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February 15, 2011

Hansen, cinema studies founder, dies

Miriam Bratu Hansen, Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities and founder of the U of C’s cinema and media studies department, passed away February 5 after battling three forms of cancer. She was 61.

Hansen also held a professorship in the Department of English Language & Literature, where she studied American and German cinema, international silent film, classical and contemporary film theory, theories of mass culture, modernism and modernity, theories of the public sphere, and the Frankfurt School.

“Very intense, extremely driven, and if you were her student you had not only an advisor but also a surrogate mother,” said Yuri Tsivian, a friend and colleague of Hansen.

“Her greatest academic contribution,” he said, “is her book Babel and Babylon, in which she defined the new understanding of film reception and offered a new unprecedented and deep insight into a film that everyone early on thought everything was known about. And this is the famous classic Intolerance by David Griffith.”

Hansen’s work has helped pioneer the study of observance as it relates to cinema, and how the audiences of older films were intended to view and engage with early cinema. She closely studied early silent films in the context of observance because of their unique ability to engage audiences using only the visual medium.

Hansen’s relation to the Frankfurt School of social theory, a 1930s group of neo-Marxist thinkers that included Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, influenced her understanding of the role of cinema in America. She studied with Adorno at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt before teaching at Yale and Rutgers, and then eventually came to Chicago in 1990.

The University of California Press had planned to publish Hansen’s latest book in the spring, on the Frankfurt School of cultural theory and cinema. However, due to her death, the publication of the book may by delayed until later in the year.

“She devised and named a new theory, which she called vernacular modernism, which explains the back-and-forth between American Hollywood cinema, and its East Asian, Chinese, or Japanese counterparts,” said Tsivian. “[It’s] what Japan and China took from Hollywood and what they changed according to their vernacular need.”

Miriam is survived by her husband, Michael Geyer, a historian at the University, whom she married in 1991, and by her brother, Micha Bratu.

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