McRobbie envisions IU's new Media School becoming a film leader in Midwest
By Jon Blau
Film had an important place at Indiana University before Michael McRobbie, and McRobbie had a place reserved for film in his heart before he ever arrived in Bloomington.
IU holds claim to Peter Bondanella, an expert on Italian film director Federico Fellini, and Jim Naremore, a leading scholar on the work of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. McRobbie, when he was a student in Australia, fell in love with sci-fi films such as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” -- not the version with George Clooney, which McRobbie calls “abhorrent,” but the 1972 film starring Donatas Banionis.
One university’s history and one man’s love came together when McRobbie became president of IU. He took a university acclaimed for its film faculty and gave it a grand hall for its art form with a $15 million renovation of the IU Cinema. The university plans to pour millions more into a preservation effort of IU’s rare film archive.
Even the makings of the Media School, which was not built solely to promote film, but has been touted as a blending of storytelling forms, had its roots in McRobbie’s vision of what the art of film -- something he values at the level of painting, poetry and music -- could mean for IU on the national stage.
“The thinking is people always associate the West Coast and the East Coast with a fair amount of film, but nobody really thinks about the Midwest,” McRobbie said. “We’ve got everything here that we need to become the place in the middle of America that is a major national focus for film.”
While the proposition of a Media School stirred proponents of journalism at IU, stripping the program of an independent school, the guardians of film at IU cherish the series of events that brought Bloomington a “cinephile” president, the cinema and now a Media School.
Film and media studies has been “situated modestly” in the department of Communication and Culture, said Barbara Klinger, the chairwoman of the department but also the president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. In the Media School, that could change.
“We’ve always been there,” Klinger said, “but we haven’t had some of the visibility of our counterparts in the Midwest.
“Whether IU becomes the Midwestern hub for film? I hope for that, that’s what people here are hoping for with this reorganization.”
McRobbie, for one, has no expectation IU could reach the level of some coastal schools, like University of Southern California, boosted by the donations of alum George Lucas. But the film void in “the heartland” leaves McRobbie thinking the university can make some kind of significant impact.
Just like McRobbie believes the newly formed School of Global and International Studies can be a Midwestern player in its arena, he thinks film within a Media School has a similar opportunity. In 2013, IU Bloomington brought the “Orphan Film Festival” to the Midwest, a showcase for films abandoned by their owners, through a collaboration with New York University. All the while, IU Cinema director John Vickers has landed major players for visits, such as filmmakers Werner Herzog and actress Meryl Streep.
Film has certainly found its place at IU, whether it is the cinema or the new Media School. McRobbie, who joined a film society while in graduate school, partaking in showings three times a week -- in a cinema 200 yards away from his office -- wants IU’s students to enjoy cinema the way he once did. He doesn’t consider watching a movie as much recreation as an education.
He’s the type of man who downplays the percentage of films he has seen in the IU Cinema’s playbill, because he knows enough about the subject to know all that he hasn’t seen. He likes the challenge of watching a film, engrossed in the artistic process. He laughs when remembering the odd details of masterworks, like the time guitarists Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck made a cameo as band members in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-up.”
He regrets that his film-watching has decreased since he became president in 2007, and he missed the cinema’s showing of “The Leopard” by Luchino Visconti, part of the “eclectic” mix McRobbie selected for his “President’s Choice” series this semester. On the other hand, McRobbie remembers watching the film at year or so ago, with his wife, on his own time.
At work, he has another way to take pride in film.
“It’s that rich base we had to start with,” McRobbie said, “we are just building on it.”
Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.