By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn July 5, 2011 at 12:00PM
I was lucky enough to take one course taught by Robert Sklar, the esteemed film historian and scholar who passed away over the weekend in an unexpected accident, but wish I could have taken many more. Sklar's most influential work, "Movie-Made America," first came out over thirty years ago but remains one of the most important texts for the study of American cinema. (After all, he helped invent the field.) Its thesis, that American film culture owed much to the lower class and the struggles against capitalist interests rather than efforts to sustain them, echoed the egalitarian nature of Sklar's writing: Although primarily an academic, he had the capacity to speak to movie lovers of all stripes. In doing so, he was essentially an activist, capable of making the inarguable case for taking movies seriously--not only as an art form, but a socio-economic force that helps us understand the world.
In his many writings, for numerous scholarly journals as well as Cineaste magazine, Sklar displayed an expert ability to engage in a dialogue with the power of movies to reflect cultural awareness (or react against it). He wrote an essay called "Oh Althusser!" about the need for history and theory to work in unison. Off the top of my head, I fondly recall his ability to bemoan the missed opportunities of blaxploitation while still giving the genre some credit for its representational energy. His essay on the "boy genius" myth of Orson Welles both dismantles that image while providing it with clear definition. These aren't seminal Sklar pieces as far as I know, but they stuck with me. Here's a first-rate obituary by Frances Guerin that gets at the essence of Sklar far better than I can. Her main point: Sklar laid down the intellectual bait, but let his students to do the grunt work. (UPDATE: Here are more Sklar tributes: Matt Singer at IFC and J. Hoberman for the Village Voice.)
Sklar also had the extraordinary ability to remain a generalist in a field that emphasizes the need for specialization. He could analyze the ideology driving Frank Capra's career with the same ease he brought to a lecture on American avant-garde. Possibly because he resisted sticking to one area and holding tight, Sklar managed to remain topical. In 2004, he wrote a still-relevant essay for Cinema Journal entitled "Does Film History Need a Crisis?" which, in addition to containing a sly Harry Potter reference in its first sentence, engages with the prospects of globalization and digital technologies as principal factors in the ability for movies to evolve. He concluded with a plea for the film studies community to maintain an open mind with respect to the execution of the discipline:
Conferences and journals in cinema studies tend to valorize separate, distinct monographic contributions, to the general neglect of commentary and debate. They need to do more to foster metahistoriographic interventions and useful exchanges of views…But no more than in the 1980s, this is not the time for whigish self-satisfaction about film historiography. It is the nature of the subject that there will never be such a time.
Sklar retired the year after I completed my bachelors degree at NYU's Department of Cinema Studies, but I managed to take the first part of his two-semester graduate course in American cinema (through 1960) as an undergraduate. Each lecture was an illuminating experience, partly because Sklar put together a top-notch screening program, but also because he managed to find the right balance between casual discussion and analysis. "You may feel like you've seen this film before," he said after showing us Brakhage's "Desistfilm." "In fact, you may feel like you made this film." And I think that was precisely why he chose to screen early Brakhage and not, say, "Dog Star Man." He wanted to make the artist relatable rather than force the class to dive right into a masterpiece we had to accept without question. When I finally saw "Dog Star Man," I got the sense of Brakhage's growth, the maturity of his vision.
I should mention that I didn't really know Sklar at all--or, rather, he didn't really know me. I said hello last year at the Orphan Film Symposium, and we had a very pleasant conversation, but I understand what it must be like, after decades of teaching, to run into yet another face in the crowd. Years earlier, however, Sklar provided me with first-rate advice on a paper I was developing about Capra's WWII-era "Why We Fight" series, a project I later parlayed into research on Leni Riefenstahl (which resulted in another paper that got me into graduate school). When I met with Professor Sklar in his office, he urged me to maintain an even-handed tone rather than merely blasting Capra for playing the propagandist. These were, after all, extremely well-made movies by someone well aware of the task at hand. We discussed Capra's effective breakdown of Nazi ideology in one installment of the series. Sklar suggested I deal with that particular episode in order to help me broaden my reading of the production. I didn't want to make the argument too stubborn. I made a joke about how the danger of building up my argument in some pompous fashion would give it an "Aryan" quality. He chuckled.
Maybe he was humoring me. It doesn't matter; we'll always have that moment.