Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 14, 1996 Form

On Campus:
National Identity
Explored On Film

Steve Libowitz
In case you haven't noticed, Hopkins is becoming something of a Hollywood-by-the-Harbor. What with a new film studies major in place, a spate of student films produced and in the works, a film journal in circulation and casual and formal screenings-- both on and off campus--it seems as though Homewood exists at 24 frames-per-second. Most of these activities emanate from media-based programs, nurtured by media-focused faculty.

So one might be inclined to ask of the faculty of the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies, " What is a nice literature program like you doing sponsoring a cinema symposium like this?"

On Thursday and Friday, the department will convene "Resistance, Resurgence, Reconciliation: National Filmmaking in Spain, Latin America and Italy." The faculty hope to expose national cinemas not generally accessible in the commercialized environment of U.S. film exhibition. More important, perhaps, is the attempt to explore the theoretical question of how a cinema relates to the construction of the individual and the public self at a specific historical moment.

And although department faculty members all have distinguished careers in scholarship and teaching, they do not find it at all odd to approach the issue of national identity on screen rather than on the page.

"Historically, literature studies have always been interested in culture," says Noel Valis, a professor of Hispanic literature and gender studies and a central force behind the symposium. "So how can one omit such a key component as film in that investigation, especially regarding national identity given its often central role in creating it?"

Valis says that each of the department's faculty members--in their own ways--have been deeply interested in the cultures of the national literatures they study, and most have included film in their undergraduate courses in the past several years.

"I have used film in two undergraduate courses: Literature as Moral Problem and 20th-century Italian Literature, in which I often will screen films made from the novels we study, such as The Garden of the Finzi Continis," says Pier Massimo Forni, a professor of Italian literature and culture and another of the symposium's organizers. "But my interest in cinema is ancillary."

For co-organizer Eduardo Gonzalez, a professor of Latin American studies, film has been of primary interest.

"First, Hollywood has come to dominate the world cinema, and national cinemas are vanishing," Gonzalez says. "So I teach film as a way of exposing students to the visual, and particularly the oral, traditions of these cultures, the language and accents and idioms."

Apart from film being a valuable text for critical study, Gonzalez, Valis and Forni agree that teaching film--or with film- -is an important part of 1990s pedagogy.

"In order to have any kind of cultural and intellectual communication, the communicants need a common 'mythologic' universe," Forni says. "That used to be furnished through literary works, with people having in common the reading of Dante, Tolstoy and Milton and Shakespeare and maybe Ovid and Virgil. More and more, this universe is being shaped by the moving image rather than the printed word.

"So, we who were born in a more word-based universe have to recognize this and adapt to our constituency."

"I find that students find studying film interesting," Gonzalez adds. "It is of tremendous help for those who are at least halfway through their language studies because they can hear the language and the idioms of the culture."

Forni and Valis see film as another form of text and believe that the critical skills developed in literature studies make for a more informed cinema viewer. Similarly, the textual analyses applied in media studies can improve reading skills needed to appreciate great literature.

The symposium is not meant to survey the present status of Italian, Spanish and Latin American cinemas. Instead, it has been designed to look at specific national cinemas at a particular time as they reflected or reconciled their past or present. Five scholars from universities across the country will present papers on topics ranging from the revolutionary Italian cinema of the 1960s to the rhetoric of recent Cuban reconciliation to the reflection of Spanish culture from Franco to the current Spanish cinema.

Local faculty--most from Hopkins but several from area colleges--will then comment on the papers as a way to open the discussion in whatever way the audience finds stimulating.

"We've purposely asked for shorter papers and brief comments so that we could have a lot of time to talk," says Valis. And she hopes the resulting conversation reflects a wide range of intellectual pursuits.

Organizers have invited faculty and staff from around the region who are involved in language, film and media studies, cultural and gender studies, history and literature.

If there is a common thread among the three geographic and political regions included in the symposium, it is that each society has, in recent history, emerged from a dictatorship. Much of the post-authoritarian cinema was created by members of the political left trying to understand their heritage, Forni says.

"In the case of Italy, it was that generation of intellectuals that came from a country that lost [World War II]. But they, somehow, had won it largely on the convictions to a strong leftist ideology. This then translated to postwar politics and began to appear on screen," he says.

Forni hopes the participants leave the two-day symposium more aware of these national cinemas, but also perhaps more inclined to return to the word.

"Because the students we reach today were born in a cinematic culture, they may develop an interest in literature thanks to the strangeness of the product," Forni says with only a hint of irony. "They will want to get nearer to a medium of human imagination that is perhaps not as familiar to them. So, in the future we may not have great numbers of students in serious literature classes, but we will have a good number of outstanding students who find fascination in the written word as they mature.

"There will always be a constituency for serious literature."

Gonzalez agrees, adding, "Film has come to occupy the space once held by theater and the stage in the curriculum, and I don't like the emphasis that separates film from literature and other studies. I want to see film studies merged with other academic disciplines because it is the future of academic study, if not the present."

The symposium is co-sponsored by the Latin American Studies Program, the Film and Media Studies Program, The Women Studies Program, The Humanities Center and the Dean's Office of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. For more information, call (410)516-7226.

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