology, philosophy, and history, the linear world we misrecognize as reality is only a “world which seems.” Nochimson has become intrigued by the mass media artists—notably Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Terrence Malick and a number of others—who are making monumental changes in popular storytelling by depicting the human condition through the lens of the new nonlinear belief system. The introductory chapter of The World Which Seems, which she will be presenting, outlines the foundation for her subsequent chapters on nonlinear storytelling in Twin Peaks, The Tree of Life, Blackkklansman, Watchmen and seven other mind-blowing films and television series that contest the familiar linear reality of conventional media entertainment.

Joseph Kickasola, Baylor University

03/23/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
Tsar to Lenin (1937): A Visible History of the Russian Revolution
Tom Doherty, Brandeis University


Produced by obsessive film collector Herman Axelbank and directed, written, and narrated by literary polymath Max Eastman, Tsar to Lenin was a landmark archival documentary about the Russian Revolution that, upon its premiere on March 10, 1937 at the Filmarte Theatre in New York, immediately became a free-fire zone for bare-knuckled ideological combat. Hard-core Stalinists, dissident Trotskyites, old school socialists, radicals without portfolio, fellow travelers along for the ride, and even people who thought of themselves as New Deal Democrats treasured the tumultuous history between 1917 and 1923 as a heroic origin story and the playbook for a glorious future. All claimed to be the true spiritual heirs of the Russian Revolution. The battle lines reached all the way to Moscow and into the sanctum of the man whose name would have been in the film’s title had the history lesson extended to 1937. “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important,” Lenin famously said, and the controversies that swirled around Tsar to Lenin proved his point.

Olga Gershenson, University of Massachusetts

04/20/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
Occult Operations: Toward an Other Politics of Operativity
Toby Lee, NYU


In the growing discourse on operational images, a particular understanding of operativity tends to dominate, one in which audiovisual media operate — rather than represent or mediate — largely in the exercise of power, whether state, military, industrial, or corporate. This talk aims to unsettle that top-down view by considering a collection of film and media objects that offer different glimpses of what I call an “occult” operativity, disturbing the naturalized logics that structure such arenas of operation. Thinking through an experimental documentary filmed among displaced Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, a widely viewed media prank by the activist performance group The Yes Men, and my own documentary-in-progress on emerging neurotechnologies, I discern an “other” way of understanding, imagining, and mobilizing the operations of the image.

Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, NYU