It’s no wonder Professor of Film Sarah Kozloff is considered to be one of the best academics in the field. She’s written three critical go-to books in film studies, one, commissioned by the BFI Film Classics, entitled The Best Years of Our Lives, an analysis of the classic film, and scholarship on topics like the age of the Romantic Comedy and the beloved Hollywood Musical of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. A cinephile early in life, Kozloff could give a synopsis of Citizen Kane at age 12. She was later set on a career in film after enrolling in two film classes during her freshman year of college at Dartmouth. After working for a few years in the industry on a number of films, Kozloff became more interested in the fascinating ideas behind films that now inspire her courses, students and scholarship.
“I think films have the best impact when they affect your emotions deeply, which is a little bit of a contradiction to standard film theory which talks a lot about alienation, distancing and estrangement.I’m challenging some of these critical essays and saying ‘No.’ The way films really change society is through empathy and getting people to put their feet in someone else’s shoes,” Kozloff explained. This past fall, Kozloff co-taught a course with Professor of Psychology Dara Greenwood on emotional engagement with film where she further challenged the notions of alienation. The course surveyed many genres, referencing the horror film Silence of the Lambs and the melodrama Million Dollar Baby, for instance, to study how different genres affect indiviuals differently. “In terms of narrative and film techniques we spent a lot of time talking about close-ups and music and then from the psychology side we spent a lot of time talking about how different people react to individual films based on their personal experience and unique schema. We also talked about how different experiments would get at these questions,” she said. . It advanced the personal scholarship of Kozloff and Greenwood alike. Greenwood is now interested in the “co-viewing” experience of film and unpacking the mystery of why viewing experience changes based on with whom a film is viewed. Most people would agree that their viewing experience of a film is different with a romantic partner versus a parent or sibling, and it’s investigations like this that highlight film’s importance as a form of emotional engagement.
“I want films that help us move towards a more just society. There are certain films that I hate. I hate films that are really cynical and despairing and treat everything as a joke because there are crucial problems in the world. There are a lot of films that have been instrumental in changing people’s minds on these problems. I think the film Philadelphia was instrumental in helping America change their minds on homosexuality, and To Kill A Mockingbird worked the same way on different issues in the sixties,” Kozloff shared. Kozloff was able to tackle some of these social problems in the film seminar that she taught on women directors. In an industry dominated by white males, many powerful female directors are pushed under the radar and it’s a trend that’s stuck since the beginning of the silent era in Hollywood. Kozloff has found that many female directors are invested in grappling with social issues specific to both women and the world, reinforcing her belief that above all films are meant to be “felt.” “There are hundreds of women directors making films on women’s lives. These films talk about subjects like rape, lesbianism, sexual harassment, employment discrimination and they are the films that I want to privilege and that I want to teach,” Kozloff explained. The class looked at some of the most influential female directors of the 21st century, such as Katherine Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Julie Dash.
According to Kozloff, prominent female directors worked in the industry since the Silent era and many are unaware of the fact because women weren’t privileged and held to the same status as male directors like D.W. Griffith. Women were forced out of the industry during the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age and only reappeared significantly aftersecond wave feminism. “There are plenty of encyclopedias on women directors but there is so little good literature about how these films are different and how audiences react to them and how they can change the world. Also, there isn’t literature that interrogates why so many women get a chance to make one film and then don’t get a chance to make the 20 and 30 that the male directors do. I think it’s because Hollywood believes that audiences won’t go to see films about women and that they’ll only go to see films with white straight male protagonists,” Kozloff shared, previewing a book she hopes to write on female directors in the near future. It is often the case that women will go to see films created by and for men, and this practice is not reciprocated by men, who shy away from most films centered around the lives of women. However, Kozloff remains hopeful. “Society is changing everyday and I think that men will eventually go to see films about women. The men in my seminar last semester were very excited about all these new films directed by women that they’d never seen, so if they’re just exposed to the films who knows what can happen.”