2. BLACK WIDOWS IN THE FILM STUDIES WEB (2 of 3)
FILM EDUCATION - DIALECTICAL UTOPIANISM?
The open sessions of the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Center for the Arts, chaired by Evan Alderson, were an inspiration to many departments to pursue programs of study that were broad and not subject to a authoritarian 'point of view' (ideology). We had a diverse arts faculty comprising a number of diverse interests and talents: Jef Wall (fine arts), Iris Garland and Santa Aloi (dance), Barry Truax (music), Jerry Barenholtz (computer graphics) and others. It was like an academic 'intermedia' program where cross-discipilinary interests were stimulated (reminding me of Vancouver's Intermedia Co-op of the 60's).
The film production and film studies programs that I spearheaded were conceived on the (anarchist) principle that 'dialectical' processes could successfully embrace contradictory elements (eg. marxism, fine-arts modernism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, experimental, political, avant-garde) and produced a 'synthesis' of views for the student that would be 'enlightening' rather than 'indoctrinating'. Towards this end, I forged a relationship with Michael Eliot-Hurst (marxian - gay film studies), co-taught a production curriculum with a broad range of independent filmmakers (Dave Rimmer, Tony Westman, George Koller, and others), we brought in guest filmmakers (Yvonne Rainer, James Benning, Peter Rose, and others for short-term residencies and sought to improve our teaching base both in number and by the innecessary inclusion of feminist film production and film studies perspectives.
This model, I earnestly believed, would be the closest we could come to 'dialectical utopianism' and I further believed that marxism, avant-gardism, and feminism would combine to produce a remarkable synthesis of supporting and progressive views. Our experiences ultimately proved the opposite.
In our efforts to increase the role of women's issues in film production studies, we hired a Resident Writer (from the English Department), Anne Cameron, to teach a new screenwriting course. This proved to be a disaster. Ms. Cameron chose to introduce a hostile anti-male and pro-lesbian bias into her course, chastising the male students for their presumed 'masturbatory' fantasies, coddling the female students (as an attempt to convert them to her lesbian philosophy - successful, at least on one occassion), and generally ignored the task of teaching screenwriting. She tried to get an film production ppointment for her girlfriend (Barbara Martineau). She was dismissed after one dismal semester. She published an attach in the Vancouver pressattacking what she called the 'old boys club' at SFU film, and I was forced to write a strong response to her arguments which I termed specious and defamatory, and self-serving. Dyke hostility to 'men', to 'patriarchy', to the 'phallic order', to just about anything 'male' was beginning to take root in Vancouver (quite known by now for its S&M 'dyke houses'), fueled also by the pornography-censorship issues that were looming and which threatened to divide the arts community along 'gender-sexual' lines) . Cameron chose then, and continues today, to proclaim herself as a champion of lesbian rights. Our experience was that this 'championing' was hegemonic, oppressive and counter progressive.
She was removed from the film program for stomping on every one else's rights to an education.
Feminist Film Production
Patricia Gruben was hired as a Visiting Assistant Professor to inject a feminist perspective into our film production curruculum. Although she came with limited experience in teaching, she was conversant with film production, the creator of some notable experimental-narrative films, she was interested in film studies, and she was hard working towards her repsonsibilities to film students.
Although I objected - see my remarks in letter of resignation - to the new prominence of commercial screenwriting ('PRAXIS' workshops) that Ms. Gruben was introducing along with B.C. Government assistance (or interference, as I perceived it to be), she has continued at SFU to develop and maintain the programs, preserve the experimental component, and proved resilient to a kind of 'feminist totalitarianism' that afflicted our film studies colleague (below).
Feminist Film Theory
After several attempts to hire a joint-appointment with Women's Studies (a full appointment being unavailable at the time) to fill our growing needs in Film Theory and Semiotics, and after being blocked by Women's Studies when our choice (Jacqueline Levitton) was initially made, we co-hired another visiting faculty position in Film Studies and brought Dr. Kaja Silverman on board to teach our new film theory class (which had been designed by Eliot-Hurst and Razutis and had been approved by the university curriculum committees).
The addition of Kaja Silverman brought an immediate change to the department and heightened its committment to film studies, scholarship, and growth. Many students became devoted to her. We had very frank and at times inflamatory colloquium exchanges where students and faculty could speak their minds on any issue, without consequence of penalty. Ms. Silverman also brought in her own agenda: to transform the department to a department of Film Theory determining what will be produced (film production). She also was open about her intentions to bring her husband, Dr. Michael Silverman, formerly her teacher at Univ. of Calif, Santa Barbara, then her thesis supervisor at Brown University, then the Dean at Brown University. The other faculty had no problems with wife and husband teams, so there was no opposition to Ms. Silverman's intentions.
I recall a conversation with our Film Theory and Women's Studies joint-appointment Kaja Silverman in which she emphatically requested that our film production and film studies cuirriculum be altered to feature 2 years of prescribed 'film theory' (a blend of 'feminist' 'psycho-analysis' (Mulvey, Penley, Williams, early Freud, Lacan, Heath) and semiotics (Metz) and various structural post-modern theories from the liberal left) BEFORE any film production could take place. I acceeded to the request only in making her course a required lower division course, but one that was treated as a pre-requisite to upper division film production and film minor requirements. I lament that decision to this day.
Professor Kaja Silverman's goals for 'theory to inform practice' was really to set film theory up in a pre-eminent position. She was a brilliant teacher, very articulate, exacting, and she conditioned her students with favorable grades (if they agreed with her) and penalized (ex-communicating) some students for disagreeing with her or showing an interest in such heresies as 'Yungian Psychology'. These practices were were documented in her own students' faculty evaluations, in complaints sent to me, in interviews with students that had 'received a D' for bringing Jungian psychology into their term papers, and these were the practice that set the stage for deep divisions in the department that followed.
THE TACTICS OF THE 'HOUSE OF THE WORD':
Professor Kaja Silverman, a joint appointment between Women's Studies and Film Studies, a proponent of feminist psychoanalytic-semiotics, with a PhD in 'Comparative Literature - Renaissance', whose stated goal was to bring her husband, Michael Silverman, a scholar in film studies, semiotics and a Dean at Brown University to SFU as perhaps the Director of the Center for the Arts, embarked on a very ambitious and ultimately successful program to 'remove all obstacles' from her plans:
Neutralizing Digital Technology in the 80's
She substituted her name (with my naive approval) on a digital high-tech visual arts center that I was proposing for SFU at the time (convincing me that it was 'best' for the chances with an otherwise hostile departmental administration...). This proposal went nowhere. In fact, the premise of going to 'digital disc' storage in the 80's was considered by some of my colleagues as 'impossible fiction'. But it's also obvious now to me that Silveman would have also had little interest in whether SFU developed a 'high-tech imaging' center, or investigated those technologies. Film theory did not rely on new technologies, except as 'storage'.
Years later many of the points of the high-tech center proposal were incorporated into a digital media center attempted by SFU, the success of which is unknown.
Silverman's declared agenda was to have a 'Contemporary Film Theory' center dominating all production courses. This was clear from the ads that the Center for the Arts put out on her behalf. (See the ad in Opsis, Vol. 1., No. 1.) and this was clear from discussions with her in 1982-3.
Neutralizing Avant-Garde Film Theory
In the early 80's I had conversations with Francoise Picard (Canada Council Film Officer) and my Department colleagues about SFU hosting a 'avant-garde film conference'. Timing and money was always unresolved. After I broached the subject to Kafa Silverman, she came back with a proposal for a 'Film Theory Conference' that would feature avant-garde film. Her suggestion was that this type of proposal would fare better in a academic environment, or at the Department meetings which featured outright acrimony between myself and the new Director of the Center for the Arts, Grant Strate.
Her proposal was successful and it allowed her to hijack the concept of an avant-garde conference and convert it into another installment of the yearly psychoanalytic-semiotic-Brechtian conferences named the 'Milwaukee Conference'. She was certainly in 'her glory' during the "New Narrative Film Conference' in Vancouver in 1982, along with her invited friends in the growing field of 'psychoanalytic film theory'.
The Saga of Opsis
During this exact time of conference preparation, Micael Eliot-Hurst, Tony Reif and myself (the instigator) has come together to create and publish the first issue of OPSIS - The Canadian Journal of Aavant-Garde and Political Cinema. We alsov created a 'Society for the Advancement of Critical Cinema" and were serious about publishing this journal to a broad academic and non-academic readership internationally.
Our stated aims were to present critical essays on avant-garde cinema, gay cinema, political cinema, film theory, social and cultural criticism, and our editorial board represented the plurality of interests (Marxist, Anarchist, Avant-Garde, Experimental Film - Art, Gay cinema) that would form the contents of this publication.
Our initial desires were not to present opposing view to psychoanalytic 'film theorists' attending the typically 'Milwaukee' or to anyone in the semiotic-psychoanalytic-Brechtian universe. Our pulications stated openess to all views was contained in the editorials by Eliot-Hurst and Reif. But the film conference, and my critique of it's position, and the falacies of psychoanalytic-film-theory, changed all that.
With the publication of issue one of Opsis, especially with the publication of Razutis' long critue of and against psychoanalytic-semiotic film studies and the hubris of the 'feminist psychoanalytic' ideas, the shit hit the fan.
Menage a Trois:
The magazine was denounced by Silverman and black-listed in Canada, the US, and Europe - black listed in centers correponding to the places where the participants of the conference had emanated from. Blacklisted in Milwaukee, Indiana, Illinois, Berkeley, San Barbara, Brown University, etc.
And the magazine, after issue two, folded.
Eliminating the Opposition
'Getting Rid of Opsis'
Kaja Silverman boasted of sending a letter across her film academic network urging everyone to 'blacklist Opsis' and work towards putting us out of business. I think it worked. We never received funding after our first volume was concluded. The rejection of our Canada Council grant was unexplained.
Opsis Editorial Statement - by Michael Ediot-Hurst, Al Razutis (Opsis, Vol. 1, No. 2/3)
'Getting Rid of Michael Eliot-Hurst'
Silverman also turned her attention to Michael Eliot-Hurst, who had been teaching ideas critical to her own and to Laura Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure' and interpretations of Hollywood films based on Freud's theory of adolescent voyeurism ('scopophilia'.)
Since Silverman could not go after me (I was a senior and tenured member of the department) she went after our gay Marxist film history lecturer, a cross appointment with Geography, my friend and colleague, my co-editor at Opsis, Michael Eliot-Hurst. And she went after him, in collusion with the new Director of the Center for the Arts (Grant Strate) on the day of my scheduled departure for a sabattical leave.
She encouraged one of her female students to lodge a complaint about the 'teaching of Michael Eliot-Hurst' in terms of his 'bias against psychoanalysis'. In spite of last minute interventions by students, and by me (I had delayed my departure), Eliot-Hurst was 'removed' from teaching the 'History and Aesthetics of Cinema' course, and his substitute, George Rosenberg, once a film theory student of Ms. Silverman's and a previous lecturer in Art History at another university, was chosen as a replacement. Simply, she succeeded in removing a position contrary to her own, and hijacked a large portion of film studies on her way to, presumably, hijack the rest.
In a letter by Kaja Silverman to the Department Chair of Women's Studies in 1984, the letter accidentally found in Ms. Silverman's filing cabinet, in a vacated room, and after her summer departure, I read her boast that now that she had 'got rid of Eliot-Hurst', "Razutis is next".
I showed this letter to a female student, and she was shocked.
Kaja's penchant for pointing out to me that there 'was no such thing as truth', or that I should read Machiavelli's "The Prince" (as I understood from her, a basic requirement in Northeastern faculty libraries), was mistakenly ignored by me since our 'falling out' over Opsis.
It seemed like 'theory' was now informing (on) 'practice', and as I contemplated the years of departmental struggles - in a department run to the ground by a seemingly alcoholic dance choreographer, now Center Director, Grant Strate - and as I contemplated 'explaining' to the Dean and Vice President Academic that there had been a 'terrible mistake' in recommending Silverman to be hired, and as I contemplated that really 'I didn't want to get old with these people', I decided to issue my resignation from my faculty appointment.
After issues notice, amd until the actual departure (in my case over a year), the ambitions of the junior faculty (Gruben, Smith, Brown) showed themselves in contempt for me and the previous goals of the deparment. Self-promotion and preservation were their dominant concerns and they all succeeded in eventual self promotion to tenured positions.
All it takes is a deep breath, a letter, and then one can sit back and watch the real sentiments bubble to the surface.
Contempt for the program; crippling the Department
And rather than enjoy the fruits of her conquests, or perhaps because Patricia Gruben, a newly appointed tenure-track Assistant Prof in production wouldn't yield to her games, Kaja Silverman departed (in the Fall of 1987, coinciding with my own departure) on an unauthorized absence...and set her sights on other institutions. No one to play with? Not for long.
The spiders in the web have multiplied
But now, instead of Freud and Lacan 'informing' film theories, instead of 'marxist deconstrution' of 'film text' we have a coast to coast clique of 'post modern anti-global' and 'hypertextual' leftists who sit smugly with their tenured appointments, departmental chairs, or presidencies of art colleges and 'know' who is 'with them' and who is not. These post-Silveran era teachers and curators are well connected and unanimous in their anti-american, anti-semitic, anti-global, and anti-democratic sentiments.
The major universities in the area (SFU, University of BC, University of Victoria) all have entrenched Women's Studies faculties. The Associate Dean of Fine Arts at Victoria, a film studies feminist Lianne McLarty, graduated from SFU with her PhD thesis bearing the telling title "The Limits of Dissatisfaction: Postmodernism, the Contemporary Horror Film and the ‘Problem' of the Feminine Other". We have rabid anti-male third world ex-patriate sociologists like Professor Thobani ranting against the US (a week after September 11) nationally and at UBC; we have President Ron Burnett (see next page) 'taking control' of Emily Carr College of Art and Design, crippling its artistic diversity and relevance in a changing technological environment with crony academic politics and personal vendettas.
We have an 'academic' network of cronies hiring each other and acting in mutual self-promotion in a manner that has reached epidemic proportions. Of course 'it works'; as if stamped with a template from Genesis, each professor 'begets' future professors, and tenure (once the means of ensuring academic freedom) now is the 'guarantor' of progressive ideological 'inbreeding' and mediocrity.
My daughter goes to school at Douglas College in Coquitlam. Her history professor is a anti-american leftist who prescribes a required reading list full of the rabid hatred of the US and deceptive leftism of Chomsky. Chomsky is everywhere now, from junior colleges to university programs, from demonstration slogans to documentaries on the 'simple man' (a well-paid tenured prof at MIT, touring and infecting the planet with his semiotic illness).
Silverman is at UC Berkeley, appropriately at the department of 'cinema rhetoric' with Linda Williams, another feminist who made her name rehashing Freud and Lacan. And Silverman's SFU student 'victims'? Though some were momentarily inspired by her teaching passion, most are now elsewhere (having thrown away their Metz texbooks immediately after finishing her required course), and most are in the film industry, making and working on a variety of works that are certainly not 'film theoretically informed'.
A student of Kaja wrote this (unsolicited) letter: 'Kaja the Black Widow'
LA Times article on present (2003) film-theory practices at the University of California: