Archives and Screenings: Doing Film Studies in New York

Getting accepted to Columbia University for an M.A in Film Studies is one of the most amazing things that have ever happened to me. But even though going to New York and Columbia was the end goal, I have a much clearer memory from the day I received the e-mail that told me I had been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship. In the haze of applications and forms and waiting in anticipation, it is that day that stands out. It was the day I was going home for Christmas break, and it was snowing heavily in Trondheim. It was also the first time it occurred to me that I might actually be moving to New York for my Master’s degree. Without the scholarship I would never have been able to go, and I am so grateful for receiving that opportunity.

My program was three semesters long, so for one and a half years I was living in the most amazing city; eating pizza slices, hanging out on Brooklyn rooftops, taking the subway and occasionally hailing a yellow cab. Not to mention the screening. I wanted to pursue my Master’s degree in New York in order to be closer to a vibrant film culture. However, I was never prepared for the extent of this. There were so many fantastic things happening; events, festivals, screenings and talks, that I couldn’t even keep track of it all. Sometimes it felt as though I could see any movie I wanted at any given time – somewhere in New York someone would be screening that film.

Best moments? Standing three feet from Leonardo DiCaprio and feeling my knees shake is definitely on my list (Yes, I am a serious student of film, but come on). Even better: discovering the card catalog at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts.

I did a lot of my research at the Library of Performing Arts, looking through film reviews and press releases. The library is located at the beautiful Lincoln Centre Plaza in Upper West Manhattan. For someone who is used to typing in key words and scrolling down pages of search results, the tactile experience of looking through a card catalogue is simply amazing. Copying the call numbers from the cards, waiting for the right folders to be brought up, and then, carefully, reading through the paper clippings in search of a glimpse of the past – doing archival research turned into something like a ritual for me.

The Film Studies program itself was incredibly work intensive and sometimes exhausting, but I’ve never learned as much as I did during my time at Columbia. The School of the Arts is a hub for creative talent, and the M.A. program in Film Studies nurtured a high level of creativity and academic curiosity. We were all encouraged to question and probe everything we would read and see, constantly aiming towards discovering a new angle and uncovering unexplored territory. This was without doubt very difficult – for instance, our first assignment was to try to come up with a new paradigm for the field of film studies – but the atmosphere allowed us to be quirky and sometimes outrageous in our ideas. Add to that the diversity of my class, with 16 students’ versatility in interests and backgrounds.

I wrote my thesis paper the third and last semester of the M.A. program. My thesis is called “What If It Had Been Three Women?” and is an exploration of the Norwegian feminist classic Wives by Anja Breien from 1975. The starting point was a well-known anecdote about how Breien had the idea for Wives after seeing Husbands for the second time. Husbands is a film from 1970, directed by John Cassavetes, that tells the story of three Long Island commuters who embark on an escape from their responsibilities. They drink, flirt, and go on a gambling trip to London. In short, they try to escape the meaninglessness of their organized lives in order to feel alive, and male, and free. Breien thought to herself, “what would happen if it were three women who left families behind in order to enjoy themselves?” This thought turned into Wives, to my mind one of the most interesting and fascinating films of Norwegian Cinema. Wives is both a funny and thought provoking feminist film, and a reminder of an important but often overlooked period in Norwegian film history that was characterized by possibilities for unconventionality and risk-taking.

In my thesis I aimed to show that Wives is more than just a version of Husbands, or the result of a gimmicky gender switch. I looked at the film texts and their production histories, and argued that Wives is a feminist challenge to Husbands on the level of narrative and in the way it was created and directed. There are a dozen difficult questions that arise from this kind of project, not least of which are connected to discussing women and film and feminism. My professors and peers were so important in finding my own voice within this framework, and they taught me to dare to be polemic and hard-hitting when necessary, while still retaining an openness and non-prescriptive stance towards questions of gender representation and gender roles.

At my Fulbright interview I was asked why Humanities mattered. I can’t really remember what I answered, but I do remember going out afterwards and not being completely satisfied with my answer – and not really knowing what better answer to give. As a Humanities student, our usefulness is constantly brought into question, and sometimes its hard not to question it as well. After studying at Columbia University, I feel confident in my usefulness. Moreover, I feel proud of studying cinema and cinema history – and I have the Fulbright Foundation to thank for that.