Monday, July 4, 2011

Robert Sklar (1936-2011). What I learnt

Bob Sklar at Orphans

As I reflect on the life and work of one of the founders of Cinema Studies as an academic discipline, I remember the uniqueness of his influence on me and my work. But I have to admit, as teachers go, Bob was not such a great pedagogue. His quiet, often reticent presentation of material was, at the time I sat in his classroom, often frustrating. I often used to wonder “why are we reading this?” or “what does he want us to see in this?” In what I would in time recognize as one of the most formative classes I took at NYU, in Bob Sklar’s historiography class we spent a semester reading Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Things. Simultaneously, each week we would see an American film made in 1974. That was it. There was some mention of Watergate, and odd references to its reverberations in American society. From time to time we would read an article or a book that took certain historiographical turns. As naive and supercilious NYU students we always knew better than the author of the article or book, and in his quiet way, Bob would smile and say something as brief as “it’s historically important for its place within the development of film history.” Of course, there was no explicit connection of dots in Bob’s classes. The point was that as a group, together or individually, we would discover connections that had not previously been realized. I may not have grasped the significance of those classes at the time, but in the years since, have never stopped thinking about the rich historiographical possibilities opened up by those juxtapositions.

I am not an Americanist, and never will be, but I took Bob’s classes because he was the one who wrote Movie-Made America. And I believed him when he wrote in his now canonical essay, “Oh Althusser!” that history and theory belonged together. Bob was an historian first and foremost, but he was smarter than the average historian. Because he knew about cinema, and he brought history to the study of the cinema for the first time. Bob always impressed on us the importance of having “an intervention” into whatever intellectual field we chose to work. Coming from the man who brought the writing of history together with the study of the cinema, he had reason to challenge us. And then in 1990 with the publication of Resisting Images, he and Charlie Musser’s collection changed the course of cinema history as Bob had begun it. Together they called for a theoretically inflected history of the cinema.

In the professionalized world of academia today, to get a job in the humanities, we have to have a pedagogical theory. And yet, one of my most influential teachers never really appeared to have a theory. Bob came into the classroom, introduced us to what he thought was interesting, often didn’t know how the different elements fit together —and indeed, they didn’t always—and in doing so he created a playing field on which learning and thinking became exciting.

We are now in another era, and one which, in so many ways, comes to a close with Bob’s death. There are many of us out there who carry his legacy in diverse and unexpected ways. In addition to everything else Bob passed on a love of and interest in American film that I for one have nurtured over the years. I would never look at a film by the likes of Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah, and the list goes on, in the same way again. Bob had impeccable taste in and an acute discernment of film. While the marriage of theory and history in my own work is founded on Bob’s thinking, he has a list of students, many of whom have gone on to have extraordinary careers, others whose work bears much a much more obvious stamp of Bob’s wisdom than mine. Interestingly, not one of them has replicated Bob’s work, but rather, they have all built reputations and careers on a perspective and approach to film history that is their own. Indeed, it is the uniqueness of even his less illustrious students’ work that reflect Bob’s enormous impact on cinema studies today: the inimitability of his “intervention” has been an example rather than a forumula for us to find our own intellectual positions as historians of the cinema.

Above all, his generosity as a thinker and his gentle good nature as a person were a joy to us all.

We will miss him


Jonathan said...

"... not such a great pedagogue," but better than all the other kinds, right? Because, as you say, Bob was so economic with his self-explanations and self-justifications – something of a rarity in our profession - I never knew this about his method, even though I moved increasingly toward it in the time my office was across the hall from his, and have recently been telling people that I think there's almost nothing else that really constitutes teaching worthy of the name "learning," at least not at the advanced level. Glad to know that – as with many things – I'm just following in big (yet modest) footsteps on this one. Thanks for Reflecting, Fx.

Frances Guerin said...

You are right, I should have clarified what I meant about his pedagogy. I work for an institution that pays great heed to student evaluation forms that ask a series of questions that set us up to fail: were the lectures adequately illustrated with ppt material? how often did you use the library? did you improve your writing skills by taking this course? And on it goes. I was thinking how poorly Bob would have done under similar scrutiny - a poor performance that clearly indicated his success as a teacher -

Jonathan said...

I didn't think there was anything unclear about what you said. Who is not suspicious of the idea of the "great teacher," when what this means is the ability to keep an audience entertained (and keep them from thinking) for an hour? No wonder he had you read French theory and American film from the early 1970s: that's when Barthes was reflecting on his pedagogy and its relation to theory and entertainment, too.

Talking2myselfagain said...

Frances, I hate getting old, and discovering what old friends and classmates have been up to all these years when death is the news. Bob was one of the good guys. I am saddened at the the thought that no one will be asked about their problematic. I'll be more articulate when I've time to process his loss's implications. Right now I just very sad.