“You have to be curious about movies,” says Todd Berliner, author of “Hollywood Aesthetic” and professor of film studies at UNCW. “I think that was it for me—about becoming a film studies scholar. Of course, I love movies—everybody loves movies, just about—but I was curious about them. I want to study them. I want to understand them.”
Berliner teaches as a professor of film studies, heading classes that explore film aesthetics and history. As the founding chair of UNCW’s Film Studies Department, he has worked for more than 15 years to inspire curiosity in future scholars and filmmakers. His most recent book, “Hollywood Aesthetic: Pleasure in American Cinema,” hit the shelves this year from Oxford University Press. On Thursday, April 6, Berliner presents “Bursting into Song in the Hollywood Musical,” to share his insights and celebrate the publication.
He first discovered his interest in film through Shakespeare. As a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at UC Berkeley, he studied Renaissance drama, but his passion for the subject waned. Out of frustration and boredom with his dissertation, he wrote an article about ‘70s cinema and “The Godfather: Part II.” “I showed it to my dissertation director,” Berliner tells, “and he says, ‘This is the best thing you’ve written.’”
Berliner dove head-first into film and dedicated the rest of his time at Berkeley to its studies. He landed a job at UNCW teaching English and film classes, and in 2002 he went to Provost John Cavanaugh to discuss creating the film studies major. Though he expressed doubt UNCW was ready, the provost told him to launch it anyway. The funding would come.
Clearly, the risk paid off. The film-studies major grew over the years to incorporate faculty of many disciplines and areas of expertise, including international cinema, production, history, and more. It aims to provide students with an interdisciplinary understanding of film.
“We [keep] one core value,” he explains. “You’re going to be a better filmmaker if you’ve studied the history of cinema, and you’re going to be a better film scholar if you’ve made movies. That integration of study and practice is something that makes our program very strong.”
Since founding the department, Berliner has written two books. His first—“Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema,” published by the University of Texas Press in 2010—explores innovative narrative styles that emerged in the 1970s. To follow up his debut publication, he aimed to capture a wider scope on Hollywood cinema in “Hollywood Aesthetic.” It investigates the ways Hollywood brings aesthetic pleasure to mass audiences.
“I wanted to write a book about Hollywood as an art form,” he tells. “The effort to appeal to a mass audience is not a flaw in Hollywood cinema, which is normally how it’s treated. It’s a design feature. . . . If you have an art form designed for a mass audience, but it’s still an art form, what kinds of pleasures is it going to offer and how it is going to do it?”
Beyond film analysis, Berliner tapped into his undergraduate studies in psychology to understand the science behind the experience of enjoying a movie. Many art scholars believe science is not intuitive enough to apply to art, and artistic studies should remain free of empirical processes. Berliner believes including psychology is an important part of understanding what makes movies enjoyable. The argument of “Hollywood Aesthetic” challenges many film scholars’ views on Hollywood cinema. Often, Hollywood movies are seen by scholars as economic ventures, rather than works worthy of artistic merit. Berliner disagrees.
“People think of Hollywood movies as passive entertainment,” Berliner says, “but when you look at people watching Hollywood movies, they are not passive—they’re exhilarated. I wanted to try to account for that.”
On April 6 Berliner will explore the history of the spontaneous song in movies—when characters begin singing and dancing seemingly without reason. The presentation begins at the convention’s birth in 1929, follows it through its post-1950s death, and continues onto modern iterations. Along with the discussion, snippets of film will be screened—from classics such as “Top Hat” and “42nd Street” to contemporary films like “La La Land.” Berliner hopes audiences will learn to appreciate how history and culture shape artistic conventions such as bursting into song. And, of course, he hopes they will enjoy celebrating musicals in film.
The presentation will occur at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 6, in King Hall Auditorium on UNCW’s campus. The event is free and open to the public.