The Mediascape Q&A: Allyson Field, Assistant Professor, Cinema and Media Studies

The Mediascape Q&A is a series of interviews designed to explore the work of UCLA faculty and graduate students beyond the classroom.

Dr. Allyson Field (center) with CMS Ph.D. candidate Samantha Sheppard (l) and Dr. Jacqueline Stewart of Northwestern University (r) at an L.A. Rebellion event, December 2011.

Dr. Allyson Field (center) with CMS Ph.D. candidate Samantha Sheppard (l) and Dr. Jacqueline Stewart of Northwestern University (r) at an L.A. Rebellion event, December 2011.

Matthias Stork: All right, here we go. The first question: what first drew you to studying film?

Allyson Field: [Laughs] Oh, wow, OK. I have to think way back. Well, I began studying film as an undergraduate. I was an art history major at Stanford. And Stanford’s one of the very few art history programs that doesn’t have a critical animosity towards film as a medium, and so it seemed very natural for me. I was interested in 20th-century art, mostly painting and theory. And I was interested in limits of representation, and then I started taking film classes with some professors when I was an undergrad, most notably Scott Bukatman when he came to Stanford when I was a junior, and then Pamela Lee and then some classes in the French department with Jean-Marie Apostolidès on political filmmaking in France. And then I ended up writing my senior thesis on Jean-Luc Godard and Guy Debord as political filmmakers. I was really interested in theoretical questions about representation of politics and questions of modernity answered through film, and so I started in art history but I was really gravitating towards film studies. When I graduated, I ended up applying to the University of Amsterdam to work with Thomas Elsaesser, and there I started working more on film. So I guess that’s the trajectory to film through art history. And then it wasn’t really until much later that I realized that looking at or studying film within the context of art history was really uncommon, that it had been a discipline that really emerged out of literary criticism or language departments. I was very privileged to be able to study film with a background in formal analysis but also theory, and that bode well for future studies, I guess. It’s a very different trajectory than I think a lot of people who either come to film from literature or come to film from industrial studies ever encounter. I was studying film as art, focusing on the avant-garde and then that post-’60s experimental filmmaking, but it was really not until much later that I kind of understood film as an industry, or as an object of industrial concern as well.

MS: That was quite eloquent for an impromptu answer.

AF: [Laughs]

MS: All right. We will proceed with a rather blunt question: Why did you come to UCLA? And could you enumerate some of the strengths and unique aspects of the program? And to make it even more complex for you, what can students do to get the full CMS experience?

AF: Oh wow. OK, well, those are three different questions.

MS: I admit it is quite challenging.

AF: Why did I come here? Because they gave me a job—that’s easy. That’s a snarky answer. It’s true, but it’s a snarky answer. One of the draws of coming here, one of the reasons I chose to come here and stay here, had to do with my research interests and studying—well, several things. Studying film in Los Angeles and the archival resources, not just for film but industrial resources, the libraries here, especially the Herrick and other archives. Being able to work with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which I do very closely, and to be around 16 and 35mm prints, to be able to have access to all the resources of the Archive, and public programming, that is very important to me. And I wouldn’t be able to do that anywhere else. Furthermore, the kind of research I’m doing, I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else, and I think being here has shaped the course of my research and the work that I do. And so there’s this sort of synergy between the environment and the kinds of questions that I’m asking in terms of scholarship. Certainly if I were elsewhere I’d be doing different kinds of things, so that’s a tremendous advantage for me for being here. OK. So, the strengths and the unique aspects of the program.

MS: Yes, you have already expanded upon that. Could you say more about the program in relation to students’ work?

AF: Of course. What I always tell incoming students—or prospective students that we’re trying to recruit—is that unlike any other school in the country—in the world, I think—we are a graduate program. Which means that the attention of the faculty is 100% devoted to the graduate students, the M.A. and Ph.D. students. And the graduate students are not serving as sort of the interface between undergrads and professors. Now, we do have undergraduate classes, and people have the opportunity to TA, but they’re not this 200+ people major that our competing programs have. And so, really, faculty attention is not divided, so that’s a unique aspect of the program that I think benefits the graduate students tremendously, unlike anywhere else, in any other kind of school. I think that’s pretty remarkable. It’s something I didn’t really appreciate until I got here and saw it in action. I think 35mm projection in the classroom and outside of the classroom, opportunities like the Crank and the Archive, that’s also unique. Being—having an academic unit that has an affiliation with the second-largest film archive in the world is pretty remarkable too, and that’s something that no other program can boast. And the fact that we can use that archive, and draw from it, is exceptional. So I think those are obviously the strengths of the program, the faculty, and the scholarly achievement in film studies that our faculty represents. I also think that being in a department that also has film practitioners of various kinds is of great value to the students, and [being] in the kind of classroom setting where you’re interacting with students who have an interest in, say, screenwriting, or asking different kinds of questions than would CMS students. So I think that’s a huge asset, and also makes all of us more aware of the film industry and of film and cinema being complex areas of critical inquiry.

MS: What can students do to get the full CMS experience? That’s a rather abstract question.

AF: It’s super abstract.

MS: But I know you can handle it.

AF: Yes. I think it depends on what level. I think first-year MA students, and MA students in general, should be intellectually promiscuous. You know, they should take classes in areas that they’re not necessarily interested in or didn’t think they would be interested in. If you know you’re a hardcore film person, take those digital media classes, electronic culture classes. And I think that there is a lot of strengthening that can go on in one’s own interests when you branch out of it. At the Ph.D. level, obviously you have to be more focused and geared towards what your eventual dissertation topic will be. But certainly at that initial level, just try to absorb as much as possible. And that’s within the department, and outside of the department too. Especially for people not from Los Angeles, taking advantage of being in this city and going to screenings—I mean the Archive, Cinefamily, American Cinematheque, New Beverly, and so on—one of the best things one can do is when you get the programs and catalogs every time they come out or online, is write screenings down in your calendar. Because you will forget. And I think you will regret it when you leave Los Angeles eventually, not having seen a lot of things. So I think a lot of the education here has to do with exposure to material that you have no way of seeing otherwise. I think joining The Crank is excellent. It’s also something you wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else. Also, and this is true for any kind of program, it is important to get to know the faculty, and not be shy about it, and certainly feel that it’s completely within your right to go visit faculty members at office hours, and to get feedback on things, and get recommendations, and really engage, because, again, when you leave, you’re not going to have that sort of proximity. And then also draw from the other resources that may be less obvious, but people like Diana King and Mark Quigley are incredibly knowledgeable, and you’re lucky that they’re here, and so [to] really draw from their expertise as well is important, as well as [from] the other CMS students. Your cohort and the classes ahead of you and the Ph.D. students have a tremendous wealth of information, and you should take advantage of that, which is also really important. And those are the connections that will be with you throughout your career, you know, long after we’re gone.

MS: I wholeheartedly concur.

AF: Good.

MS: [Laughs] Simple question: Your research interests.

AF: Oh, Lord. [Laughter]

MS: Or maybe not so simple. [Laughter]

AF: No, so, my research right now is focused around American film history, and mostly African American cinema. And, more broadly, race and ethnicity in cinema in general, as well as silent-era cinemas, transactional cinema, film and politics, and film and social change. Right now I’m finishing my book, called Filming Uplift and Projecting Possibility, on African American cinema pre-1915 and the use of film as a tool of social and political change and protest in those teen years prior to The Birth of a Nation. And then my second project is on the L.A. Rebellion of Black filmmakers that came out of UCLA. It was part of the Pacific Standard Time project. We did this big series in the Fall [2011] and had a symposium. I’m coediting a book and wrote an essay on them in the book, and that’s going to be published next year by UC Press. And then I’m writing two essays—well, three essays—that are going to be part of anthologies. One is called “Stomping on Stepin Fetchit,” and it’s on the cameos of older actors (Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, and Clarence Muse) in three Black films from the 1970s. These three actors played problematic, stereotypical characters in Hollywood cinema and I’m intrigued by how they then function in these later films in these weird, intriguing ways in these cameos in the 1970s. So I’m talking about this look back during a contentious moment in Black film representation in the ’70s, at this other contentious moment in classical Hollywood cinema. And then the other essay is on the filmic language of Sankofa, Haile Gerima’s 1993 film, and thinking about Black cinema aesthetics and film language. So those are those two essays, and then I have a third essay that I’m finishing on the L.A. Rebellion in general, called “Third Cinema in the First World,” and thinking about the L.A. Rebellion as an indigenous third cinema. So that’s my research. Oh, and then I have another project that’s down the pipeline on Noble Johnson, who’s considered the first Black movie star. I’m doing a history of his career, starting in 1915 and going to 1950, where he was in over 170 films and almost never played a Black man. So I’m interested in issues of cross-racial casting and navigating race and ethnicity in Hollywood cinema. Again, that’s the kind of thing I couldn’t do elsewhere because I’m using the archive resources here at the Herrick, and looking at production files, and seeing the way in which he was marketed by the studios but also celebrated in the Black press in very different ways. And so it’s sort of an alternative history of the studio era traced through the figure of Noble Johnson. That’s my work!

MS: What are your favorite classes that you taught here at UCLA, and do you have any ideas for potential future classes?

AF: It’s so interesting. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed every class differently. I loved teaching the L.A. Rebellion seminar, especially while we were mounting the exhibition, and so the students could—this was this past fall, it was the third time I taught it—they could attend screenings at the Billy Wilder Theater. The students were doing a live blog before and after the screening, reflecting on the films, and obviously engaging with the filmmakers, which is something that is very hard to do, and rare, so it was a rare opportunity. So I really loved that. The Gone With the Wind project in the Fall [2011] was really interesting, working with a composer and co-teaching with someone in production, that was a really unique experience. I loved teaching the undergrad class on history of African American cinema. And I loved teaching “Film and Social Change” as undergrad classes. I taught a blaxploitation class, which I found really interesting too, and I think I’d love to do more classes on 1970s cinema. Hopefully in the next couple of years I’ll be able to teach a silent cinema class, or even race and ethnicity in silent cinema. I think we don’t have enough offerings in silent film, so that’s something I’d like to do, and I love teaching American film history, and I’ll be doing that again in the Fall. And I actually really love “Bibliography and Methods of Research.”

MS: I enjoyed that class as well.

AF: Yeah. So that’s one of my favorite things, so I’m probably leaving something out. I like all of the classes. But I also am really interested in seeing what students want to see more of, you know? And making sure that our curriculum aligns with the kinds of needs and interests of the students as well.

MS: What in your career are you most proud of?

AF: So far, I would say the L.A. Rebellion project. I’m very, very proud of that, very proud of being part of it, and very humbled to have been part of it. And largely because, you know, getting to see the filmmakers while they’re still living have the recognition that they deserved, and having the university recognize them when they weren’t necessarily recognized at the time. And that their contribution to American film history is so important, and being able to be one of the people that gets to write that history is really exciting and rewarding. And also doing more in Los Angeles with various communities, and breaking down this kind of ivory tower mentality, that has been really rewarding as well. And so thinking about scholarship as a form of public scholarship and how the work we do can really impact communities, and also impact filmmakers, and have a broader social impact.

MS: Public scholarship, that’s fantastic.

AF: Yeah.

MS: What do you wish graduate students would ask you about your work?

AF: What do I wish, or do I wish they would? [Laughter] Wow, what do I wish they would ask me about my work?

MS: This may seem like a trick question. But it is not. [Laughter] Perhaps I can rephrase it. Are there topics you would like your students to be more proactive about?

AF: It’s interesting. I mean, in some ways I want to turn the tables a bit because I think everybody in academia should work towards demystifying the writing process, the research process, and I think that there’s a danger in kind of this idea that it’s pure brilliance, or insight, or writing just comes naturally to some and it’s hard for others. And I think writing is really hard, it’s hard work, and it’s labor intensive, and I think people perpetuate that sort of myth and then it leads to students, and I mean anybody, feeling inadequate, or feeling that they don’t have the capabilities to do good work when it looks like, you know, you go to SCMS and people give these brilliant papers and all you see is the results and it seems so effortless. I think drawing attention to the actual effort involved is important. And that’s why I’m so happy with the CMS colloquium series. It really shows the labor that goes into creating research and writing. I think it’s really important, so I don’t know if that really answers the question so much as I think it’s a two-way street, so part of that dialogue, I think, is laying bare the processes of writing and of work and what scholarship is. So that it seems like it’s less of this remote or disconnected process. Does that make any sense?

MS: It does make sense to me.

AF: OK. And I think that people don’t ask the hard questions, like, How do you do what you do? I mean, I think students should be asking, How do you read? When I was in graduate school, nobody wanted to admit, or ask, when they didn’t understand something. Because they were afraid that it would seem dumb, and I went through several years thinking I didn’t know anything because I was just so confused all the time, and it wasn’t until much later I realized everybody was confused, and that’s not helpful. I think one thing students shouldn’t do is keep questions to themselves and keep ideas to themselves, because the other thing that bothered me when I was in graduate school is people who wouldn’t talk in class. And I always thought that was really selfish, because obviously they’re there and they’re absorbing, but they’re not giving anything. Even if it’s their own confusion, I think that’s something valuable. So I would say that people should share, I mean, respectfully, and ask questions, and not in a lazy way, that they should do legwork and that they should allow for their own confusion and accept their confusion as part of the scholarly process. And I think they should ask themselves if they’re struggling with certain things like time management or writing issues or reading issues. They should really ask for advice or for help or for insight, and so I wish people would ask that. What do I wish they would ask about my research? I don’t know. There are kind of recurring things that people do ask, but I think everybody could stand to be asked of themselves and of others, you know, why it is you do what you do, why you’re interested in it, why you think it’s important, why it’s a contribution. And I think not often enough do we have that kind of self-reflexivity, or a moment to really think about what is my contribution, period. What is my argument, what am I getting at, why am I here? And I think that kind of reflection is really valuable, especially in the moment where the university is really under fire financially and ideologically. We’re going to go out in the world and represent what higher education is. We should be able to answer those questions.

MS: I think we can conclude the interview with a personal and hopefully fun question: What are some of your favorite films?

AF: Oh, yay. Usually film scholars hate this question. It’s sort of like what’s your favorite book, what’s your favorite film?

MS: You may include books as well, of course.

AF: Oh, OK cool. Ah, books. It’s very funny, I mean for me, what I love is not necessarily what I study, and I’ll watch anything, almost. I have a real hard time with horror because I have a very strong affect when I’m watching horror films. I still really go back to those films that drew me in as an undergraduate, Godard in particular. I really love Pierrot le Fou. It is probably my favorite film ever made. But there are films that I’m just so enamored with, I mean, I love silent cinema, I love experimental films. I hate this question. [Laughter] Yeah, I’m introducing Do the Right Thing tonight and I think that’s an incredible film. Yeah, it’s like—

MS: You sufficiently answered the question.

AF: Yeah. I mean, I would say Pierrot le Fou is probably my favorite film.

MS: It is an extraordinary film.

AF: I think cinephilia’s something to be embraced, and—

MS: Absolutely.

AF: —people should feel like they can like something and still maybe have a critical problem with it, or—you know, I think that that’s something to be—to not shy away from.  But yeah, that’s really hard.

MS: I do not subscribe to the notion of the guilty pleasure.

AF: Me neither.

MS: Pleasure is not guilty.

AF: Yeah. No, I agree with you with that. Even with bad TV.

Special thanks to Allyson Field for her participation, reflections, and insights.

Author Bio:

Matthias Stork is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. His doctoral research focuses on the convergence between the film and tech industries through the lens of social media and big data. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Mediascape and the co-editor of Superhero Synergies (Scarecrow Books, 2014). He is also the guy who coined the term Chaos Cinema.

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