When Old Movies Turn into a Career
In conversation with Jake Johnson, Film Studies Major and EUReCA student researcher.Sep 30, 2022
Jake Johnson is a Film Studies major and EURēCA! Fellow working with English Professor, Dr. Andrew Scahill. Here Jake talks with EURēCA! Ambassador Jacob Torrens about thinking outside the box and following your passion when choosing a research topic.
All right, let’s start with what is your major at CU Denver and how did you choose it?
My major is Film Studies, which is a tiny little major that’s kind of sandwiched away in the English Department. I came to CU Denver thinking I would be a Film & Television major in the College of Arts & Media, but through a chance encounter with a faculty member, I ended up learning about Film Studies and it was right up my alley. I was interested in film, but not necessarily production, more of the critical and theoretical side and getting people engaged with films.
That is super cool. So, is this a new interest or something that existed before you came to college?
"I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember and some of my earliest memories are watching old movies with my dad and grandpa, it’s always been a thing in my family."
I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember and some of my earliest memories are watching old movies with my dad and grandpa, it’s always been a thing in my family. And then high school really allowed my love of film to fully develop. We would do studies on film sometimes in English class and then a buddy of mine started a film club, which I was a part of. That’s where film switched from a hobby to a passion. What’s been newfound at college is learning the applicability of film studies and that I can actually shape a career around this.
Tell me more about your research and how you got into it.
For the past couple years, I’ve been working with Dr. Andrew Scahill, an Associate Professor in the English Department and helping him develop a manuscript; the working title is “Washington DC: The Movie”. When films are set in famous American cities there are certain associations that come with those locations that can affect the mood or perception of the film, its characters, etc. and also impact how we feel about the city itself. I’m analyzing what those associations are for Washington, DC. By analyzing past movies set there I can ask like, what’s the effect of showing a famous monument in a certain scene of a particular movie? Do movies set in Washington DC have a negative outlook on Washington politics? Do they criticize it or not? Do they love it? Do they hype up one kind of American politics? What are the characters like in these movies? Are they in love with Washington? Or are they kind of like outsiders?
Our research is asking these questions and compiling all of the ways our nation’s capital is portrayed in film. Looking at different aspects of the city, both figurative and literal, and understanding why it is so iconic to the United States, and by extension, to an entire subset of films. I do the research to find the articles and movies set in Washington DC and document how the city is portrayed.
What are some of the skills you’ve learned from research?
By far the biggest skill that I have learned throughout this process is independent learning and critical research. Because of the pandemic this has been an entirely remote position, and my mentor and I have had to learn to navigate that together. We meet once a week so I can show him what I’ve been working on and talk about next steps, but it’s mostly been me on a self-driven schedule, doing the research, watching films, taking notes, etc. I get to set my own pace, and it's really been a challenge to not procrastinate on those things. But it's really helped me develop balance, not only how much work I can do, but when I can do it, and how it relates to my other classes and my other schedule.
"It’s aggressively getting into the meat of the research and taking it one step further than you ever thought you would. Taking the skills I’ve learned in class and honing them to become a critical thinker."
The other thing is critical research. The skills I've developed as I've had to comb through library databases and look at academic articles and journals. I've had to use the skills I've learned in my film studies classes, to critically analyze movies. Like if I watch an iconic movie like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, I have to look not just at the movie, but like who is the character of Mr. Smith? What’s his ideology and how does that relate to the larger ideology of Washington, DC? To the ideology of the movie as a whole? I’ll go into a deep dive, combing through databases to understand what’s been said about this movie previously and gather information we can draw on to make a certain argument. It’s aggressively getting into the meat of the research and taking it one step further than you ever thought you would. Taking the skills I’ve learned in class and honing them to become a critical thinker.
Yeah, definitely, that was my experience in undergrad research as well – learning to read academic papers and deep diving. It’s a different form of reading and writing for sure. That brings up my next questions, what are some of the challenges you’ve had to face?
Like I mentioned, I think being accountable to yourself, and working independently is perhaps the biggest challenge of the project, especially given the remote environment and lack of in-person accountability. Also, going back to the idea of critical research, it's thinking about movies differently than you normally would, because being a film studies student is making that transition from being an audience member to a critic, essentially. I'm not saying I'm like a critic that you would find on Rotten Tomatoes; but having that critical eye, and really examining and breaking down the movie. Understanding its ideologies and camera work, looking at those formal qualities to figure out what the film is trying to say.
You work with your mentor through the EURēCA! program. How did you find your position?
So, I was first approached by my mentor, Dr. Scahill, about the position. He sent out an email to his students letting us know he had an open EURēCA! position. I was definitely interested, so I applied and was fortunate enough to get it. I hadn’t heard about the EURēCA! program prior to the application, but it’s been great. This project has been beat for beat entirely applicable to what I'm learning in my classes. As a film studies student, you hear the narrative from some people that you’re not in a “real” major. Like it’s not a STEM major and so you won’t ever get a job. My experience in EURēCA! has been reassuring because what I am learning in class has directly translated to this project. I'm learning how to think critically, I'm learning about film theory and criticism, and I’m learning how to analyze films differently than I ever thought I would. I’m seeing these skills applied directly to a paid research position that will eventually turn into a physical piece of work. That is probably the most beneficial thing to me, that applicability.
That is so great. Okay, my final question. So, Jake, you've been in the program for a year and you've become a certified researcher, you got the experience! What advice would you give to someone just starting out research?
"There is no avenue that is off limits when it comes to research. It'll take you in different ways and down different paths than you ever thought it would take you. And that's okay. Allow it to do that for you."
Some advice I would say for new researchers is to think outside of the box. And I know that's been said before and that it's pretty general, but really, that's the biggest thing I've learned. Going back to thinking critically, there is no avenue that is off limits when it comes to research. It'll take you in different ways and down different paths than you ever thought it would take you. And that's okay. Allow it to do that for you.
Are you interested in pursuing a research or creative project? Set up an appointment with an undergraduate research advisor to learn about the EURēCA! Program and the many ways to get involved in mentored learning at CU Denver.
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