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News & Events: Community

Tribute to Miriam Hansen

Monday, February 7, 2011   (2 Comments)
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The Society for Cinema and Media Studies mourns the loss and recognizes the achievements of long time member and distinguished scholar Miriam Bratu Hansen, who passed away this weekend. 

A Tribute from SCMS Member Tom Gunning:

"Miriam Bratu Hansen died on February 5, 2011. She had been Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities at the University of Chicago in the Department of English and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies, which she founded, shaped and guided for two decades.

She was born in Germany in 1949, the daughter of Jewish parents who had met in exile during the war and returned to Germany. Miriam received her PhD in 1975 from Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt, Germany, studying with Jurgen Habermas and Theodor Adorno during a turbulent era. She worked in English and American Literature and wrote a dissertation on Ezra Pound, but soon was drawn to the realm of film, writing on Alexander Kluge, with whom she closely interacted. 

Coming to the United States, she worked at the Whitney Humanity Center at Yale and taught at Rutgers University before coming to Chicago in 1990. Her research moved to the history of early American cinema and to the work of the Frankfurt school and its satellites on cinema. Both of these areas were evident in her book Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Cinema published in 1991, a work which gave shape to the research that had been emerging in the eighties on early American cinema, seeing it through the lens of Negt and Kluge’s concept of the public sphere, and providing a magisterial analysis of D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance through the criticism of Walter Benjamin, and new work on gender. 

Hansen was able to work out an intersection between film history, film analysis and film theory few have ever matched. Her boundless curiosity marked her teaching and writing in the next decade, as she evolved the concept of the "vernacular modernism” through probing the influence of Hollywood on early Asian (especially Chinese) cinema, working with her student Zhen Zhang, and especially extending her research into the Frankfurt school and cinema, producing a series of crucial essays and finishing shortly before her death a large manuscript on cinema and the Frankfurt school. She had also hoped to do a smaller book on one of her favorite directors Max Ophuls, and last year had organized a conference at Chicago on New Media, reflecting a strong belief on her part that New Media, far from putting an end to cinema, continued its project of innervating human perception in new and even utopian ways. 

Although she had been battling cancer for the past decade, she continued new scholarly and theoretical work, and to mentor and advise students at the University of Chicago. She was committed both to the intellectual challenge that cinema posed for modern scholars and to its direct engagement with the senses (who else could write about how Jerry Lewis in Frank Tashlin’s Artists and Models relates to Clement Greenberg’s writings on American painting?) Her wit, her energy, her insight and rigor not only produced key concepts for our field, but provided the best of models for film studies at the moment that it moved from its pioneering focus on Grand Theory to a broader sense of a field that must include archival research, political perspectives, aesthetic awareness and theoretical ambition. We are devastated by her loss, but we all are better for having had her grace our field with her brilliance, breadth of perspective and elegance for a while. 

After long suffering, Miriam, I do wish you peace, but, knowing you, I would more accurately say: rest in your glorious energy."

To read more about Miriam's life and legacy, please click here.


Chris E. Simmons says...
Posted Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Professor Hansen was one of those too rare people within academia who are incredibly gifted, yet relate in a very kind and self-effacing way to people far, far below their level of achievement and stature. Once I met her to ask advice on a dissertation topic. Although she traipsed into the room deeply overscheduled/overcommitted, she fastened on my half-thought out subject as something truly important. When I tested the waters about her availability, she apologized because she was on 17 dissertation committees and had been warned not to take on any more appointments. Her scholarship in books like Babel and Babylon, helped me to imagine ways of thinking and possible dimensions to my work that I had never considered.
Esther I. Hamburger says...
Posted Monday, February 7, 2011
As an Anthropology graduate student at the university of chicago inthe early 1990s I took classes and participated in workshops with Miriam. My experience with her shaped my work on Brazilian telenovelas and later on contemporary film. Her "energy" as Tom Gunning says estimulated us to dive deep into the audiovisual forms of our research material, and to twist preconceived views. Her ability to load empirical analysis with theorectical meaning and to review theory when challenged by empiral evidence is rare and helps to bring film studies to the center of contemporary public life. Esther Hamburger Prof. History and Theory of Film and Television. University of São Paulo, Brazil

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