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Neilson Professor: A Life at the Movies

Chris Holmlund has watched a lot of movies.

As the Arts and Sciences Excellence Professor of Film, Women’s Studies and French at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, it’s part of her job to take in a lot of film.

chris holmlund  

But for Holmlund, the 2013-14 Neilson Professor at Smith, watching movies goes beyond research and scholarship.

“I’ve always enjoyed movies,” she says, an appreciation that has not diminished even while studying the mechanics and construction of the products on screen. “There’s just something that has remained fascinating about film.”

As part of her Neilson Professorship, Holmlund gives three public lectures at Smith. She spoke on “Brand Arnold and Global Celebrity,” a look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career, in February. On March 3, she spoke about “Sylvester Stallone: Blockbusters, Misfires and Bombs,” coinciding with the release of her new book The Ultimate Stallone Reader: Sylvester Stallone as Star, Icon, Auteur. She will complete the Neilson Professor lecture series with a focus on actor John Cusack, “Navigating Genre, Tweaking Type: Romance, Cusack Style,” on Monday, April 7, at 5 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room.

While Holmlund’s Neilson lectures have centered around Hollywood’s A-list male leads and sometime-action stars (she admits, like many movie-goers, “I like watching things blow up”), much of her research explores the development of independent film since the 1970s. It was in that era, at the birth of the so-called Hollywood Renaissance, that a new kind of film began to emerge in the form of smaller-budget projects, featuring highly talented performers, writers and directors, and breaking new ground in roles for women and non-white actors.

Of course, the traditional Hollywood blockbuster machine has continued its ongoing mill of big-budget spectacles with bankable leads, Holmlund points out. But as major film studios recognized the potential profitability of independent films in the 1990s, they have incorporated their own independent studio arms, further advancing the genre’s development.

The result has been a broadening of the distribution of independent films and the demographic of film-going audiences, notes Holmlund. In particular, appetites have increased among older fans, many of whom prefer the human stories, thoughtful scripts and real characters typical of independent films.

“Independent film is, in general, more creative,” says Holmlund. “What you see, generally, is more emphasis on story, and different stories, in independent film.”

Another result has been an expansion of the crossover between studio-backed films and independent films, especially among acting talent. Holmlund points to George Clooney, for example, as an A-list Hollywood lead who regularly takes on indie roles. And the subject of her April lecture, John Cusack, who switches back and forth between genres, once quipped, “I do one for them, and one for me.”

Holmlund acknowledges, the background and funding of a given movie is not important to most fans as they take a seat to enjoy a film. But as a film scholar, “it’s important to think about the context of movies, the background,” she says.

Still, amid her years of film research and deconstruction, the pure movie fan remains.

“There are lots of reasons to go to a film,” she says. “I like seeing things blow up, as do lots of people. It’s that sheer thrill of cinema-going, the bigness of it right in front of you.”

Spring 2014

The William Allan Neilson Professorship is hosted by the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, which sponsors the Neilson/Kahn Seminar series, a cross-disciplinary faculty colloquium.

This year's Neilson/Kahn Seminar Fellows are:

Anna Botta, Italian Language & Literature

Barbara Kellum, Art

Lokeilani Kaimana, Film

Daniel Kramer, Theater

Anna Ward, Study of Women & Gender

Joel Westerdale, German

Miri Talmon, Jewish Studies

Frazer Ward, Art

Alexandra Keller, Film Studies

Amalie Hastie, English and Film and Media Studies, Amherst College

Robin Blaetz, Film Studies, Mt. Holyoke College

Lise Sanders, English Literature and Cultural Studies, Hampshire Colleg


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