An interview with incoming Undergraduate Coordinator, James Cahill

Cinema Studies will welcome a new Undergraduate Coordinator on July 3, 2018, Associate Professor James Cahill. Prof. Cahill has been with Cinema Studies since 2010, and specializes in French cinema, nonfiction and experimental cinemas, critical theory, and historiography. In 2018/19, he will be teaching CIN451H1S - Cinema and Exploration, and FCS310Y1Y - French Cinema. .

We asked Prof. Cahill to tell us a bit more about himself.


James Cahill


Did your interest in film study begin during your undergraduate studies?

It did, but in a somewhat indirect manner. I studied History and Philosophy as an undergraduate. In my third year I took a methodology seminar in History in which I wrote a seminar paper on film as a historical source and mode of history, and that exposed me to the fact that a ton of scholarship existed on the subject and really stoked my interests.

The most sustained way I learned and began to study films as an undergraduate was through the local film culture: I attended student film society screenings, and that exposed me to all kinds of films, including avant-garde shorts by Chick Strand, classics of animé, lots of political documentaries, kung-fu movies, and American indie fare (much of it forgettable). Plus, there was a fleabag theater in my neighbourhood that has $1 double features on Thursday night, so I often went to see things indiscriminately.

So, even though I didn’t get a formal education in Cinema Studies until graduate school, I did get a pretty good informal education that made me want to learn more. 


What was your favourite undergraduate course?

It’s hard to pick a favorite, and it’s been quite some time, but I really loved a course I took my first semester on “The Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution.” We read Fontenelle, Voltaire, Diderot, Olympe de Gouges, Sade, Robespierre, as well as great intellectual and cultural historians like Robert Danton and Lynn Hunt, a lot of material I find myself returning to all these years later in my research and thinking. I remember feeling so lucky that I actually got to be in a classroom studying such cool material. The professor—the extraordinary Nina Gelbart—made it feel so resonant and demanded so much of us: it was only many years later that I understood she taught undergraduate classes like graduate seminars, a model I have often adopted.    


Chick Strand
Soft Fiction (1979), directed by Chick Strand


Now that you have lived in Toronto for a while, which festivals or cinematic events do you recommend? 

Toronto is a fantastic city for cinemagoing.

  • Toronto International Film Festival - It seems unnecessary at this point to talk about TIFF, though I do hope students take advantage of the student pass if they have the resources to do so.
  • Wavelengths - I tend to gravitate toward the program and their year-long series.
  • Images Festival - I often try to attend at least one event at this experimental media festival that happens in April.
  • The Royal Cinema, CineCycle, Pleasure Dome - I get a kick out of the programming at The Royal Cinema, especially Sarah-Tai Black’s Black Gold series, as well as the film events at CineCycle and Pleasure Dome, which are almost always adventurous
  • Nitrate Picture Show - For the most dedicated cinema students, I definitely recommend visiting the annual Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which happens the first weekend in May. It is one of the few festivals on the planet where one can see projections of nitrate prints. Nitrate, as I’m sure many reading this know, was an early film stock that was discontinued due to being highly combustible. It includes many of the same ingredients as gun powder and was the source of many fatal fires. But, nitrate was also celebrated for its deep blacks, glistening silvers, and richly saturated colour palette.


    L'Atalante (1934)


    Please name three films that you think undergraduate film students should see.

    This is an impossible question. Part of an education in cinema should be about exposing oneself to as many traditions and forms of mediamaking as possible!

    But if you still insist on just three: Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), and Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994).     

    For me, nearly everything exciting about cinema passes through Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), which is less a film than a Surrealist monad, but I could also say the same thing about his Zéro de Conduite (1933) or his friend Jean Painlevé’s short film Le Vampire (1945), which was the film that convinced me to learn French and ultimately write my first book: Zoological Surrealism: The Nonhuman Cinema of Jean Painlevé (forthcoming, 2019).

    I am tempted to name films by the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, Max Linder, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Lois Weber, Sergei Eisenstein, Tod Browning, F. W. Murnau, Luis Buñuel, Fritz Lang, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Sacha Guitry, Esfir Shub, Nicole Védrès, Jacques Tourneur, Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Med Hondo, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Glauber Rocha, Alex Cox, Martin Arnold, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhangke, Claire Denis, Momoko Seto, or Lucrecia Martel, to name a few, that I think everybody should know and study.

    But really what matters is that students (and scholars at all levels) seek out films from different historical, aesthetic, and geographical contexts to expand their horizons and reset their compasses. There’s so much great filmmaking happening in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America, The Caribbean, India, as well as many fascinating and important films by First Nations filmmakers, from modern classics like Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance orvZacharakis Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, to exciting works by emerging filmmakers, like “Four Faces of the Moon” by the stop-motion animator Amanda Strong or Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.


    Your favourite Toronto-based film?

    Easy: Strange Brew (1983), the SCTV Hamlet adaptation, which was shot in Toronto, Etobicoke, and Scarborough. That’s an almost sacred text to me. I’m also partial to the teenage werewolf film, Ginger Snaps (2000), which was shot in Etobicoke, Brampton and Scarborough.


    Strange Brew
    Strange Brew (1983)


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