An interview with CSI Associate Professor, Bart Testa

Cinema Studies Institute Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Bart Testa will begin his 37th year as an instructor at the University of Toronto this Fall. In 2018/19, he will be teaching CIN212H1F - Action/Spectacle, CIN353H1S - Issues in Film Authorship II, CIN376Y1Y - Chinese Cinemas, and his personal favourite, CIN310Y1Y - Avant-Garde and Experimental Film.

We asked him to tell us more about himself.

 

Pat Mills

 

How did you start working at U of T?

I came to U of T as a graduate student in 1971, then returned in 1975 after pursing graduate film studies in New York and became a TA for the introductory course. In 1981, the long-term senior tutor, Joe Medjuck took a sabbatical and I was invited to substitute for him. His appointment was for two full courses, Introduction to Film Study and the Directors course, which I taught. This was the start of my regular employment.

 

How has the study of film changed in the past 40 years?

There are three kinds of changes.

  • Technical – For years the primary format for classroom instruction was 16mm, with analysis conducted on a special projector. Videotape eventually displaced 16mm - a disaster since it could not be projected well. Fortunately, laser disks, then DVDs, then BluRays replaced tape in turn, and projectors greatly improved. This evolution might have saved Cinema Studies. It certainly made film analysis easier for instructors and for students writing papers.
  • Pedagogical – Cinema classes were, at first, small, and instruction was rather informal and discussion-based, and reading assignments were quite light. As classes grew and film study became more academic, formal lectures became more common, class discussion more supplementary. Reading assignments became heavier and textbooks like Film Art came into wide use.
  • Theoretical – The theoretical component in Cinema Studies expanded, in part because of movements in the field like film semiotics, psychoanalysis, feminist film theory, and their successors coursed through the field. Even more established topics, like the study of genres and author/directors became more theoretically inflected. This tendency has varied, for example, with the rise of digital media, but has never diminished.
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    What advice do you have for undergraduate students who are thinking of pursuing film study?

    My advice has always been the same: do your film studies within an enriched humanities program built around your film courses. Although Cinema Studies has grown into an academic discipline, it still bears interdisciplinary qualities. So, leaning about literature, fine arts, philosophy, social theory, etc. is very important. Follow your own interests, because even an enriched program can’t cover everything.

    My second piece of advice is that film students need to see many, many films of different kinds, well beyond what classes can offer. Student life is busy and demanding, but be sure to schedule time for film-viewing, be aware of special screenings, like those at TIFF Cinematheque.

    My third piece of advice is to watch films more slowly and attentively. This is especially true of films you are writing about. Do not be in a rush to form a snap interpretation.

     

    Is there a common mistake that undergraduate students make when it comes to film study?

    First of all, film students today are much more sophisticated than they used to be about some mistakes that were common in the past, like mistaking film criticism with the exercise of likes and dislikes. But the tendency to rush to secure interpretations remains the same. It is probably just human nature. Some students still believe that they can handle a film without the aid of critical/history/theortical work. Some students believe that critical/historical/theoretical work can substitute actually examining films closely. These two things need to be blended and balanced.

     

    You teach about a wide range of film genres. Which one is your favourite?

    I have a special affection for experimental cinema and count it as an amazing privilege to teach a full course on them (CIN310Y1Y - Avant-Garde and Experimental Film). The experimental film, when it is a strong film, can be returned to as an experience over and over again. In this way, they are like music. Few narrative films offer that repeated pleasure, though I have had reason to see many of them over and over for my job. And, I try to watch films with the students in class when I can.

    As for popular genres, I remain unduly attached to science fiction in all its variety (and lots of these films are dreck) and though I seem to have lost my taste for horror, I remain drawn to the “fantastic” variation, like The Innocents, Cat People, The Others, The Haunting. I think it is the slower pace and odd intimacy of these films.

     

    Your favourite films?

    My favourite director is Michelangelo Antonioni and my favourite of his films is The Red Desert. It thrilled me when I first saw it in an undergraduate film course and it is still compelling to me decades later. The other favourite is Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. For some reason, I saw it repeatedly on TV as a child just as I did Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player…always late on Sunday nights…but the Welles stayed with me more. I now have learned several ways that this film was the end of some complex things, but for years, it was just the strangeness beauty of it.

     

    The Red Desert
    The Red Desert (1964)

     

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