Q&A with Professor Steve Wurtzler
Steve Wurtzler has been an engineering student, a bartender and, most recently, Colby’s first professor of cinema studies. Wurtzler came north from Georgetown University to join the Colby community. He sat down in fall 2011 with insideColby writer Jenny Stephens ’12 to talk about the joys of studying cinema, his favorite spots on and off the Hill, and similarities between a bar and a classroom.
Colby’s first cinema studies professor, but you started your undergraduate career in engineering? What’s that all about?
I was the first male in my extended family to attend college, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into. A guidance counselor in high school told us that engineers had really good starting salaries, so I started out as an engineer. And I absolutely hated it. I could handle the math and the science, that was fine, but I just didn’t like my fellow students and the classes were really boring. … I took a cinema class as an elective, and it was like as if I had found a kind of personal and intellectual calling. So I dropped that engineering major as fast as I could [laugh]. Studying cinema, I was studying literature, I was studying painting, art history, history—all the things I wanted to be doing and studying were coming out of cinema studies. And suddenly I was happy.
You mark the beginning of cinema studies at Colby. For students, what is there to gain from studying film?
Well, “mark the beginning” only sort of, because there were all these people here teaching film-related classes, particularly Sarah Keller in the English Department. You know Sarah—yeah, she’s amazing. … There were all these courses already in place, so I think bringing me in was like labeling someone as specifically cinema studies and asking me to bring all of these pieces together. … And what can cinema studies offer a Colby student? I think intellectually rigorous and focused engagement with questions that are central to the liberal arts, all the while exploring something that most students love: cinema.
In an alternate universe, where would you be and what would you be doing if not teaching?
Wow. If I wasn’t teaching? I can’t imagine not teaching. I contemplate retirement and it’s like, why would I retire? I watch movies, I read books, I talk to students, I listen to their ideas, I write—and they pay me and I get health insurance. I mean I can’t imagine anything better.
I think if I wasn’t teaching, the best other job I’ve had—and I’ve had a lot of jobs—was tending bar. Which in some ways (I’m sure for some of my colleagues this would just make them shudder with disgust), there’s a way in which tending bar and teaching aren’t all that different. You’re perpetually meeting new people, you’re having conversations, you’re engaging them, and if you’re good at the shtick behind the bar then you’re creating a kind of atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves … much like a classroom.
Waterville is quite a change from D.C.
Yeah, yeah it is.
How are you enjoying (or not) living in Maine? Do you have favorite spots on campus or downtown? Anything you really miss about the city?
I love Maine. I taught at Bowdoin for a year ages ago, and when I left that job I wanted to find a way to come back to Maine. So there’s ways in which I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for a job to open teaching cinema in Maine. But moving here has been an adjustment. Living in D.C. I didn’t have a car for the past eight years. So switching to automobility and not being able to walk everywhere or take a subway has been kind of a change. I thought I was going to miss movies and the National Gallery and the Hirshhorn, my two favorite museums in D.C. And I do miss some of my movie opportunities in D.C and those two galleries. But Railroad Square certainly goes a long way for compensating for that, and one of the selling points of Colby when I came here for my on-campus visit was walking through the museum. So those are two of my favorite things about Waterville. … Once I purchase a small boat I think I’ll be a lot happier in Maine and in Waterville. … Just a small rowboat that I can toss in the back of my truck and at the end of the day drive to a body of water, toss it in, and unwind.
Favorite movie and favorite place to watch it?
When students ask me what my favorite movie is, I can’t answer with one. But I’ll tell them about this Stan Brakhage film [Text of Light] where he filmed light reflecting off a glass ashtray. And it’s like a sixty-minute long film—no shot is longer than two or three seconds. But at the same time I love the French narrative film 400 Blows. A story film about a little kid coming into adulthood and just screwing up. So yeah, I love avant garde film, but I also love story films, and I like documentary films. … If it’s got sprocket holes, I like it. …
Right now, my favorite place to watch films is my living room. I have a large collection of sixteen millimeter films and a projector set up in my living room so I project onto my dining room wall. A few weeks ago there was a handful of faculty in my house and we spent a Saturday evening eating Chinese food and watching movies projected on the wall of my living room.
I always wondered if professors are friends.
Well at a place like Colby you kind of have to be. I mean, if you’re a real sort of self-centered ass you don’t last at a place like Colby. That’s one of the things I really like about being here—my colleagues. There are really, really amazing people here.