Combining film, academics and TikTok
One of the most recent social media platforms to rise in popularity has been TikTok. This app allows users to take and post videos ranging in duration from 15 seconds to three minutes on any topic imaginable, such as dance, humor, education, cooking and much more. TikTok was initially released in September of 2016 but did not gain popularity in the United States until late 2019. Today, it has over 130 million downloads in the United States and over 2 billion downloads worldwide and is currently ranking number one in the app store. Although it was created for social networking purposes, TikTok has grown to become a platform used for many subjects, thus allowing its influence to feed into other topics. Professor Ken Eisenstein recognized this influence and how it relates to film, especially to older film genres and avant-garde films, leading to his decision to create one of the University’s newest courses, Home Viewing: TikTok.
This course focuses on the connection between what one considers to be their home and how cinema relates to and interacts with this idea: “the class will also take up an eternal problem: if home is where the heart is, can our eyes ever really have it? Is it possible to fully see our most immediate quotidian surroundings, or those that live in them with us?”
Professor Eisenstein is also drawing on more classic films within the course to provide students with the foundational context as well as display how historical cinema can relate to a modern-day app. Yet another layer to this course is how avant-garde films play a role in these relationships, “Another section of the course has to do with the public exhibition of pornographic films in movie theatres in the early 1970s. This unusual screening situation links to issues that arise in my field of research: American avant-garde film. Filmmakers from Andy Warhol, to Stan Brakhage, to Carolee Schneemann, to Bob Huot all pushed the limits of depicting the body, and so I wanted to learn more about the commercial versions of this from their day.” Similarly, Professor Eisenstein explained that because TikTok is a platform where text and image overlap, it is very similar to many techniques used in avant-garde films: “in general, TikTok relates to many components of the avant-garde film in its mixture of text and image, its brevity and loop ability, its intimacy, its fragmentation, etcetera.”
Eisenstein completed his graduate degree at the University of Chicago in a program that at the time focused almost exclusively on cinema but now centers around both cinema and media studies. During his time with the program, he focused on early cinema (pre-1907), Russian and Soviet cinema of the early 20th century, surrealism from the 1920s through 1960s as well as race films ranging from the late roughly 1917 to the late 1940s.
Professor Eisenstein reflected on how media studies have grown and how such growth influenced him to create this course. “In fact, our two-course required history sequence ended with the year 1960. I don’t say this critically at all. This was back in the early 2000s and since then much more Media Studies has come into that program and the field in general, so in some ways, my desire to teach the course was as a way of keeping up with newer developments,” Professor Eisenstein said.
Throughout the semester, Professor Eisenstein hopes students will discover more about the close relationship between film and media, particularly in relation to the history of film. Another goal of the course is that students will have developed the skills to research and argue about films and media in a scholarly manner by the end of the semester.
Senior Josie Kolstad reflected on what led her to register for the course and what she’s enjoyed from the course so far this semester, “I took it because I spend a lot of time using TikTok so the name was catchy to me but through Professor Eisenstein showing us TikToks and asking our opinions on them and how they parallel and sometimes use similar techniques and themes as classic films that we watch in class. It’s been interesting to think of TikTok more so as short films than just random videos. He’s also instilled that the length of a film has no real salience of it like with a 10 second TikTok versus a 3 hour film which I found really interesting to think about,” Kolstad said.
As mentioned, the class watches and analyzes a range of historical and avante films offered at the campus theater, such as “Boogie Nights”, “Playtime”, “Playhouse”, “Stars’ Estates”, “Rear Window”, and “Adam’s Rib”.
Emily Parker ’23 had different motivations when signing up for the course, “I am double majoring in Political Science and English: Film and Media Studies, so this class goes to my major. I think most people decided to take this class because of how intriguing it was to have the name TikTok in the title of the course,” Parker said. She also explained how although the Home Viewing: TikTok does discuss the app TikTok, it goes beyond to talk how the app relates to other forms of visual media, “We really do not focus a lot on TikTok but more on the platform itself and how virality manifests itself within the app. We spend a lot of class time discussing the intersections of various platforms, such as TikTok, home movies, fiction movies, and other forms of media to see how they all relate to one another. We have been given the opportunity to look at many hands-on examples, such as looking at vintage film cameras, the first machines created to present media, and watching 16mm film screenings. These hands-on experiences are very valuable and engaging. As a film major, I find this class to be a great supplement to many of the introductory film courses I’ve taken, such as Film and Media History, which overlaps with some topics we have discussed in this class,” Parker said.
As course registration quickly approaches for the spring of 2022, make sure to look out for Home Viewing: TikTok to learn a bit more about how your favorite social media platform may play into other visual media forms.