Renowned Film Scholar Miriam Hansen Dies
By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 9, 2011 9:40PM
The Academic community lost a titan last week, when Miriam Hansen, the Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago, died after a long battle with cancer. Although she taught in the Department of English, it was the Committee on Cinema and Media Studies and the Film Studies Center, which she founded, that the beloved scholar's legacy will be most be most indelible. Hansen redrew the boundries of film scholarship and influenced a generation of students around the world.
It is no hyperbole to state that Hansen's work changed film changed the course of her academic discipline with her approaches to early cinema and her engagement with cinema as "vernacular modernism," influenced by her study of the Frankfurt School, which expanded the scope of film studies from the films themselves to embrace a focus on cinematic spectator and "opening up the essential study of such 'periphery texts' as fan magazines, gossip columns, movie reviews, and so on."
Hansen's Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film may just be the most definitive work on the subject, and is almost certainly the most-cited. Coming to the University of Chicago in 1990, she carved out a new program for the academic investigation of cinema and fashioned a rigorous but interdisciplinary venue where unparalleled work on early cinema, silent cinema and international cinema have been achieved, an institution resolutely in her image. She was also a well-liked teacher and mentor, noted as much for her boundless energy as for her brilliance. We enjoyed this note from blogger Cinetrix Pullquote on her sartorial influence: "I can't remember which of my classmates first made the observation that Professor Hansen's garb tended to complement that day's film, but it is true that her outfit to teach Johnny Guitar, say, echoed somehow the Teflon invincibility of Joan Crawford's white dress and the butchness of Vienna's otherwise masculine Western wear."
Chicago's academic life and the discipline of cinema studies are poorer for her loss. We can't add more than Film Studies For Free's Catherine Grant or her colleague Tom Gunning's moving tribute, but note that her achievements will live on.