This past Friday, the University of Chicago community mourned the loss of one of its brightest stars, when Miriam Bratu Hansen lost her decade-long battle with cancer. The Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities; professor in the Departments of Cinema & Media Studies and English, and at the College; founder of the Film Studies Center; and a faculty board member of the University of Chicago Press (1991-96), Hansen shifted the confines of cinema studies to account for modernism’s more vernacular forms in line with the writings of Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and others from the Frankfurt school, as Hansen’s colleague Tom Gunning describes in his moving tribute:
Coming to the United States, she worked at the Whitney Humanities 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.
Tributes to Hansen online can be found at Film Studies for Free (including a compendium of her work available on the web), Category D: A Film and Media Studies Blog, Cintetrix, and 3 Quarks Daily. Many will remember her for her vitality, patience, and uncompromising intellect. I’m one of them.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Miriam Hansen Fellowship Fund at the University of Chicago, 5801 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637.