James Ross Kiefer
There is a grand feeling that accompanies us while watching a film. Whether having an intimate viewing with a TV or laptop, or choosing a more bombastic experience by visiting a cinema, there is just something about film that placates the mind. Professor and film scholar Dr. David Cook caught this feeling, and has since dedicated much of his life to the study of cinema.
Cook began his teaching career at his Purdue University in 1971, originally hired to teach courses in both English and film. He then went on to found the Film Studies Department at Emory University in the late 1980’s. After two decades at Emory he transitioned into UNCG’s Media Studies Department, with the role of Department Head in 2007. Here he teaches various film history courses, as well as classes that dissect notable directors. He is also credited with the Macropedia of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of “Film History.”
One thing evident when talking with Dr. Cook was his passion for film. “Most people don’t understand the way movies are put together, unless they take film courses. So understanding the way that a film is put together is a series of edited shots, which are taken one at a time, and not necessarily in chronological order. And then put together to represent a single continuous performance. Once I understood that for the first time, and I think I was like a sophomore in college and I wasn’t taking any film courses because there weren’t any film courses then, that realization so fascinated me that I never stopped studying how this process works. So I just started reading everything that I could get my hands on, in the library and where possible.”
What is perhaps most interesting about Dr. Cook is he doesn’t actually hold a degree in film.
“By the time I was in graduate school in the late 60’s, early 70’s, there still weren’t any (film) courses you could take as a college student. So I kind of made up my own course of study on the side,” says Cook. “By the time I graduated from graduate school, there were schools in the Mid-West, and of course always on the coast, UCLA and NYU, where you could take a PhD in Cinema Studies, but I wasn’t able to avail myself of that. I got a Phd in English Literature, but with this background I had developed on my own I was able to pass myself off as someone who could teach a film course.”
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia during the 1950’s, David remembers traveling to DC to see movies popular movies of the time. Citing that most small town theaters couldn’t afford to premiere movies at the time of their actual release, to see a film on its “first run” that one had to travel to a popular urban center because they were the only theaters able to afford the newly released works. He also attributes his interest of film to his parents.
“I learned from my parents that movies were an art form. They didn’t ever tell me that or teach me that specifically, but just by watching the way they responded to movies. They loved Alfred Hitchcock, so I saw most of his films from the 50’s in first run theaters, in downtown DC,” he recounts. “I saw ‘North by Northwest’ in 1959 on a huge screen, with magnetic-stereophonic sound blasting away.”
Looking towards the future of film, Cook also sees potential in some trends being experimented with in film today. “Now we’re in a situation where you can replicate almost anything that the mind of human beings can imagine by the virtue of CGI. One great effect of that is historical epics like Gladiator, which may or may not be a great film, become possible again in 2000 because it’s cost effective to recreate the past with CGI rather than practical effects.”
“Richard Wagner, the German composer, had this idea that opera would become what he a called a ‘total art drama.’ I’ve always thought that this would be an art form that subdued all the senses,” explains Cook. “Hearing, sight, possibly the olfactory senses, touch and all that, and I always thought that he was kind of forecasting what the cinema became. Early, early cinema, and cinema today, is kind of like that ‘total art drama’ that he imagined. We lack the olfactory sense and touch, but we do have digital 3D. I’m a real fan of 3D, it creates a very compelling representation of the real world and beyond.”
Dr. Cook’s textbook, “A History of Narrative Film,” just saw it’s fifth edition publication in March. Originally published in 1981, it was a culmination of a decade’s worth of research. He has also published “Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979” in 2002, which examines the economic and political climates that influencing filmmaking in the 1970’s.
Just hearing Cook talk was a captivating experience in itself. It was remarkable to see someone who had made their entire career by independent study, and had simultaneously paved a way for other curricula in film just by having a vibrant curiosity. It definitely makes me appreciate his presence at UNCG, and the high caliber of faculty we draw into our school.