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November 15, 2017

Funding Art is Important: A Defense of Cornell Cinema

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Cornell is not a university specifically reserved for the STEM disciplines. We were founded under a proud cosmopolitan banner of “Any Person, Any Study,” and we differ from MIT or CalTech in that we claim to offer the highest possible level of instruction in any field a person might choose. As a former PMA/English major I can say I was never belittled on campus, but I noticed an unquestionable lack of interest in funding arts departments and activities, compared to the hard sciences. This comes with the territory — the arts students tend to be far fewer in number than the STEM ones — but there is a very real danger that eventually, History, Philosophy, Comp Lit and Comm majors will have a far less rigorous education than the name of Cornell promises. The Schwartz Center has seen this with its extensive budget cuts passed seven years ago, and with its folding of three majors into one. The Schwartz used to be a booming industry that hosted a frequent catalogue of plays with large casts, and has now downsized to a few shows a semester, with virtually no shows that include an ensemble. When I enrolled, I was unable to register as a film major because there was no film major anymore. I am not complaining — I believe a solid film education should be a DIY education, but it cannot be done without the tools, and Cornell Cinema is an essential one.

Two years ago, the Student Assembly made a proposal that would cut the funding of Cornell Cinema to a degree that would result in its closure. I was shocked how callous they could be in endangering a campus treasure like the cinema. Cornell Cinema is a piece of our campus history, and should be regarded as a historical site, along with the clocktower or Sage Chapel. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so shocked, because the student body had not been patronizing the cinema as they should have. My colleague Sean Doolittle wrote an excellent article at the time about the way people will always put off a trip to the cinema because of studying for a prelim or going to the bar, and how sad it was. I am pleased to report, however, that in the last two years, the cinema saw a steady uptick in attendance, was able to purchase a 3D projector thanks to the support of patrons and was no longer in danger of being defunded.

That is, until a few weeks ago. Once again, the cinema stands to lose critical financial support from the S.A., based on its outrageous recommendation that students should no longer pay a fee for continued use of the cinema. I understand the S.A.’s frustration that student tuition should not be paying the salaries of private employees, but the cinema has promised to discontinue this practice. The cinema is asking for a lousy $11 from each student, to continue an operation that benefits so many students, and is vastly under-appreciated. To its credit, the S.A. talked back their comments last week and promised to help the cinema look for a viable way forward, but my personal feeling is: the fees of private employees notwithstanding, Cornell Cinema is one of the most valuable and unique student activities we have on campus. It is a vital source of education, not merely a movie theater. It is every bit as indispensable for the film education of our student body as Olin library is for our research and literary education. The dedication of the people who run it — student volunteers and private employees alike — to delivering a world-class education in film without the aid of any college department merits not only the funding from the student body, but vastly more respect from them as well.

Cinema is not meant to be exclusively watched on our smartphones, any more than music is meant to be listened to exclusively on our earbuds. At its best, it should be seen in a public forum on a large screen in the dark, where you are locked into your seat for two hours and can focus entirely on what is unfolding in front of you. Imagine the experience of seeing a symphony orchestra play Mozart’s Figaro versus downloading a recording and listening to it while you jog. That is the difference between watching 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane (all titles Cornell Cinema has offered) in the theater, and streaming it on Hulu on your MacBook. The cinema provides an experience millennials and undergraduates have come to find quite rare: communal viewing as opposed to Netflix and chill.

Yes, there are other theaters. There is a big multiplex at the mall close to campus, and a classy little independent operation at Cinemapolis. They handle our mainstream and independent needs. Cornell Cinema is the only venue that, on top of that, offers an incredible variety of historic and experimental fare, which is carefully curated by volunteers, beautifully projected (their funds allow them to rent a handsome print or DCP of any movie) and often embellished with live interviews with visiting filmmakers. I so fondly remember watching The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Conversation, Grey Gardens and Mad Max: Fury Road, during my time at Cornell. Paul Verhoeven came to the cinema to discuss his film Total Recall and I interviewed him for this paper. A theater that offers you a 1920s silent Danish film, a 1970s New Hollywood staple, a blockbuster from last week and a classic documentary all in the same year, is offering too great a privilege to disrespect.

Don’t take it from me that the 60-year-old cinema provides a necessary foundation for those who are seriously pursuing a career in the arts. Many famous alums who now work in the film industry have said how profoundly important it was to their careers — Tim Squyres, Scott Ferguson and Justin Lerner among them. Just last week Martin Scorsese’s editor Thelma Schoonmaker — a self-proclaimed proud Cornell alum — spoke up about her distress that the cinema may lose support, saying it would greatly damage the university’s reputation. She could not be more correct.

It is vital that we continue to fund the consumption and appreciation of arts and humanities at Cornell, not only so that we remain true to our motto of committed excellence to every discipline, but because when we begin to lose our appreciation for art, we begin to lose appreciation for what makes us human. The unexamined life, as our friend Socrates tells us, is not worth living.

Mark DiStefano is a member of the Class of 2016. He is a former staff writer for the Arts and Entertainment section.