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Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista

SUMMER 2002 • VOLUME 7, NUMBER 1

BY ANNE KEYSER

 
 
MARY NOBLE OURS
  Visiting Associate Professor of Film Studies Robin Blaetz, author of Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture.

Could Hollywood create a movie about Joan of Arc that would bolster support for the current war against terrorism? Visiting Associate Professor of Film Studies Robin Blaetz, who has analyzed cultural references to Joan of Arc, including every film about the fifteenth-century French heroine made or distributed in the United States, thinks the answer is yes. In Visions of the Maid: Joan of Arc in American Film and Culture (University Press of Virginia, 2001), Blaetz argues that the history and mythology of Joan of Arc have been used for five hundred years to send all sorts of social and political messages, especially during wartime.

Filmmakers, for example, called upon Joan of Arc during and after World War II both to recruit women to the war effort and to encourage them to abandon wartime jobs and return to their roles as full-time wives and mothers. "Women had to realize that while their efforts were necessary during the war, these new tasks were not meant to replace the duties of wife and mother," writes Blaetz, describing the female personas held up in advertisements, cartoons, posters, and films of the 1940s and 1950s. The traditional Joan of Arc, a short-lived war hero who sacrificed herself at the stake, was appropriate for this task, writes Blaetz, "because the freedom attained through a job had to be envisioned as temporary."

Blaetz calls her analysis of Joan of Arc in culture a "close reading" of the kinds of imagery she believes to be this century’s dominant text. "We live in an image culture," a culture dominated not by printed messages but by visual messages conveyed through television shows, movies, videos, commercials, Game Boys, and advertisements, the film scholar says. "There is a language being used to send those messages we’re seeing. If you don’t learn to read it, you’ll be manipulated by it."

Whether they’re taking Introduction to Film, History of Film, or a course in avant-garde films or documentaries, Blaetz’s students learn a language built on a vocabulary of light, arrangement of objects, sound, camera angles, editing patterns, set design, costume, and music. "Everyone interprets the images of film," Blaetz says. "Everyone hears their messages and experiences the feelings they evoke, but few can tell you how or why the images are seductive and magical." Her courses take students behind the scenes to reveal the tricks of the trade, teaching them to experience a film by "really seeing it."

"People love film," Blaetz says. "They’re so excited about the medium that they’re willing to work at learning its forms and developing critical opinions about it." High enrollments in Blaetz’s classes seem to prove her point, and she is impressed with her students. "Mount Holyoke students are extremely serious and attentive," says Blaetz, who can compare her students at the College with those she has taught over her nearly twenty-year career at New York University, Adelphi University, George Washington University, and Emory University. Blaetz’s own experiences as a student, and her time working as an au pair in Paris after graduating from Ohio University’s Honors College, led to her passion for film and other art forms.

A tutorial system at Ohio University allowed Blaetz to focus on the writings of Virginia Woolf while also exploring dance, theater, French, and other interests. Free for much of each day in Paris after completing her duties as an au pair, she spent many hours watching French films. Her moviegoing was just a pastime until she saw the work of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and was transfixed. "This is it! This is the language of my time," she thought. Immediate and complex, Godard’s films combined everything Blaetz loved--narrative, visual effects, movement, theater, and philosophy. She abandoned plans to study comparative literature and applied to New York University, where she focused on experimental, documentary, and European films, completing her doctoral degree in 1989. Her dissertation was on narrative technique, focusing on all the films ever made about Joan of Arc.

When she’s not writing, teaching, or watching film shoots in Los Angeles with her husband, a Hollywood production designer, Blaetz focuses on her favorite genre, experimental films. "The avant-garde is challenging; it uses images in unusual ways and, unlike Hollywood films, favors imagery over narrative," she says, but its films "stay with you," and are often "more about understanding than information." Blaetz is currently working on an anthology of feminist avant-garde filmmakers of the 1960s through the 1980s. She hopes that by teaching how to approach and "read" the language of the avant-garde, the book will help people move beyond the melodramas of the 1940s and enter a more exciting period and genre of feminist filmmaking. "It was the avant-garde filmmaking of the 1970s that brought film to the university as a serious subject of study," says Blaetz, who is striving to make the form more accessible through her work as a scholar and teacher. In her role as a passionate champion of avant-garde and other filmmaking genres, Blaetz calls to mind an array of images--shining armor, a white stallion, and, of course, an innovative and intelligent heroine. Who says life does not imitate art?

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