The Other Side of the Lens
The lights dim as people settle into their seats, munching on snacks to tide them over until dinner. A projector at the back of the room beams over the unsuspecting heads and confronts the screen that faces the crowd. With the press of a button, a movie begins.
No, this is not a description of the latest Hollywood blockbuster playing to sold-out crowds at commercial movie theaters. This describes a Monday afternoon screening for Professor Bliss Lim’s Introduction to Film and Media Studies class, taught every fall quarter as the threshold into the magic of film studies for young cinephiles of all majors.
Since 2001, Professor Lim has taught Film and Media Studies (FMS) at UC Irvine, but analyzing movies for a living was not always what she had in mind.
“I got my BA in English and comparative literature at the University of the Philippines,” said Lim. “While getting my master’s, I was also teaching and I noticed how hard it was for young people to connect to a European canon of literature. So I started gearing my work towards pop culture — what young people in the Philippines were watching on TV and at the movies. I understood that the popular was an arena of struggle and I wanted to learn more about it.”
This soon led Lim to moving to New York, a city she describes as “alive, polluted and dangerous,” and getting a doctorate in Cinema Studies at New York University.
Growing up in the Philippines, Lim watched many Hollywood films. She still harbored an unorthodox love for early Philippine cinema as well, unorthodox in that she was a little girl watching movies from the 1950s. This early love for old movies helped guide her teaching in the direction of trying to understand national cinema.
National cinema has two conflicting definitions, depending on which film scholar is talking. Lim’s studies attempt to navigate this dichotomy and apply it to her culture of the Philippines.
“On the one hand there are people who say national cinema are the movies made within a geographical location; there are also people who make the claim that it is not just what is being produced in the country but also what is popularly consumed,” said Lim. “Unfortunately, in the Philippines, the popularly consumed cinema is American cinema, instead of movies made in the Philippines.”
Her classes reflect this struggle to find balance, in particular the two classes she is teaching this winter quarter, Film and Media Theory and Philippine Cinema. Lim’s Film and Media Theory class deals with discussing the way time impacts film’s creation and its subsequent studies. Together, the discussions introduced in these courses are helping Lim write her next book, “Translating Time.”
“For students of film history, the fight against time is such a difficult battle,” Lim said.
Due to film’s ephemeral quality, with rapidly changing technology and techniques, there is a feeling of having to compete with time and advancements in order to study film properly. In many ways, however, Lim interprets this effort as one of film studies’ most valuable cultural rewards.
“Films are fascinating because they are an audio-visual document for the time that they are made. As they age, they become less about their fictional narratives and more about becoming unintentional documentation of the fantasies for their time,” said Lim. “This is what movie dreams looked like in a certain year and that is what is compelling to me.”
Next quarter, Lim is introducing a new class to the FMS department, called Queer Asian Cinemas. While the syllabus is still in the works, Lim already knows that this course will be a progressive and provocative exploration of how Asian movies portray the LGBTQ community.
She has three main objectives for the class: the battle between defining national cinema in the context of representing non-normative gender and sexual identities, how the global vocabulary for the LGBTQ community does not translate neatly into Asian languages, and finding queer identities within Buddhism.
Seeing as films serve as cultural documents, Lim hopes that by watching movies from a variety of Asian cultures, students in the class can better able understand the complexities of being queer in a non-American or European environment.
Lim’s unrelenting passion for cinema makes the seemingly simple pastime of watching a movie transform into a culturally and intellectually awakened experience. As she puts it, the magic behind movies is the “power of sound and language.” Unlike other artistic media, films combine the visual with the audio, allowing viewers to experience multiple sensory responses simultaneously.
Beyond history books, paintings or musical compositions, movies grant people the opportunity to look, listen and feel a certain way about a certain time and place.
Students may wonder what are the benefits of majoring in FMS at UCI, which is popularly known as a research university. Lim argues that this quality is what makes FMS such a “tremendous department.”
“The great gift of a research university is that you are able to be taught by active scholars, who are creating and publishing new material while in the classroom,” Lim said.
Connor Baily, a fourth-year FMS major, first took Lim’s Intro to Film and Media Studies class last fall as a requirement for his Engineering major. Unbeknownst to him during week one, FMS 85A would redirect his interests and studies completely.
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” said Baily. “I thought it was going to be just watching movies and writing an essay or two, and to a certain extent that was the case, but she made every screening and every lecture like a kind of religious experience.”
Baily went from casually enjoying screenings to quickly immersing himself in Lim’s world of cinephilia. Whether it was “The Birds” or “Singing in the Rain,” Baily and his classmates locked themselves into Lim’s lectures week after week.
“She’d walk up and down the stairs in the lecture hall and talk and engage with students. She made you want to pay attention,” Baily said.
Now Baily is a declared FMS major, making a short film this quarter for ZotFilm and pursuing a career in animation or storyboarding, all because of Lim.
When the lights in HIB 100 turn off and the vast lecture hall’s only light source is the projection of digital film onto a beige canvas screen, when students get to put away their phones and laptops for 90 minutes, when real life stops and fantastical documentation begins — this is the moment Lim cherishes class after class and what keeps students passionate about studying the art of cinema each quarter.