Centre of Gravity: An Interview with Corinn Columpar

July 31, 2014

By: Adam Nayman

Earlier in June 2014, the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto appointed professor Corinn Columpar as its new Director – a position held previously by several major figures in the Toronto film landscape, including former TIFF programmer Kay Armatage. The CSI has a deep connection to the Toronto Film Critics Association; in addition to myself, several of our members are alumni of the undergraduate and graduate film studies departments, or have taken certain courses as part of their interdisciplinary studies, or else have lectured at the CSI. There is a misconception that the work of “popular” film critics, with its emphasis on evaluation and aesthetic judgments, sits at odds with that of academics. In the interest of bridging that gap, it seemed like a fine idea to invite Corinn to do an interview on the Toronto Film Critics Association website.

Professor Corinn Columpar
Professor Corinn Columpar.

Adam Nayman: Can you talk a bit about what brought you to Toronto in the first place – was it a case of the university’s reputation or Toronto being regarded as a kind of cinephilic place? It seems like a relevant question since when you came to Toronto, the university didn’t have an MA or a PhD programme.

Corinn Columpar: I started at U of T eleven years ago, in 2003. Prior to that I was an assistant professor of film studies and women’s studies at a small state school in New Hampshire called Keene State College. I applied to the job at U of T and then decided to come here for a whole host of reasons. I wanted to be part of a larger and well-established cinema studies program. I wanted to trade in my pastoral environs for something more urban and active, where I wouldn’t have to drive two hours to a see a foreign film. And I wanted respite from a political situation that was quickly going from bad to worse with the war in Iraq. On all counts this job has delivered. I am really happy and proud to be a part of such a smart and interesting group of colleagues, both inside and outside of U of T.

To what extent do you think that the Cinema Studies Institute does — and on top of that, should — interact with film institutions in Toronto? I ask because I’ve heard people say it’s a separation of church and state: that academia has to remain apart from industry or exhibition. 

The CSI has connections to many film institutions in the city, and those connections are absolutely vital to the work we do. Some of the connections it has are formalized. For example, we have internship courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels that provide our students with the chance to integrate the critical work they do in the classroom with experience in anything from programming and production to curation and publishing. Moreover, we collaborate with TIFF on any number of events, including those associated with the Higher Learning Program, and last year, we had the excellent fortune to welcome TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey into our fold as he taught a fourth year course that was greeted with wild enthusiasm by our students. Other connections, in contrast, are more informal. The fact that Innis Town Hall is our centre of gravity on the U of T campus puts us and our students in direct contact with so many festivals and events, including Hot Docs, Reel Asian, and Nuit Blanche. It is simply impossible to work or study at the CSI and not feel surrounded by a local film culture that takes many different institutional forms.

Canadians are always very uptight about whether we’re spending enough time looking at “our” cinema; the CSI has its share of Canadian-specific courses (and the others courses have Canadian content) but I wonder if the purpose of a cinema studies institute is also to look farther (and farther back) than these sorts of competitive issues.

At U of T, we consider engagement with Canadian cinema to be one priority among many others. As you already noted, we do offer courses dedicated to different aspects of Canadian cinema, but, just as no national cinema is forged in isolation, our curriculum depends heavily on the examination of phenomena that are transnational and dialogic in nature, be they related to film form, cultural politics, the political economy, technology, or whatever else. As a result, what you see in our curriculum is a very capacious understanding of and interest in film and media cultures, one that may be inflected by our location but is not determined by it.

Does becoming the director mean you will teach less yourself? Is there a particular course you’ve developed at U of T that you think has worked especially well? Or been informed largely by Toronto or the University itself instead of simply being carried over from past work?

I will teach less, as that comes with the territory of being Director, which carries with it so many administrative responsibilities. This is definitely something I lament since teaching is my favorite part of being an academic, but I take reassurance in the fact that I will continue to teach some of my favorite and most successful courses, such as Feminist Approaches to the Cinema, The Textuality of the Cinematic Body, and American Independent Cinema. While I don’t think teaching these courses in Toronto (as opposed to, say, New Hampshire) has affected their content all that much, it has affected some of the assumptions animating them, especially on the part of the students. What I mean is that I don’t have to work quite as hard here debunking the idea that Hollywood cinema is the norm or defamiliarizing its conventional forms and practices. Sure, Canadian students are just as inundated with blockbusters as are American students, but there is often at least an awareness of other paradigms, other traditions, other artistic possibilities. And given that I tend to teach material related to counter-cinemas of various sorts, this is really helpful.

How much does the CSI keep up with past or affiliated students? I know that a lot of alumni have done really good things in the last few years in terms of scholarly work, but there are also people like Sarah Gadon who’ve gotten quite famous (and been good about talking up Innis College/CSI when asked).

Sarah Gadon.
Sarah Gadon.

We try to keep up with our alumni, and inevitably we encounter them regularly since they are all over the city (and beyond) contributing to film and media production, distribution, exhibition, and criticism. What I appreciate most about these encounters is that when former students narrate their experience of U of T to me, they never seem to regard it as a hoop-jumping exercise. Instead they often attest to how fundamental their coursework has been in shaping the way they approach their professional lives now. That is really gratifying!

How much do you get to attend TIFF? My memory is: not much, as the festival hits right at beginning of term. If not TIFF, do you have other favourite festivals in the city? imagineNATIVE? Have you been to Images much over the years?

I have attended TIFF quite regularly over the years despite the fact that the timing is terrible for those of us who start the school year on the very week that the festival occurs. I try to see anywhere from seven to ten films each year, ideally ones that are unlikely to play widely again and are related to my research interests. As for other film festivals, I am a big fan of imagineNative and Hot Docs, and I always try to fit in a few Images events every year.

How aware are you of films being made in the city by young directors? There have been a number of fine micro-budget productions like Tower, The Oxbow Cure, Ingrid Veninger’s fims, and others. And if not that cohort, are there any Canadian films you have liked in the last few years? 

I am not as aware of such productions as I‘d like, but my favorite Canadian film of recent years is a local one (although not of the microbudget variety), and that is Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell. In her review of the film for the BFI, my good friend and collaborator Sophie Mayer astutely links Stories We Tell to the feminist classic Daughter Rite (1978) by Michelle Citron, and what I love about this connection is the fact that it perfectly crystallizes how experimental and powerful Polley’s examination of female identity – both hers and that of her elusive mother – is.

Sarah Polley's "Stories We Tell."
Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell.”

If you could program a retrospective on any filmmaker at the cinematheque of your choice, who would it be? Don’t worry if it’s a well-known figure but more power to you if it’s not.

Where to start? John Cassavetes, Yvonne Rainer, Sally Potter, F. W Murnau, Todd Haynes, Tracy Moffatt, Frederick Wiseman, Agnès Varda, Carlos Saura, Hiroshi Teshigahara – some of these have been done already, others haven’t; some are well-known, other less so. But every one of them has a career marked by ongoing exploration and experimentation, by a refusal to settle into a pattern and repeat him/herself, and I would love the opportunity to watch all that unfold.

You mentioned Sally Potter, so I was wondering what you thought about Ginger and Rosa (2012)? It’s a pretty rich film that hasn’t picked up a lot of critical traction. I think that Potter gets treated poorly sometimes by reviewers.

I like that you framed this question in terms of critical responses to Ginger and Rosa (or the lack thereof) since that is one of the things I remember most acutely about my experience of it.  I saw it at TIFF two years ago.  I had been greatly anticipating it, as I do with every new release from Potter, and it had absolutely lived up to my expectations.  While still in that period of post-screening afterglow, I read Peter Debruge’s review of the film for Variety and was stunned.  He started the review by labeling it “personal to a fault” and ended it with a condescending dismissal of not only Potter but also the female audiences that he imagined would take pleasure in the movie, which he clearly hated.  That review then immediately made me think of Anthony Lane’s contemptuous assessment of Potter’s earlier film Yes, which he wrote in verse, to boot, in order to mimic and in turn lampoon Yes‘s own construction.  What I don’t understand about these reviews is how much animus fuels them: why does Potter inspire such indignance on the part of these – and other – (male) critics?  Why is her work, which is always marked by its political engagement, experimentation, and ambition, so offensive?  I am certainly not suggesting that everyone should be a fan like me, but there is something else going on here that has a lot to do, I suspect, with certain reviewers feeling excluded from her work in some way, as it if wasn’t necessarily created for them, and then feeling hostility in response.  At any rate, I think Ginger and Rosa is a fascinating exploration of something that doesn’t get much air time in a movie as conventional  – surprisingly conventional, for Potter – as it is: the way people’s political commitments shape not only their ideas, but also their actions toward the world at large and toward the individuals in their daily lives.  In other words, I read it as a film about the relationship between politics and ethics, something that a number of thinkers, including, for example, Judith Butler, have been attending to carefully in recent years.  On top of that, it is beautifully conceived and realized with a central performance (by Elle Fanning) that is simply mesmerizing.  A pretty rich movie, indeed.

Our thanks to Corinn for answering these questions in the middle of her very busy schedule.