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Q&A with Alice Kelikian

Film studies in the age of YouTube

(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Shanahan
January 6, 2008

IN THE AGE of YouTube, college courses devoted to the study of film can seem pretty quaint. Why would students bother with the masterworks of, say, Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa when they could be sitting at a Mac making their very own viral videos? Forget David Lean, let's talk about lonelygirl15.

At Brandeis University, the person navigating this culture change is Alice Kelikian, chair of the film studies program. The daughter of Armenian immigrants - her father, Hampar Kelikian, was the surgeon who saved Bob Dole's right arm after World War II - Kelikian has an appealing old-school ardor for cinema. At 13, she went on her first date to see "Doctor Zhivago," and even now she attributes her love of movies to the many Saturday afternoons spent in a dark theater gazing up at Marcello Mastroianni.

But Kelikian knows that sitting in a theater surrounded by a mesmerized crowd isn't the way most people experience a movie anymore. Increasingly, the language of film is learned online, on television, and even in the back of a minivan, where children are more likely to while away the hours with a DVD than a book.

In response, Kelikian is expanding the inquiry. She's been chair of the program for two years, and while film purists continue to focus on aesthetics and theory, she's busy creating courses that address style, content, and the latest production techniques. Whenever possible, Kelikian also brings actors and directors into the classroom to speak for themselves.

"We missed the boat on photography - Brandeis has no program in photography - and there's an understanding that we don't want to lose the initiative on digital media," says Kelikian. "I want students to know what's happening."

IDEAS: Talk about your background and how you became interested in film.

KELIKIAN: I started out as premed at the University of Illinois, but I got bored with it by the second week. I decided to transfer and was in the first class of women at Princeton. There were fewer than 25 of us. In 1967, I went to Italy with my father and, there, I began an obsession with all things Italian. I saw Fellini there.

IDEAS: The man?

KELIKIAN: The man.

IDEAS: Was film a big part of your life growing up?

KELIKIAN: Initially, I only went to films when my father had American doctors over. Movies were a diversion from adult party life. The kids were shipped out when people who drank and smoked came over.

IDEAS: What is a movie that made an impression on you?

KELIKIAN: I wasn't supposed to see films that dealt with prostitution, but my parents really loved "Never on Sunday," so the first film I went to see when I had a say was "Never on Sunday," in which Melina Mercouri plays a freelance prostitute. "Butterfield 8" was another one I saw about a call girl.

IDEAS: But what was the movie that got you hooked on film?

KELIKIAN: Mario Monicelli's "The Organizer." I saw it when I was 16. It's about an itinerant professor who -

IDEAS: Is a prostitute?

KELIKIAN: No. But there is a prostitute in the film. The professor is a socialist who tries to start a labor strike in Turin.

IDEAS: What excited you about movies?

KELIKIAN: I was starstruck and, remember, my first language is Armenian and my family was very Armenian-centered. We played with Armenian kids and went to Sunday school, and when the focus wasn't on Armenian-ness, it was on becoming a surgeon. I scrubbed up with my father when I was 9 years old.

IDEAS: Who's the biggest movie star of Armenian descent?

KELIKIAN: Mike Connors from "Mannix."

IDEAS: That's pathetic.

KELIKIAN: I'm trying to think. There's Charles Aznavour, but he's primarily a singer, and Sylvie Vartan, but she's primarily a singer, too.

IDEAS: What's changed during your tenure as chair of film studies at Brandeis?

KELIKIAN: When the program started 13 years ago, the dominant medium in cinema was the motion picture. That remains, but new offshoots have emerged that speak the language of film, like serial cable drama and YouTube. Today, film studies has to include visual culture as a whole: photography, video, animation, even reality TV. The varieties of media, digital and otherwise, change endlessly, and we need to comprehend the revolution.

IDEAS: Is the cinema culture dead?

KELIKIAN: I would say so if you're talking about tent-pole studio films, which now derive from popular or children's literature, like "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Spider-Man," and "Harry Potter." In this country, the best movies being made are documentaries. In the past, the documentary was reportage, but now the techniques of fiction film are finding their way into the documentary genre.

IDEAS: Errol Morris is a friend of yours.

KELIKIAN: Yes, Errol and his wife have been friends for a long time. He has screened all of his films at Brandeis in rough-cut. I've seen his latest, "Standard Operating Procedure," and it's his best yet.

IDEAS: Who else have you had at Brandeis?

KELIKIAN: Eli Wallach. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" has a huge cult following. Also, Werner Herzog showed "Encounters at the End of the World." He denounced television and there he was telling the audience they had to watch the "Anna Nicole Show" to understand the Iraq war.

IDEAS: What does the future of film look like?

KELIKIAN: We're witnessing the advent of the short film, which is prospering thanks to the availability of global Internet access and inexpensive digital equipment. A language exists now that students can speak, not just interpret. These are very exciting, porous times for moving-picture media, with innovation seeping through in ways unimaginable five years ago.

IDEAS: Is that good?

KELIKIAN: I can't judge. It's what's happening. We have to embrace it. I don't know where the digital revolution is taking us, but it's something I want be part of.

IDEAS: Did your father have a favorite film?

KELIKIAN: "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" was one of his favorites because it spoke to scoliosis. Isn't that hilarious?

IDEAS: Where do you watch films these days? At home or in the theater?

KELIKIAN: At home.

IDEAS: What happened to that kid who discovered the magic of movies at the cinema?

KELIKIAN: That kid is older and she discovered the Criterion Collection on DVD. You have to embrace change.

Mark Shanahan is a member of the Globe staff.

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