not in our stars, but in ourselves
As you may know, and as you may have a hard time believing, I actually studied film. Like, at two separate tertiary institutions. I got my B.A. in Literature, technically, but that’s just because the one film studies professor (Steven Bach, who was one of the best humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to know) was part of the lit faculty. I took just about every class he offered, and wrote my (laughable) senior thesis about silent film, and did an internship at TCM, and basically ate slept and breathed movies. After a few years away from academia (but not from cinephilia), I went to school in Australia for a master’s degree with a very cumbersome title – but it was basically a two-year course in how to take your cinephilia and apply it to a Real Job. Quite a few of my former classmates are now film festival organizers and video art curators and the like. My student visa expired before I was able to find any such Real Job myself, so I came back to America. Frankly, I despaired of ever having a chance to use either degree in any sort of practical setting. I’d just have to think about movies a lot, for no reason other than my own personal enjoyment. There are worse fates, sure, but it was a very expensive thing to apply to a hobby.
Fortunately, McFate smiled at me this year, and led me to a Real Job where my two degrees are actually doing me some good. Without getting into specifics (lest any of you random spambots reading this are actually internet creeps), I work as a program coordinator for a film studies major at a university. It’s a lot of admin work, some of which is decidedly unsexy, but that’s fine. It’s all to serve film academics and students. Plus, since I volunteered to create/maintain the social media for the program (because I’m one of The Young People, and I know how this marketing stuff works, sort of), I spend a lot of time in my office reading various articles and essays about various aspects of filmdom. It’s not bad for a day job.
I am not an ambitious person. I am not a determined person. All the same, I like to write. Nothing creative, nothing earth-shattering; just my dull little interpretations of this or that thing I’ve seen, heard, read, or observed. For a while, I was considering continuing on the academic path, and joining a Ph.D program – probably in Australia – but that is extremely unlikely, for several reasons. It would have afforded me a safe environment in which to write…well, something, anyway. Safe because I’d have people spurring me on, safe because I’d have all kinds of resources at my disposal, safe because it’s virtually impossible to fail at these kinds of things – it just takes longer. Academia is a cozy little womb. I assumed that, if that was no longer an option, I’d probably never really have a chance to write anything serious, ever.
The pang has persisted, however, and I recently read two things (on Tumblr, of all places) that have given me a little more hope. First, there’s this, from Kristen Sales. She’s a very sharp, very funny film critic/nerd, and someone asked her what her day job is, basically. Is it possible to get a job in film after going to film school? That kind of thing. She replied, characteristically candid:
if you wanna go to film school, do it. just remember: you won’t make any money. you’ll work really fucking hard but no one will take you seriously. if you’re going into production, you need to be social & network with everyone at parties, or don’t even bother. if you’re going into production, get an internship ASAP and create/collaborate on your own projects at the same time. if you’re going into theory, start writing now & try to get published somewhere online. regardless of whether you’re production or theory, get your own website & post your work there. be social on twitter, tumblr, facebook, etc. to build up your connections with other film people. if possible, move to a hub of film culture like NYC, LA, austin, chicago, etc. good luck!
There isn’t a lot of money in it, that’s for sure – once you’re out of the academic womb. And it can be harder for female film writers to succeed than male writers, as recently noted in that bastion of boys’ club cinema dweebs, Sight & Sound. But it’s possible to make yourself heard. It takes work, and probably some amount of knowledge/talent (unless you’re ridiculously pretty, in which case you can probably just put videos of yourself on YouTube and wait for Access Hollywood to call) – but it’s possible.
Second, there’s this, from Kendra Bean. She wrote a beautiful book called Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, a treasure trove of rare photographs and in-depth information about Lady Olivier. Someone on Tumblr asked if she had a hard time being taken seriously, since she’s a fairly young woman and she embarked on this project when she was still in film school herself. She replied:
For a long time, I feel like the reaction from people that I told about these interests was along the lines of “Oh, okay…that’s cool.” For the most part, everyone was supportive, even if they didn’t get it or share the same level of enthusiasm. The only sort of dismissiveness I received was from a professor at King’s College London when I was doing my MA in Film Studies. This person had been on sabbatical the whole time I was a student there but we met at the end of the year party. As we got into our conversation, I mentioned that I was hoping to publish a photography book. Without saying it in words, his reaction was “Lol, really? Yeah, okay.” I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously because I only had an MA.
I may get shy and feel slightly unconfident about this stuff sometimes, but I was wholly serious. I asked how one became a film historian and he said I had to do a Ph.D. ( I’d decided that was not the right path for me at the time). I said, “What if I don’t?” He then said, “Then you’re an ‘independent researcher.’” It was the tone that really put me off of the conversation. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to consider yourself a film historian. Kevin Brownlow is a film historian and he never got a Ph.D. David McCullough is a Pulitzer winner and he never got a degree in history. You can be a historian without being an academic. I think academia is great, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a palpable layer of snobbery that runs through it; a general “I write peer-reviewed papers instead of books that appeal to a wide audience so I’m smarter by default” kind of attitude. I don’t know if that’s true for other subjects (although I’d venture to guess it is), but I definitely noticed it in film studies at KCL. I’m not saying it applies to everyone – there were people at school who couldn’t have been more encouraging.
I was determined to prove anyone – teachers, publishers, anyone – who dismissed the idea of a book about Vivien wrong and I think I surprised people when it was actually published.
It’s heartening – it really is. It can be difficult to get the kind of thing I’d be interested in writing – something based mostly on historical analysis, with occasional Nabokovian flourishes of beauty and pain vis-à-vis the émigré life that was common to a great many filmmakers and stars of the 1920s and 1030s, my preferred era – to exist without the aegis of academia (read: a Ph.D). But it’s possible.
After the crisis of confidence, the writing will surely be a piece of cake. Right? Right. One insurmountable hurdle crossed, one to go.