Opinion: You don’t need to be a cinema major to truly appreciate films

Despite the wide belief that in order to truly appreciate a film, one needs a formal education on the subject, anyone with a true passion for cinema has the ability to critique it.

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Movie projector on a dark background with light beam / high contrast image

Pedro Barragan, Arts Reporter


Majoring in cinema arts is neat, but it isn’t required to appreciate good filmmaking.

We currently live in a world where the term “filmmaker” is fluid — anyone with an iPhone is technically one. The same idea applies to watching films. Everyone’s a critic, and everyone has the ability to create a reasonable argument for why a film is or isn’t terrific. Is X2: X-Men United the equivalent of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels? There is no true answer, but if a viewer found one or the other to be superior over the other, it wouldn’t be invalid.

Since enrolling at the University of Iowa a year ago, I’ve heard fellow students contemplate why they did or didn’t like a film. The phrase, “just ask a cinema major” is all too common when ultimately deciding whether or not a film is “good.”

Plenty of contemporary filmmakers never took cinema courses. Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Greta Gerwig, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, and Quentin Tarantino never had a film education. Others, like Richard Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson never graduated. (Linklater went to study film at Austin Community College, but there is no record of graduation. Linklater would state that he went to the “Stanley Kubrick” film school.)

Film school is pivotal for those who intend to thrive in technical areas such as cinematography, sound, and visual effects. But you can’t learn how to admire cinema or how to create something equivalent to Max Ophul’s resume. The list of filmmakers above established their craft by viewing the films they wanted to see, not by being assigned them in a class.

The listed filmmakers above usually follow the philosophy of being self-taught in the film industry: they learn by watching films. Why pay to learn about Renoir’s The Rules of the Game when you can check out a Criterion edition from the library for free?

You don’t have to be a film buff to know the ins and outs of film, and a poetry professor once showed me that. When speaking to Jim Sullivan, a poetry professor at Illinois Central College, about humanist narrative, the conversation turned to Ingmar Bergman. I asked if he had seen Scenes From a Marriage. He answered what any cinephile should, asking if I had seen all six parts. Although he wasn’t solely dedicated to film, he didn’t watch a Swedish mini-series because it was assigned for a class.

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I wasn’t born into a cultured background. I grew up in a working class household where I was raised by two Mexican immigrants who had never seen The Godfather or Casablanca, so cinema was something I had to endure by myself. I would walk to the closest library and check out five films per week from the Criterion Collection.

Personally I’m not majoring in cinema, because I don’t intend to have my immigrant parents pay for me to watch films. But I also feel that attending school to watch films kills my love affair with the medium. The sensation of watching films is ruined if the goal is to gain a grade.

Majoring in cinema also creates a bubble. If Jim Sullivan —someone who dedicates himself to poetry — can make the time to watch the art of a different medium, why can’t someone from cinema do the same for other topics?

Anyone can praise cinema. Anyone can create cinema. It doesn’t matter whether you’re getting a formal education in it or not, all that is required is a true passion for the subject.

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