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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 groundbreaking insights, and 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

Bojun Chen

Meeting Schedule

09/21/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Floating Signifiers: Ocean Liners in Film and Theory
Roy Grundmann, Boston University


For decades, different film theories have assigned seemingly antithetical positions to the contents of the image. Semiotics understands the image as a sign and is unconcerned with its referent, the real-world object it shows; phenomenology insists on its centrality. My presentation argues for a productive combination of both approaches by focusing on the cinematic representation of ocean liners, whose (film-)historical role has long been neglected. Proceeding from the premise that ocean liners are movie stars whose personas position them somewhere between reality and a film’s diegesis, I bring both schools of thought into dialog. Drawing on theories of cinematic experience, I argue that viewers invest in the ship as cinematic object via its name, recognizable form, public image, and, if applicable, their own encounters and histories with it. Casting famous liners, I argue, generates a “poetics of referentiality.” My case study is Billy Wilder’s use of the French liner Liberté in his 1954 romantic comedy Sabrina. I explore how Wilder capitalizes on the ship as a “floating signifier” in a literal understanding of the term that reaches beyond its semiotic origins—so as to turn Sabrina into a subtle but pervasive critique of capitalism and the transactional nature of human relations.

Respondent: Noah Isenberg, University of Texas Austin

10/12/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Hot Dogs and Crepes Suzette: The Patty Duke Show and the American Sixties
Dana Polan, New York University


“The Patty Duke Show,” the ABC domestic sitcom that aired from 1963-1966, was known for three things: 1) its theme song; 2) its split screen technique enabling teen star Patty Duke to seem to appear as the two “identical cousins” Patty and Cathy Lane in a single shot and 3) being the first show to be named after a child star. Yet the series has been virtually ignored by both television scholars and social historians of the 1960s, and when it has been taken up, it’s often to be dismissed; one feminist mass media scholar writes “Identical cousins?? Get real!” before damning the show as “a turkey.” Foul or not, we argue that the premise of “The Patty Duke Show,” along with the way it articulates twinning and doubling, offers insights into central preoccupations of early-to-mid-1960s American thought. While not interested in “positioning” the series ideologically (e.g., as conservative or radical), we find that it raises concerns and contradictions in topics ranging from JFK’s “Camelot” to American cosmopolitanism; to mass conformity, agency, stasis, and marriage.

Caryl Flinn, University of Michigan

11/16/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
John Singer Sergeant and Todd Haynes: The Method of Seeing Queerly
Scott Stoddart, Saint Peter's University


What does it mean to both see the world and to construct the world through a queer lens? This discussion endeavors to explore this question, providing a theoretical framework for understanding what it means to see queerly — as the title states — and for interpreting the work of queer film directors operating in both mainstream and independent cinematic spaces, industrial contexts, and across both queer and heteronormative narratives.

Based on my research of existing scholarship in the study of queer filmmakers, which tends to focus on esoteric ideas of aesthetics rather than analyzing their application, Seeing Queerly is unique in its approach to articulating what a queer aesthetic might look like, and how it might be applied to out directors who compose their own screenplays for the telling of both queer and heteronormative stories.

I begin with a look at the work of John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925), who was, as recounted by art historian Robert Hughes, “the most vivid American presence on the Anglo-European cultural stage in the late nineteenth-century” (248). Born in Florence to expatriate parents, Sargent and his three sisters led a nomadic life throughout the continent until he settled in Paris to begin his studies with Charles Auguste Emile Durand, the noted portraitist and teacher. Under his tutelage, Sargent developed the techniques that distinguished his own ideas of portraiture, related to the l’art pour l’art theory espoused by his dearest friend, Henry James. Sargent believed this theory allowed portraits to involve the spectator – creating a “performance to reflect upon, admire, enjoy for its own sake” (Hughes 250).

Sargent, now labeled a gay artist, sketched men and painted women quite differently. And here is where we can apply a queer eye to his developing perspective. While Sargent’s portraits of the grande dames of Gilded Age society developed from appearing academic, in respect to the parameters of the French and English salon culture, they developed over time to become reflections of an engaged perspective, capturing so much going on under the guise of social formalities. But to develop that method of capturing the human behind the frippery, Sargent sketched and painted male nudes, many surfacing only after his death. To our knowledge, Sargent never sketched nude women – even in the salon. But his portfolio is filled with more than 100 sketches of naked men, many of his valet Nicola D’Inverno and his longtime model Thomas E. McKeller, a Boston elevator operator. In addition, many of his watercolors, beginning

in 1911 after turning away from society portraiture, are of men cavorting in the water, naked in their homosocial privacy.

The second part of the talk will look at the work of Todd Haynes, notably one of the most out of the Hollywood auteurs. One of the first architects of the “New Queer Cinema” with his debut film Poison (1991), Todd Haynes’ work continues to use and aesthetic of color and light to render a queer experience in his queer and heteronormative texts. Looking at his films Poison and Safe (1995), I will delineate his queer aesthetic in respect to color and light, using the method derived with Sargent’s work. Then I will show how it operates in his pastiche films that tell of women’s experiences through a stylized Hollywood lens: Far From Heaven (2002) and his miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011), each applying Haynes’ aesthetic of color and light developed in his queer work.

Moving from Sargent’s paintings to Haynes’ films, I argue, reveals how we might be able to read films authored by queer writer/directors in a new way, steeped in the artistic methods that help make the personal political.

Respondent: David Lugowski, Manhattanville College

12/14/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Diagnostic Cinema
Seth Barry Watter, New York University


The word diagnosis comes directly from the Greek, and its meaning has changed very little through the years. It implies discrimination, separation, decision: the knowledge of something that is not something else. In the culture of medicine where the word is mostly used, diagnosis has practical and irreversible consequences. This talk will explore a form of diagnostic cinema that took shape in psychiatry mostly after World War II—psychiatry being, with neurology, one of the few forms of medicine that based its diagnoses on the way that people moved and talked. We will consider three examples spanning the interwar period to the Cold War in North America: Symptoms in Schizophrenia (1938), produced by a psychologist at the University of Rochester; the National Film Board of Canada’s Mental Symptoms series (1951); and UCLA’s Psychiatric Interview Series (1959-61). The latter is especially interesting given the viral afterlife of one of the subjects filmed, a young man with catatonic schizophrenia whose ten-minute interview now has twenty-four million views and counting. In addition to the films themselves—their structure, their style, their various ways of grasping illness by means of technique—we will also consider the place of such films in a visual economy for which they were hardly destined. Today anyone is free to assume the role of expert.

Respondent: Oliver Gaycken, University of Maryland

01/18/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Proximities of Violence: The Zone of Interest
Amy Herzog, Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center


Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest (2023) observes the domestic life of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, and his family in their villa just outside the gates of the concentration camp. Meticulously researched, the film’s detached approach to its subjects has elicited a range of critical responses. Amy Herzog will read the film in relation to its framing of historical violence, and its attention to the gendered labor of fascism. Artist Zoe Beloff will join the conversation to discuss the political ramifications of representing genocide in film, and the reception of Zone of Interest during the Israel-Gaza war.

Zoe Beloff, Queens College

02/22/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Memories of the Revolution: Visions from Three Independent Cuban Films
Jerry Carlson, The City College, CUNY and the CUNY Graduate Center

Respondent: Theodore Henken, Baruch College, CUNY


The Cuban Revolution is now 65 years old. Founded in March 1959, the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) continues to curate the official history of the revolution. But what of other versions? Professor Carlson’s presentation will explore how three independent Cuban feature films of the digital 21st century propose alternative visions of revolutionary history. All tell nuanced, deep-diving stories that eschew the simple binaries of the Cold War. Sin Alas / Wingless(USA/Cuba, 2015), directed by Ben Chace, follows the memories of an elderly writer as he reconstructs a love affair played out amid the cultural politics of the early revolutionary years. La Obra del Siglo / Project of the Century (Cuba, 2015), directed by Carlos Quintela, portrays the tensions among a grandfather, father, and grandson living in the same household in a ghost town, the nearly abandoned CEN (Ciudad Electro Nuclear) built to service a never completed nuclear plant launched in partnership with the Soviet Union. In Caja Negra / Black Box (Cuba, 2021), directed by Kiki Alvarez, a granddaughter discovers the life of her grandmother through the diaries she kept in the 1960s. In addition to analyzing the historiographic implications of these works, Carlson’s presentation will pose two contextual questions: What is “independent” Cuban cinema? And how does it fit in global networks of exhibition and distribution?

03/21/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University / Zoom
7:00 PM
On Academic Writing and Archival Film Curating; or, Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema
Maggie Hennefeld, University of Minnesota


This book presentation will be anything other than a pro forma book talk. In the spirit of “Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation,” I will focus on the process of researching and writing Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema (Columbia UP, 2024), which comes out in March and was vividly shaped over the course of a decade by ongoing, collaborative feminist projects in archival film curating. How can humanities scholars team up with film archivists and community programmers? How else might we approach these creative openings for collective critical thought and material praxis going forward? This un-book talk will traverse the trajectory of an interdisciplinary monograph: from the discovery of hundreds of obituaries for women who allegedly died from laughing too hard to the production of a 4-disc DVD/Blu-ray set. And beyond!

Respondent: Alice Maurice, University of Toronto

04/18/2024 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Nigerian and Indian Bros: Masculine Intimacies in Indian Cinema Worlds
Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, New York University


Mainstream Hindi and regional cinemas in India have long represented Africa and Africans in passing, regulating the continent and its people to short, bit part stereotypical depictions that underscore fantasies of Indian racial and civilizational superiority. African men, in particular, have been variously positioned as hypersexualized, as terrorists, or, quite simply, as primitive subjects that easily double with India’s tribal and oppressed caste Others. In several recent indie films produced on the subcontinent, however, there has been an interesting shift. Nigerian men have been cast in lead roles, opening up space for complex character development and depictions of a subtle relationality with their male Indian counterparts. While this move to center African men doesn’t necessarily negate a racializing gaze, it locates and destabilizes it within homosocial cross-cultural camaraderie. Drawing from a decade of ethnographic research with African nationals living in India and thinking through three films, the first about a Nigerian football (soccer) player in Kerala, the second focusing on a Nigerian student in Delhi, and the third, and final, Professor Dattatreyan’s soon-to-be-finished ethno-fiction film focusing on an aspiring actor, friend, and long-term ethnographic interlocutor from Nigeria; he explores the particular registers of masculine intimacy that emerge when African men, specifically Nigerian men, become protagonists in Indian cinema worlds.

Respondent: Brian Larkin, Columbia University