Studying the silver screen | Work of Arts
Studying the silver screen | Work of Arts

Studying the silver screen

A self-taught film buff, professor Bill Beard helped create UAlberta's Film Studies program more than three decades ago.

When Bill Beard was a student in London in the early 1970s, working on his PhD in English Literature, he spent “an awful lot of time” watching movies at the National Film Theatre – 300 or 400 shows a year by his estimate.

Bill Beard no textI was fascinated by the plasticity of the visual image and its basis in time,” he says. “In film, you’re time-based in the same way that you are in theatre, but there is an infinite variety of points of view: close ups, long shots, deep focus, shallow focus, different kinds of lighting, and so on, and moving camera, which there is no equivalent of anywhere outside of cinema.”

He didn’t know it then, but the hours spent indulging his passion for motion pictures served a greater purpose: preparing him for his life’s work as creator and stalwart of the U of A’s film studies program.

“I’ve been here since before the beginning,” says Beard, who originally joined the U of A in the mid-70s as a sessional lecturer in the English department. At the time, film didn’t exist as a discipline at postsecondary institutions, but that soon began to change.

Beard saw an opportunity to turn his self-education into a full-fledged career.

When several departments in the Faculty of Arts expressed interest in developing a film course, Beard saw an opportunity to turn his self-education into a full-fledged career. He designed and taught the first six-credit film studies course in 1978, and for the first few years also served as “chief cook and bottle washer” – managing the budget, booking the films and doing the projection.

“I have to say that the first years I was teaching were probably the greatest ever,” he recalls. “It was exciting for me, and I think students were excited also at the idea of being able to do this. The culture surrounding film was not anywhere near as widespread or as sophisticated as it is today.”

By 1990 it was clear that film studies was here to stay, and it became a degree-granting Arts program, with Beard and a colleague designing the curriculum. Today, the program – which merged with English in 2003 to become the Department of English & Film Studies – has four faculty members and approximately 50 majors and 60 minors.

More than three decades later, Beard still feels energized by the films he’s teaching and his interaction with students. “I need to feel it as a very active process of getting students engaged, and trying to draw them towards certain kinds of viewpoints and get them to deliver their own viewpoints,” he says. “In many cases they’re terrific and can shed different lights on things.”

More than three decades later, Beard still feels energized by the films he’s teaching and his interaction with students.

Of course, the students Beard teaches today are much more knowledgeable about film than the ones who first walked into his classroom 36 years ago. “The challenge nowadays is to try and ‘dumb’ these people down, in a sense – to try and recover some kind of freshness of meaning, particularly for older films,” he says.

“We’re in an age of hyper-sophistication, and I would say even decadence, in film culture and in film spectatorship. Whether we know it or not, we miss a certain kind of naiveté, or directness, or freshness of apprehension with respect to movies.”

For example, one of Beard’s challenges every year is to convince students in his film history course that a movie made in the 1930s can be just as great, or possibly even better, than a modern-day movie. “That can be an uphill climb,” he says.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone being more ideally suited to the task than Beard, whose enduring fascination with film is evident.

“Trying to take the experience of watching a movie and, first of all, to heighten it, to make it more sensitive, to make it more aware…to start trying to put into words the feeling that is created by a certain handling of décor, what kinds of moods exist there, what kinds of dynamic elements might be in a camera movement, is a challenge,” he says. “I’m still at this many years later.”

When it comes to his research, Beard has always been drawn to auteurs – directors whose strong personal style and control over the filmmaking process leaves their unique mark on all the work they produce. He has published books about Canadian directors David Cronenberg (The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg) and Guy Maddin (Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin), and about Clint Eastwood (Persistence of Double Vision: Essays on Clint Eastwood).

When it comes to his research, Beard has always been drawn to auteurs.

His next research project, which he hopes to work on this summer, will focus on the Canadian television series Durham County, a drama about a homicide detective that aired from 2007-10.

“It takes all kinds of genre expectations and does very interesting and non-intuitive things with them. You’re constantly required to think about things in a different way or to reflect a bit on what your assumptions were in the first place because they’ve just been contradicted,” he says. “I think it’s one of the best things ever made for English-Canadian television.”

Related Links:

Department of English & Film Studies
http://www.efs.ualberta.ca/

Story first appeared as a web banner story on the Faculty of Arts website (from March 2014-May 2014)


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