Faculty Highlight: Benedictine instructor encourages students to zoom in on other facets of filmmaking

June 1, 2017

Lisle, Illinois ~ Jason Sperb, Ph.D., is a researcher and commentator on the film industry, providing insights and analysis on elements of cinema that more than enhance the experience for students at Benedictine who take his media studies courses.

“My research often focuses on the importance of film history, of situating movies within the time period in which they were made,” Sperb said. “What was going on in the culture then? What was happening politically, technologically? What conditions were the filmmakers themselves responding to? What kinds of factors may have shaped reactions and responses from audiences then? I bring this kind of historical focus to the classroom regardless if it is labeled as a history class.”

He is the author of such books as, “Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema,” “Blossoms & Blood: Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson” and “Disney’s Most Notorious Film: Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Song of the South.” His work has also appeared in several periodicals.

This past September, he published an article in the Journal of Popular Film and Television analyzing the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which highlights the captivity of killer whales at SeaWorld.

The article, “From Nihilism to Nostalgia: Blackfish and the Contradictions of the Nature Documentary,” examines how nature documentary film and TV straddle the fine line between sentimentalizing wildlife on the one hand and fearing its brutal nature on the other. The contradictory tension in the genre comes to a crisis in “Blackfish,” which attempts to sympathize with the killer whales in captivity at the same time it repeatedly foregrounds their ruthless nature as an apex predator.

In March, he gave a presentation at the 2017 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference called “Save that Gag for the Tourists: Industrial Reflexivity and Post-Tourism Narratives in Hollywood’s Hawai’i Cycle of the 1930s.”

The presentation highlighted a subject of his newest book project about images of Hawaii in mainland U.S. film and television shows from the pre-World War II era up through the tourist boom of the 1960s. It charts the media representations of labor and leisure, racial identity and nostalgia, and how they intersect with historical, industrial and political contexts of the time.

According to Sperb, early narrative film depictions of Hawaii feature clichéd conventions of the “South Seas Romance”— stories about young sailors who discover love with the chieftain’s daughter on a remote island in the South Pacific.

After the emergence of sound films and reflexive backstage musicals, Hollywood abandoned simplistic south seas romances in favor of more playful takes on Hawaii’s mediated reputation as a “destination image,” incorporating a sort of post-touristic irony.

This act of examining other contexts in which films were made — not just its subject matter — is what Sperb tries to impart on his students.

“I ask students to look beyond the text itself,” he said. “It is important for them to understand where we’ve come from as a society and a culture, to learn about the past, to understand what factors shaped the beliefs and actions which came before us and which inform the world we live in today, so that we can all begin to have a better understanding of, and the ability to influence, where we are headed in the future.”


Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 9,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the sixth consecutive year in 2016. A 2016 PayScale Inc. report ranked BenU one of the top 10 colleges in Illinois for return on investment and in the top 20 percent nationally. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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