The Mediascape Q&A: Stephen Mamber, 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. Stephen Mamber

Matthias Stork: Could you tell us about your academic background? Where did you go to school and what first drew you to studying media, specifically film?

Stephen Mamber: I was an undergraduate at Berkley, where I had a double major in Math and Drama because there wasn’t a film program there yet, but I took a class from Ernest Callenbach, who was the editor of Film Quarterly at the time, and that really affected me greatly. And it occurred to me somewhere in my junior year that film might be something to actually be able to study. I came down here to Los Angeles that summer and took a couple of classes from Howard Suber, and that really struck a chord with me. And from then on I knew I wanted to study film. My timing was good, I guess. This was the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I came down here for my master’s degree and fell in with some interesting people. One of my best friends while I was a graduate student was Paul Schrader, who was a year ahead of me. We went to the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies. He was in the first-year group of fellows. It was a different kind of place back then. It was at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills and they took 10 people every year. In the second year, partly through his encouragement, I applied and got in. So I was in the group that included Terry Malick and David Lynch and various other people who turned out to be very talented filmmakers. It was an amazing experience then too because they were bringing in every great filmmaker you could imagine. One week it would be Rossellini and the next week it would be Jack Benny, the week after it’d be Alfred Hitchcock, it was like every major name. So I just thought this was heaven and this was what I wanted to do. And I really didn’t have clear career plans when I was there. I just knew I loved movies. And I guess what eventually evolved for me was a feeling that there were such great filmmakers who I really loved that I did start to become interested in the filmmaking process or the film research and scholarship side of it. So while I was still at AFI I wound up teaching at UCLA and also then starting my Ph.D. at USC. I basically hit all the local institutions very quickly, and started writing very quickly too. Oddly enough, my first big writing interest—well, I had a couple of them, actually—my first big scholarly activity was to write about cinéma vérité directors. I guess that was partly because I met D.A. Pennebaker early on because he was actually coming through town showing a film and slept on my couch because he didn’t have any money to stay at any other place. But he was very nice. I was also very impressed with his work. I realized that cinéma vérité was kind of an important thing that nobody was writing about, except, once again, the French—there were some good materials there. So I just told myself that I was going to go back East and start camping out on different filmmakers’ doorsteps because everybody had ignored my correspondence because, of course, they were too busy making films. But I did go back and had very good experiences with Ricky Leacock and the Maysles Brothers and Robert Drew, and I did go up to Boston and met with Frederick Wiseman, who had done three movies, I think, at the time, but I had seen all of them, and High School particularly was one that affected me a great deal. Even though I was at AFI and doing all this stuff with Hollywood filmmakers, I just knew that this was the direction I wanted to go. Also, this was a pretty busy period for me. I started doing film reviews for Pacifica Radio, which in Los Angeles was KPFK, and I had a weekly radio show that I did for a few years, and I’m still very proud of receiving an Associated Press Golden Mike Award for one of my broadcasts. When I started out I felt like I was going to be a film critic. I was a founding member of the group that started the L.A. Film Critic Association, which was all of the local working film critics, but they had never had an organization before, so I was part of the first group that started that. I remember, I think it was our second year, we gave a newcomer award to this guy named Marty Scorsese, and it was a very enjoyable lunch at a restaurant called the Cock and Bull that was on Sunset Boulevard, not very far from the American Film Institute. I guess I kind of hit the ground running very fast in Los Angeles doing things like that. I should mention I was writing a bunch of stuff. Paul Schrader was the editor of Cinema Magazine at the time, and I got involved with Cinema through him. When he went off to find himself, which was essentially to write the script for The Yakuza, which was the first script that he sold, I became the editor of Cinema in the interim and did several issues then, too. I was writing, I was doing stuff at AFI, I was doing weekly radio shows. Somewhere in the middle of all of this the call came out at UCLA that they were looking for some part-time lecturers, and I remember that at the time there were three of us who were hired. Paul Schrader was one, I was the second, and the third was Jim Kitses—

MS: Who is now in San Francisco.

SM: Yes. Back then he was head of the research department at AFI, when Paul and I were there. But he also had written Horizons West.

MS: Terrific book, an essential guide to the Western!

SM: Yes, and he was an absolutely terrific guy and had a great influence on me when he was at AFI. We started together as part-time lecturers. By the end of that year I was kind of the last man standing, and each of them wound up leaving for other reasons and I started as a lecturer at UCLA and essentially never left. I wound up teaching other places at different times, but I really found a home here. The very first course I taught was a seminar on Robert Flaherty, of all people, that I remember quite, quite well. I remember, too, just what the thrill of teaching was, and then I just kind of knew from there that’s what I wanted to do. So I finished my book on cinéma vérité, I finished my Ph.D. at USC, because you couldn’t be teaching at UCLA and also be a student there. At the time, there wasn’t a Ph.D. program at UCLA. So I had lots of reasons to go to USC. But I finished my degree there and that was the start of my academic career, I guess.

MS: Could you briefly elaborate upon your experiences at USC?

SM: Well, I had very good experiences there, actually, and the chair of my dissertation was Arthur Knight, who was a really great guy. He taught a class that was informally called “Thursday Night at the Movies,” and his contacts in Hollywood were unbelievable, too. I was already pretty spoiled from my AFI experiences, but he would bring in Clint Eastwood one week, and I remember Hitchcock came there too, and it was just one great filmmaker after another. Also, while I was at USC I am very happy and proud to say that one of my teachers was Jerry Lewis, and I took a year of film production courses from Jerry Lewis. We met at his editing studios on Santa Monica Boulevard and we did films together with him. He also brought a lot of people; one night at his class he introduced this guy, he said his name was Don Siegel. Of course, I knew who Siegel was, and it was a thrill. But he and Jerry seemed to be old friends or had worked together. It was just that was the kind of milieu, we’re talking early ’70s here, where all of the great filmmakers were either still alive or there were still great ones working in Hollywood who were very accessible at film schools. I also must say that in the early days at UCLA, thanks to Howard Suber, there were three opportunities to see John Ford, who came to classes. He was even there once when I was here for that summer before I was finished at Berkeley, and that was part of why I knew I had to come to Los Angeles. I just assumed that’s what you did—you got to hang around with filmmakers like that. Also, while I was a student here at UCLA, one of my teachers was Peter Bogdanovich, who taught a class in what’s now Bridges Theatre on Howard Hawks, and that was a very influential experience too. So I think I started out as an auteurist, although I didn’t know that. I was one of those students who would carry around my Andrew Sarris American film directors history book and take special note of what was italicized. There was also the first film society group here, that Thom Andersen and I were part of, and also Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck. I remember long conversations especially with Gloria. And she would say, “I hope I have some career that’s more than editing educational films. I don’t know how I’m going to break into Hollywood.” But, of course, they struck up a relationship with George Lucas and have had quite illustrious careers, the two of them. The film society group was a very influential part of my development too. So it seemed like we were seeing films all the time, one way or another. The L.A. County Museum was also doing great series. I remember a complete Renoir retrospective that Paul and I would go to. If you weren’t seeing films, you were writing about them or you were meeting with the filmmakers, so it was really a golden age. That’s what started me going, and it was cinema and a love of teaching, I would say, that has kept me going every since. So that’s a long answer to your first couple of questions.

MS: We always appreciate extensive answers. You said you taught at other institutions as well. And I remember you telling me about Georgia Tech. How did this come about, and why did you decide to return to UCLA?

SM: I guess my complicated story is that I started out loving films and writing about films and teaching films, but in the late 1980s it became quite clear that there was a revolution in the making with regard to digital media. I think in 1986 I taught the first digital media course at UCLA, so I don’t know if it’s the first one in the field, but I called it “Computer Applications for Film Studies,” which I still do, we still call it the same name. But I remember very well that among the students the first time I taught was Justin Wyatt, who did a very good project on the film After Hours and has since gone on to do great things as well. From kind of the ’80s on I just got more and more obsessed with digital media, but I would say it’s still from the orientation that I continue to have, which is to see digital media as not just a completely new thing, but as a very clear kind of continuation of particularly film and television. It always seemed natural to me that people in this field would be moving in that direction, even though at the time it seemed like kind of a crazy thing to be doing because it was only the rudimentary stage. It was not exactly pre-internet, but pre-popular internet. I was probably here a few years before we had email addresses. But then in the early ’90s I started doing some projects, first with Steve Ricci, who was working at the film archives, and we got what we still think was the first MacArthur Foundation grant to do work in the area of digital media. We did three video disk projects and also brought together people from about 15 universities, where they either had film programs or archives to give our projects to them and also tried to encourage this kind of work. I would say that was pretty successful because among the people who were already thinking this way were people have gone on to do very important work, like Marsha Kinder from USC and also Robert Kolker, who had written a number of important scholarly works and who eventually became dean of the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech. And I was thrilled to join him. When I went to Georgia Tech I wasn’t sure if I was coming back here, because I really liked the orientation of the program at Georgia Tech and I thought the school was very good, too. I just wasn’t as comfortable in Atlanta, and I did still feel ties to UCLA because I had been here over 10 years by that point. So I did come back. I’ve had very good experiences, but my ties to UCLA have just always felt so strong, and also I’ve always been so happy in the department, where the great thrill here has always been the high quality of the students—that’s never ceased to amaze me. I’d say that’s part of what’s always pulled me back here.

MS: You mentioned that you discovered the thrill of teaching right when you became a lecturer here at UCLA. And you’ve taught several classes over a long period of time, especially “Computer Applications in Film Studies.” What are the classes that you value the most as a teacher?

SM: That’s an excellent question and I’m glad we can talk about that. I actually love teaching large undergraduate classes, even though I haven’t done it for a few years. But what I’ve especially liked is doing classes about film directors, where we would take four or five of them. I would usually call the class something like “Visual Film Authors,” because I think those are very teachable directors and I think they are the kind that are best done in a class because we need to see a bunch of films together and talk about them. So examples would be, for a number of years I regularly taught a class that was Orson Welles, Max Ophuls, Joseph Losey, and Stanley Kubrick. I think that’s the list. But I’ve also included Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Alfred Hitchcock. I have actually taught numerous undergrad classes about him. And, in fact, I was doing that when Hitchcock died, I will have to confess to you. The day Hitchcock died, we were watching North by Northwest. That seems kind of fitting, in a way. So I go way back in teaching the large undergraduate classes also because I loved showing 35mm prints in Bridges Theater. That’s really been a great opportunity. When you can do a double bill of Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Reckless Moment and show both of them in 35 millimeter then you know you’ve really arrived. I would say also that’s one of the great reasons to be at UCLA, because we have resources like that. Even though I haven’t done undergraduate courses for a little while, I hope to do that again. I guess it has been four or five years. The last time I did a class about directors, it was Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese. I usually try to find ways to link up the directors and find ways to talk about the general idea of why it’s worthwhile to study directors. I do a lot of digital media classes, and I love doing those as well. Also, we have significantly upgraded facilities from when we started out doing it. When we started out, it was mostly with hand-me-down computers and very crude equipment. The last few years have really been good that way, so I love teaching those seminars too. I continue, though, to teach in both film and digital media because it just feels right for me to continue to have my feet in both camps.

MS: And your class “Issues in Electronic Culture” is basically a synthesis of both perspectives, I would say.

SM: Well, that’s where, I think, when I do “Issues in Electronic Culture,” what I try to stress is that new media may be new in the sense that that’s what we call it, but the questions that define media culture have been around for a long time. We can bring lots of ideas from cinema to bear on new media. This is the right department and the right place to be teaching a class like that. I started it as an experiment with Vivian Sobchack when we first team-taught that course, but I’ve continued to do it on my own, and still love to do it, but I think I follow the inspiration that came from working it out together with her.

MS: Do you have any subjects that you would like to engage in future classes?

SM: That’s a great question. I think there are definitely directors I would love to do more, or I guess what I didn’t mention is I’ve also done seminars on certain directors who have seemed to me a little too advanced to try to inflict on undergraduates who weren’t familiar with the material. So I have done classes on Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, Arthur Penn, but whenever I’ve done those it’s usually in combinations where we’ve only had time to do three or four weeks of them. I’d really like to be able to do advanced directors courses sometime where we take somebody like Sirk and do a full quarter on him. I hope we’ll have a more developed digital media program eventually. I love teaching those courses but it still feels like we’re doing kind of first-year graduate courses on that, and I think we need more advanced kinds of courses that also require a full-fledged program in that area in order to do them. I think that will eventually happen—”eventually” meaning within the next two to three years. There’s lots of stuff. Also, in a way, I have been in a rut of ’60s, ’70s, ’80s directors. I love a lot of current directors, too, who would be great subjects for future classes. Also, I do genre courses regularly. I’d like to continue to update the things that I do. One thing that I’ve loved about being here is not being so confined in the classes that I teach that I have to do the same things over and over again. When I think about what I’d like to do it’s really, in a way, continuing the way I think most of us work already, which is I don’t repeat that much. I either get to renew classes by doing old numbered courses with new material or striking out and doing actual new courses. I think one of the things characteristic of our program is that it is one that’s continually regenerative. We are always doing classes that have not been done before and may not be done again because something else will be done. We don’t have a fixed curriculum. Half of what we have already been talking about is stuff I haven’t been able to do for a long time because I have been doing newer things already, and that’s characteristic of most of us who are here, I think.

MS: You have already addressed how the digital has and continues to transform the field of Film Studies. Is there any advice you can offer to current graduate students or those interested in entering the field? Throughout your career, you have positioned yourself at the intersection of cinema and digital media. Do you think future generations will (or should) emulate this model?

SM: Again, you are asking an excellent question. This came up at a colloquium a few weeks ago. I think it is inconceivable now for anybody to imagine themselves as a traditional film historian or film critic. We cannot afford to ignore digital media. I think—fortunately, though—that a love of film, even from a historical perspective, can lead very directly into digital media because it presents such great opportunities for exploring cinema’s past and cinema’s current state, as well as its future. This is probably where I ought to put in a plug for ClipNotes, an iPad app for film analysis. I would use that as an example of how digital media can benefit Film Studies. And I encourage current and future students to think about digital media in their work. There are many great opportunities for archival and critical work. And that’s been a very exciting thing at UCLA, to see students come in understanding that the world has changed. I think actually students are ahead of the curve on that, rather than behind—the curve being the existing state of the field. SCMS, for example, has been rather slow, I think, to realize that the world has changed, and it has taken the current generation of film scholars and film students to develop the workshops and give the presentations that show the directions that clearly we’re all moving into.

MS: Since you mentioned ClipNotes, I would like to briefly talk about your research. I’m familiar with a few of your digital research projects, which include “Digital Hitchcock” and the 3D virtual environment project on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Did you channel your analytical interest in filmmaking into your work as a scholar?

SM: Let me try to give a quick career profile. I started out as an extremely prolific scholar. I was writing a lot very quickly, and in a whole bunch of venues. On the radio, in magazines, writing a book, I was publishing a lot. As the digital revolution came along, somehow writing for print publications just didn’t have the same allure for me. I became interested in, among other things, seeing the web and the internet as a publishing outlet—as a personal publishing outlet. I’ve done what I would consider to be three major projects that could have been books. But I said to myself, Why would I go through that if I can do it online? More importantly, my interest in digital media has been to express ideas about cinema that couldn’t be done in any other way. I would point to the Liberty Valance Project, which I’m still very happy with, because I don’t think the film could be explored in a way other than the way I’ve tried to do it, where I’ve been particularly interested in what I consider to be the misreading of the film in the 50 years now since its release. I consider that project to be an archival research project, first of all, because I had to gather up the scholarship in order to evaluate it and comment upon it and explore it. But I think the major sections of the website offer an analysis that couldn’t have been done in any other way; you just need to be able to, for example, juxtapose different sequences in the film and be able to look at them in ways that I couldn’t have written about in print. So that’s been my interest in all of the digital media projects that I’ve done. I would say that I am also very much invested in creating tools, and I’ve been doing that for awhile—it isn’t just the iOS app where I started doing that. I worked with IBM from the early 1990s on, developing multimedia tools. And they used to have a department they called Academic Systems, where they were selling computers to universities. But they also developed a program for scholars that I was a part of. We were called National Consulting Scholars and they sent us around to universities to show our work, and I had done a computer project with the Orson Welles film Macbeth, using a video disc, and also something on Citizen Kane. It was one of those MacArthur Foundation projects that I mentioned. I got to travel the world, showing examples of my work at different universities. I’m still anticipating with ClipNotes that one of its uses is going to be personal, that I want to develop files for it and work with students. I want to develop collections of materials that will be put in the library here, but also be made available over the internet as well. I think of it as a form of publication as well, the kind I’m much more interested in doing. I had a reasonably successful scholarly book, but I think I get more hits to my website in a week than my book has sold in total. I just feel like you have more impact and more connection with the world when you are doing things digitally than you do when you go through conventional scholarly channels. OK, I hope I am not being too long-winded here.

MS: No, that’s excellent. You also offer a class on video games. And we have a video game student group in our department: Ludus, run by Ph.D. student Harrison Gish. We also have the UCLA Game Lab. Could you briefly explain your interest in the medium? Unfortunately, it has not yet been fully recognized as an art form in academic circles.

SM: I’m very happy you are asking the questions that you are. I guess the answer is that I’ve always been attracted to academically disreputable areas of entertainment. And when I started out in film, it felt like film had that status, and even when I was starting out in film I already loved video games and was playing them. It was Atari consoles and 2600s and early game systems then. I was a very serious pinball player from high school on, as well. I went to high school in a small town in northern California, and the bowling alley and the pinball machines were the only entertainment for us. And even though I had scholarly pursuits and was going to movies quite a bit, it just always felt like video games were part of my DNA. So at a certain point following digital media and working with digital media, it was clear that video games were an area to pursue. I also was interested in them from a design and programming side, and part of my Liberty Valance web site was done using a game engine called “Unity,” which was a way to do walkthroughs and simulations. And when Vivian Sobchack and I started the “Issues in Electronic Culture” course, we saw right from the get-go that video games were an essential part of new media. Also, there were terrific people at UCLA in the Design Media Arts program, particularly Professor Eddo Stern, who’s been very nice in allowing me to make many visits to his game lab and discuss collaborative activities over there as well. I guess I’ve been lucky enough to teach a seminar called “Video Game Theory,” where I very expressly wanted to put “theory” as part of the title because I felt finally, a few years ago, that there was enough theory, thanks to Henry Jenkins and Jesper Juul and a few other great scholars. I haven’t written video game theory scholarship myself, but I have avidly followed it, and I’m still playing enough games. That is partly why we do seminars sometimes, so that we can maintain our personal interests and get to share them with students. Video game theory has been a very enjoyable part of the classes that I’ve been able to teach in this area. But the goal has always been to integrate it with the broader picture of media studies, both digital and otherwise. As we discover, of course, with video games, their connections to films are extremely strong as well. So I just think it’s irresponsible for a film and television department not to also have equally serious interest in the area of video games.

MS: I agree with you. Are there any specific books or digital projects that you would recommend to students interested in obtaining an overview of the field of cinema and media studies?

SM: I think we’ve been pretty lucky in the last few years that there has been a real outpouring of scholarship in this area. I’ve found that MIT Press is still the major place to be doing this kind of work. It’s also been very encouraging to see scholars make their work available on the Internet. I think Lev Manovich continues to be a major figure in the field, and if we’re not regularly following his projects and his writings we’re just not current at all on what’s going on. Henry Jenkins, of course, also does a major blog and has written staggering amounts of great stuff, and also has a high interest in cinema and digital media. I’ve also been a major fan of Sean Cubitt’s work, and The Cinema Effect is, I think, one of the most important books to have come out in this area. I think there’s lots of good material there. Also, the anthologies just keep coming. It’s really a burgeoning field.

MS: Absolutely. Any last words? [Laughs]

SM: [Laughs] Gee, let’s see. How should I answer that? Yeah, I guess as last words I would speak both personally and then also in terms of the department that it’s just so important to keep interest up in all areas of our field and not get too rigidly pigeonholed into doing just one kind of thing, because whatever you’re doing now you probably won’t be doing in five years, and I hope that applies to me as well. And I think that’s been pretty regularly the case, that I’ve changed what I’ve been doing or that I’ve moved it into different directions. And I think it’s just an essential part of the development of a career in this area, that you have to be open to the new developments that you can connect up to your existing interests, but that you take into areas where you haven’t gone before, especially while you’re a student. I think it’s really important to get as broad an exposure as possible to what the field has to offer.

MS: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SM: It wasn’t too long, I hope.

MS: We did go beyond our allotted time but I think it was well worth it!

Special thanks to Stephen Mamber for his 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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