An Interview with Laura Hubner
Laura Hubner is Professor in Film and Media at the University of Winchester, UK. She is author of The Films of Ingmar Bergman (2007), editor of Valuing Films (2011) and co-editor of Framing Film (2012) and The Zombie Renaissance in Popular Culture (2014). She recently contributed chapters to Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney (2015) and The Written Dead (2017).
What drew you to a career in film academia?
As a child I sometimes sat in the dark room at the factory where my dad worked as a photolithographer, watching him create images with endless precision as I painted out small blemishes on the film negatives. This, combined with taking every chance I could to watch films, made me increasingly fascinated with the medium, absorbed by the alchemy of images coming to life. Novels, poetry, comics and illustrated books led on to me studying literature and the visual arts. Alongside this my interest in film was growing as I took to ordering film reels from the British Film Institute (BFI). While wrangling some old worn celluloid into a Steenbeck at the University of Reading I got chatting to Jim Hiller, who I only found out years later was one of the founders of film education at the BFI. His encouragement (both with the machine and with the possibilities of researching film) led to a thesis on the work of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. My enthusiasm for the subject has grown over the years, alongside the sense that students can find out so much through the study of film. I continue to learn and develop ideas by working with inspirational colleagues and students.
You’re currently professor in Film and Media at The University of Winchester. Why, in your opinion, is film an important area of study?
If you want to get into any field of film – as a writer, director, educator, reviewer, composer or set designer – I think studying film can open your mind to the range of what film can do and be. How one shot connects to the next, how sound or a piece of music adds to the scene or stimulates new meanings. We see the impact the coming of sound made on screenwriting and the development of dialogue, for example, and how colour and special effects have opened up rich new worlds of fantasy. Exploring films from across the world made through different times in history acts as a lens onto that world at key moments.
Beyond this, even if you don’t want to go into film as a career, it is an important area of study. Film has always been able to communicate deeply – it’s rare not to be influenced by a movie in an enduring way. So that’s a great leveller and a strong basis to start conversations. But studying films also de-familiarises. So we start looking at films we thought we knew well differently. It helps us articulate what a film does and how it achieves this. What are we scared about by a large ant invasion? Why do we cry when a couple reconnect after wartime? What makes us laugh on one film viewing but not on another? Films help us make sense of our lives on a personal level but also of the world beyond our immediate surroundings. The current pandemic has seen many of us returning to old favourites for solace, or seeking out new films that speak to or help us escape from the crisis. Shifts over time in the focus of genres (horror movies or Westerns for example) help us see sweeping modifications in ideology, and a change in the type of heroes and stars we identify with is a guide to how culture progresses. It helps us think about what values are important to society at given points of time.
Can you tell me about your book The Films of Ingmar Bergman: Illusions of Light and Darkness? Why did you choose to write about this subject?
I was blown away by Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) when I first saw it. Here was something that seemed to tap into philosophy and poetry, bearing the essence of medieval plays – with the world-weary knight finding himself adrift on a Swedish shore and witnessing a land riddled by plague. Trying to delay the inevitable he sets up a game of chess with the figure of Death as his opponent. But the film was very much of its time – relaying fears of the threat of the H-Bomb, and pondering how to live a meaningful life in an age when religious faith had been shaken. It was tricky to get hold of some of Bergman’s early films at first, but a lesser known gem of his, It Rains on Our Love (1946), about two strangers meeting and trying to carve out an existence by sheltering in a disused summer house came on the television and I was hooked. Their story is narrated by an angel who takes the unlikely form of a man carrying an umbrella. I also saw a lot of humour in the films – it’s not something that’s mentioned much but ever-present in his work. And an unrelenting, bold seriousness. The boldness to have a go. To test the limits of what can be achieved by bringing together sounds and images. Just as cinema is an illusion – the manipulation and projection of images onto a screen – the films tried to convey through audio-visual means aspects of our lives that haunt us – visions, ghosts, instincts, magic, other worlds, dreams and demons. Bergman was interested in how such intangibles could be expressed through cinema – itself an uncanny projection of movement and life from 24 still frames a second. Through such trickeries, his films remind us that multiple realities coexist.
I recently re-watched Bergman’s Summer with Monika (1953) which included your essay introduction for The Criterion Collection release. What interested you about this particular film?
The transience and potential of young love. The film captures the contrast between being crushed by a dull, cramped existence in Stockholm, where two teenagers Harry and Monika meet in a run-down café, and the coming to life of early summer, as they abandon their dead-end jobs and flee in a tiny boat to explore the wilderness and freedom of the Swedish archipelago. The cinematography embraces the wide open spaces that help us see how this short journey meant the discovery of a whole new world of potential. Harriet Andersson (who played Monika) is electric in it. The film seems to say: escape but return; face up to responsibilities. But Andersson changes all that, in her defiant performance that never gives up on the dream. The drab bookends of everyday city life are not those that linger. It’s the images of raw sensual summer that remain.
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to pursue a career in film academia?
There can be a lot of pressure when you first start out before you have a career to build an expansive profile. Not just by completing a PhD but the need to publish or exhibit more work, attend conferences, network with the right people. It might seem as if there’s always more to do, and this can be overwhelming. But I think what my PhD supervisor kept saying to me still stands. Get what you do right. The rest will follow. It’s like with anything creative. You need to create a quality product. No amount of networking will do this for you. Once you’ve fought this battle, a career in film academia is about adaptability, reliability, maintaining quality, taking responsibility, sharing interests, questioning what you know, meeting deadlines, and mixing with some of the most inspirational people you’re ever likely to meet. I’ve been lucky to spend time listening to and learning from brilliant students and colleagues.
What projects are you currently working on?
I recently finished a project on Fairytale and Gothic Horror, which got me returning to films for their uncanny rendering of fairy tales on screen, such as Rebecca and Pan’s Labyrinth. And I’m currently setting up a new book series called Iconic Movie Images. I used to run a blog with the same title for students and staff to write about an indelible image from a film. For example, Jack Nicholson’s face coming through the door in The Shining is an image that has become a virtual synecdoche for the entire film but has also inspired a whole run of new artworks in a range of new contexts – including posters, paintings, cartoons, shop designs and tattoos. The series tracks the life of the image from the context of the film to its new incarnations. For the inaugural book of the series, I’m returning to Bergman. 2018 marked the centenary of Bergman’s birth and an explosion of celebrations around the world. This reignited my interest in Bergman, seeing the film images again – after a break – and the way they have infiltrated popular culture internationally. The Knight Playing Chess with Death and the Dance of Death continue to resonate.