Oxy has prepared half a century of students for careers in every facet of media arts and culture. With more creative options than ever, how will future generations of graduates respond to the challenges of the new media landscape?
Fifty years ago, Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the moon. Imagine if he could have documented that milestone with a 6.84-ounce phone that features 4K video capabilities as well as optical image stabilization, continuous autofocus, playback zoom, and video geotagging. Sounds crazy, right?
How times have changed. Not only could he shoot a movie on his phone today but he could edit that masterpiece on the long flight home via tutorials on YouTube.
With such resources at everyone’s fingertips—astronaut or otherwise—what’s the benefit of studying filmmaking and related fields in a classroom? And how do you educate students bound for a diverse media job market driven by a constantly changing technological landscape?
While it’s not rocket science, it’s a subject to which Oxy’s Media Arts & Culture faculty have devoted much thought. “Now more than ever, we encourage students to think critically, historically, and politically about media,” says Broderick Fox, a theorist (Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice) and practitioner (The Skin I’m In, Zen & the Art of Dying), who came to Oxy in 2004 and has chaired the department since its formal inception in 2016. “We prepare students to analyze, critique, and produce a wide range of media, including fictional, documentary-based, and experimental forms, and increasingly to extend their research and making beyond traditional cinema and TV screens and into mobile, online, and virtual spaces.”
It’s a tall order for a department that boasts only four permanent faculty (although a fifth appointment, for an assistant professor of emerging media, has been approved for 2020). “Right now, we have 86 majors—more than any other arts and humanities department at the College—and 12 minors,” Fox says. “There’s an incredible amount of student interest, which is a quality problem to have. But at the same time, we need sustainable resources and facilities to actually continue to deliver the kind of program we’ve been delivering.”
The roots of Media Arts & Culture (or MAC, for short) at Oxy can be traced back to Marsha Kinder, who arrived at the College in 1965 as a specialist in 18th-century English literature. In 1967, she published her first essay—but instead of writing about Henry Fielding or one of his literary contemporaries, “which would have been expected,” Kinder says, she wrote about Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up—the first of over 100 essays and books on film studies she’d go on to publish. One of her department colleagues told her, “‘You’ve betrayed the 18th century!’” Kinder recalls with a laugh. “And I had also betrayed literature, he thought, because I was already moving into film.”
Kinder was unswayed by his admonitions. “Film was just beginning to be in the college curriculum in America,” she says. “It drew a lot of people from not only English literature, like myself, but also from communications and art history and political science. This gave great energy to the field, and it was transdisciplinary from the get-go.”
That fall, Kinder joined forces with English professor and experimental filmmaker Bill Moritz, who taught at Oxy from 1965 to 1969 and staged impromptu film festivals in Mosher Hall, to start History and Aesthetics of Cinema at the College, which they took turns teaching. “It drew over 100 students—and at Oxy, that’s a lot,” Kinder says.
Bill Hawkins ’69 took the course under Moritz his senior year. “One afternoon he showed a double bill of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel and Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad,” he recalls. “People were reeling in shock coming out of Mosher. I would say without a doubt it was one of the very best film courses in the country at that time, and probably since.”
Following Moritz’s departure, Kinder realized two things: Oxy needed a bona fide filmmaker in the classroom, and there was no salary for such a position. Instead, she came up with the idea of requesting an audiovisual monitor, a staff position to run the ordering and projection of film prints in classes. Dean Robert Ryf gave the green light, and in 1970 Oxy hired photographer and documentarian Mildred “Chick” Strand—“an extraordinary, experimental ethnographic filmmaker,” Fox says.
Strand’s excellence became quickly apparent to the College, and as a full professor, she would run Oxy’s filmmaking program in its various iterations over the next 25 years. “She was such a brilliant person and she was so easy to get along with,” says Kinder, who left Oxy in 1980 to join USC as a professor of critical studies in the School of Cinematic Arts and returned to campus in March for an “Oxy and Emerging Media” panel hosted by MAC.
Through most of the 1970s and ’80s, Oxy offered film courses through the Speech and Drama Department. From 1988 until 2014, the program was part of the Art History and the Visual Arts Department, with the Media Arts & Culture moniker introduced in 2012. “There was a key moment where we decided to rename the program,” Fox says. “Our production instruction had gone digital; students were no longer working on celluloid film. And the objects that we were critically analyzing were not limited to what ‘film’ colloquially refers to, which is largely fictional cinema.
“In our digital moment, we’re addressing a wider, more complex array of media forms from fiction to documentary to social media to streaming video,” he adds. “Consequently, film and media studies felt like a misnomer, because it wasn’t addressing the breadth of what we’re actually engaging with students.”
Soon after the name change, it became apparent that MAC had outgrown its position as a program of the Art History and the Visual Arts Department and had developed strong ties with many other departments on campus as well, from Music and Theater to Politics and Biology. “It made more structural sense for us to become the hub for critical media studies and critical media practice at the College and connect out interdisciplinarily,” Fox says, and MAC became a standalone department in 2016.
“Fifteen years ago, when I started teaching here, I almost had to reassure parents that their student majoring in media wasn’t just going to be some folly,” Fox admits. “Now I think the case makes itself that media and its capacity to shape reality—for better and for worse—has become an inescapable part of all of our lives.”
As the media landscape has evolved, Oxy continues to fine-tune a liberal arts-fueled MAC curriculum that balances theory and practice, offering dual concentrations in media production and critical media.
“One of the things as a student that I really wished that we’d had more of was technical instruction,” says Diana Keeler ’09, who double majored in film and music at Oxy and returned in 2011 as Oxy’s manager of digital production. “So it’s great being back now, to provide that and keep up with what media is becoming. I think what really sets us apart is that mix of both critical media and production that a lot of schools don’t offer.”
MAC’s newest faculty member, Aleem Hossain, who joined the College last fall as an assistant professor of media production and digital storytelling, recalls being exposed “to a lot of different kinds of media and film as a kid. I grew up on the East Coast in a super diverse, worldly family. I fell in love with movies and my journey has been toward movies and the West ever since.”
At its core, MAC “is still a program that focuses on the study of and the making of films and other media,” says Hossain, who is currently in post-production on his first feature film, After We Leave, a sci-fi drama, and created an anti-bullying virtual reality project for Google that is being used in middle schools around the world. “With a liberal arts approach to making and studying film, we’re also exploring other forms of media like virtual reality and gaming. We can try to make it and study it with this idea of, ‘What is this thing? What could it do, what’s possible? What are the implications of it? What are the problems with it?’”
As he sees it, technological advances are simply tools that are used to tell stories and interpret our world: “I don’t think of the technology as a challenge, because it’s not the backbone of what we do, which is to think creatively about making media and analyzing media. It’s exciting to explore those big questions through new technology.”
In choosing Oxy’s film studies program over local heavyweights like USC and UCLA, “I knew that I wanted a liberal arts education and I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond,” says Moana Casanova ’08. “At USC, there’s a communication school, a theater school, and a film school, so I would’ve had to make that choice before I knew exactly what I wanted to do.” After taking the introductory Aesthetics of Cinema course in her first semester, “I immediately knew that I wanted to be a film major,” she notes. “Brody Fox was pivotal—he really helped guide me through my major. And he’s been a great person to keep in touch with as well as a professional.”
As manager of West Coast productions for HBO, Casanova and her team are responsible for the schedules and budget, as well as assembling the producing team that’s going to execute that show. “Every show is its own entity outside of HBO,” she explains, “and we manage that entity.”
“I took the approach at Occidental—and they totally fostered this—to do as much as I could to be a leader,” Casanova adds. “I took on internships and I worked in the department as the student production coordinator. I tried to get as much responsibility and experience as possible because I figured that would make my résumé stand out to a future employer.”
Occidental’s interdisciplinary approach to the liberal arts fulfilled Casanova’s expectations. “So while you’re taking a film production class you’re also taking critical theory, and then you’re also doing studio art and art history because all of the visual arts are part of this larger continuum,” she says.
Cindy Tang ’09 has parlayed her film and media studies major into a digital media career path that didn’t even exist when she enrolled at Oxy. As a senior social media manager at Amazon Studios, she leads, develops, and launches holistic social media strategies and campaigns for Amazon Prime original series such as The Grand Tour and The Expanse. Her role ranges from developing creative content to working directly with talent to managing partnerships and platform relationships.
“I had the opportunity to pursue undergraduate research during my junior year under Brody Fox, which opened up new definitions of ‘media’ to me, and demonstrated that I could work outside of the typical Hollywood filmmaking model,” says Tang. She spent several years as a production coordinator and office manager in Los Angeles before taking a job in San Francisco in 2012 as social media marketing manager of Rdio, a short-lived premium streaming service. Leaping into a relatively new field was both exciting and disquieting, she admits: “I began to feel discouraged and fearful that I had uprooted my life for what was still such a new, rapidly evolving, and ambiguous profession.
“Brody was once again a source of guidance and reassurance,” she says. “He reminded me that change—both in life and in industry—can be tumultuous, but that my intuition was right and my skills and experience would help me forge this new path. More than anything, I’m grateful that I came away from Oxy with a better sense of self.”
Joe Rohde ’77, an art major at Oxy and Walt Disney Imagineering’s executive designer and vice president of creative, traces his career arc to his “propensity in liberal arts education. I came to this job at Disney Imagineering with no other aptitudes. I am not the best model builder, illustrator, or designer. I have this other aptitude, which is critical thinking, lateral thinking, the ability to investigate and negotiate. That strength comes from Oxy.”
The goals of today’s diverse MAC students go a lot further than wanting to be the next Damien Chazelle, or even to work in traditional Hollywood, for that matter. “Their sense of where they can take their skills is actually impressively wide,” Hossain says. “They have a really compelling desire to master what they recognize as this awesome art form and then use it for different goals. On the first day, the very first thing I say to the students—but particularly the women and people of color—is this art form belongs to all of us.”
Rachel Goldfinger ’18 endorses the range of possibilities that a MAC major offers. “Media Arts & Culture doesn’t mean that you’re in film, but it doesn’t mean that you’re in academia necessarily. It could be that, but it could be kind of like user experience and user interface consulting. It can be anything that involves visual studies.
“I was taking Intro to Media Culture and a Gender and Technology course and an African-American Film course. I wasn’t focused on production in the beginning,” says Goldfinger, who went on create a 7-minute animated short for her senior comps project. “But what drew me in was the theory and critical studies.”
A couple of jobs while at Oxy—working for an agent for commercial directors and an internship with a TV and film production company—led Goldfinger to her current gig as an executive assistant for DBP Donut, a branded entertainment production house founded by multihyphenate talents Mark and Jay Duplass in Highland Park.
“Regardless of their major, Oxy encourages students to be malleable and diverse in interests,” she says. “It arms you with this vocabulary to talk to people who may come from a different focus or industry. You just have to ask the right questions to learn.”
Like many of his peers, Raphael Gonzalez ’19 has taken advantage of Oxy’s location, interning with five L.A.-based production companies including TriStar Pictures, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and George Clooney’s Smoke House Pictures. “There’s probably never been a better time to go to Oxy if you want to go into the film industry,” he says. “Besides Hollywood, a lot of very indie upstart corporations and companies are starting here in Eagle Rock and Highland Park. It’s a very happening place.”
Gonzalez grew up in Eagle Rock and was well acquainted with the College from an early age through his mother Denise Frost’s work as senior director of major gifts. By the time he enrolled at Oxy, “I was very hungry to get started on making films,” he says. “But on the more theoretical side, I really liked their notions about making films and the fact that anyone can do it, and with the increases in technology and the ability to make film easier, there’s no excuse for you not being able to do so.
“Brody met with me before I enrolled at Oxy and has been supportive ever since,” adds Gonzalez, who shot a 16mm short film in Prague during his junior semester abroad. “He allows a lot of time for one-on-one conversations—I was always going in saying, ‘What about this?’” He also cites non-tenure track assistant professor Garret Williams’ weekly three-hour screenplay class as “one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
As a critical media major within the MAC program, Rick Pfleeger ’18 developed an interest in gender and technology after taking a course his junior year with associate professor Allison de Fren, whose research in that field has produced a feature documentary (The Mechanical Bride), award-winning essays in science fiction studies, and a series of innovative critical video essays. “It was a glimpse into how we, as a society, are shaping social norms through the way that we construct and represent media,” he says.
After graduating, Pfleeger took “a dramatic shift away from the entertainment industry” and now works at Epic Systems Corp., the nation’s largest medical software company, as a technical solutions engineer. “A lot of people might look at MAC as a department and just think, ‘Oh, it’s for people who are interested in film.’ But it really encompasses a wide span of areas ranging from technology and software to production to writing within any media context.”
It’s not just MAC majors who come seeking guidance from the department. “As a liberal arts college, we have students from other majors such as diplomacy and world affairs,” Keeler says, “or they might be premed and want to make a website where people can go to find medical research that has informational videos and things like that. They come in to learn the skills that we offer.”
But with a budget that is quite limited compared with major university film programs in the area, the department is feeling the strain. “We don’t have a dedicated stage for students to shoot on, or a sound booth,” Keeler notes. “We only have so much support for equipment, so we’ll do replacement cameras every five years or so. We have one editing lab to support all of our majors.”
In managing the needs of an increasingly popular major, “We are strategic and vigilant in stretching our resources to their fullest potential,” Fox says. Next year bodes to be a busy year for MAC. With the return of de Fren from sabbatical and a teaching stint at NYU Shanghai offset by the departure of assistant professor Ari Laskin, the department will conduct two faculty searches: a replacement hire for Laskin in global and transnational media studies, and a new position—assistant professor of emerging media (such as virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive media, speculative design and world building, game studies and design, transmedia storytelling, and interactive and computational media forms).
Looking to the future, MAC faculty hope to add emerging media practices, sound studies and production, and digital social justice to the current curriculum. They envision a campus hub, or “collaboratory,” capable of fostering the growing range of interdisciplinary curricular partnerships.
In addition, the College is exploring ways to address space needs for both MAC and Music, envisioning new facilities that would facilitate the growing curricular and professional connections between media production, music production, and media scoring.
MAC has come a long way since Kinder went rogue and penned an essay on Antonioni in 1967, and it’s impossible to imagine what the department will look like half a century from now. “Because MAC is within all these new and developing fields, there’s a danger that it sounds like something weird and diffuse,” Hossain says. “At the end of the day, we’re educating the people who will think about and make film and other media for the next generation.”
“As long as they’re teaching students how to tell a good story, they’ll do great work—no matter what the technology,” Gonzalez says. “You have to find your voice, and Oxy is the place to do it.”
Gilstrap wrote “In Obama’s Footsteps” in the Winter magazine.
Photos by Max S. Gerber (portraits) and Marc Campos (classroom). Kinder and Strand photos courtesy Occidental College Special Collections