FIAF Oral History: Robert Rosen - Film Culture Activist at UCLA

By Dimitriu, Christian | Journal of Film Preservation, April 2013 | Go to article overview

FIAF Oral History: Robert Rosen - Film Culture Activist at UCLA


Dimitriu, Christian, Journal of Film Preservation


Interviewer's note: Robert Rosen, born in 1940, is on educator, critic, preservationist, retired founding Director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and Dean Emeritus of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television in Los Angeles. Our conversation took place during the 68th FIAF Congress in Beijing, China, on 23 April 2012, within the framework of the FIAF Oral History Project. I am particularly grateful that we could combine our China agenda and find the time to remember his invaluable contribution to the development of the film archive movement from such an important and, in the 1970s, virtually unique perspective of a university-based archive. The interview transcript has been edited and adapted for publication with the approval of Robert Rosen. The illustrations come from my own collection, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, UCLA, and the China Film Archive.

Bob, it is a great surprise to meet you here, at the FIAF Congress in Beijing. I am particularly grateful that we could arrange for this conversation, which gives us the possibility to talk about FIAF's history and -maybe- define some elements to draw some conclusions about its future.

Let's start with some personal questions. What is your background?

On a personal level, my activities as a professional have been shaped to a significant degree by my early life growing up in a community of political and cultural radicals, where I learned the importance of social commitment. The Francisco Ferrer Colony in central New Jersey was named for the Spanish educator and anarchist executed by the Spanish government in 1909. In the 12 years I lived there as a child, I thought it was perfectly normal that my neighbors might be anarchists, socialists, communists, or counter-cultural advocates of every type -a vitally alive setting where workers (my father was a carpenter), artists, scientists, intellectuals, teachers, writers, the gainfully employed and the willfully unemployed, respected one another and engaged in ferocious debates about politics, culture, the arts, and just about everything else. It was in this setting where I learned the values of tolerance, the importance of ideas, and the virtues of risk-taking for the collective good. These were the qualities I tried to bring to my activities as university teacher, critic, and media archivist.

How did you first get involved with motion picture history and criticism?

I was trained to be a cultural and intellectual historian, and I taught both undergraduate and graduate courses at Columbia University in New York and later at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In 1971, Stuart Samuels, a colleague at Penn, proposed that we co-teach a course on the history of the movies, the first of its kind at any history department in the country. This seemed like an absolutely crazy idea: in part because I had absolutely no formal training in the area, and in part because teaching movies at a prestigious Ivy League school would be derided by the faculty as the intellectual equivalent of a course on Scrabble, certainly not something that serious academics would even consider doing if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Well, that was precisely the attraction for two young troublemakers. We did the course, and did it big: 500 students, 25 assistants, and a double bill five days a week, with live musical accompaniment for the silents. To learn the field ourselves we engaged in non-stop viewing, reading, and thinking about the movies, resulting in lectures that broke new ground in the field and helped to legitimate academic media studies across the country. Even more important, many of our students went on to become major innovators and leaders in the entertainment industry.

By now I had become a fervent convert to the cause of teaching and studying the movies, but had no idea where and how I could pursue it on a full-time basis. After a year of movie-viewing in France in 1974 and a contemplative trek into the Sahara, I was surprised and delighted to be invited to teach a single ten-week course at the UCLA Department of Film and Television. …

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