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  • Shelby Cadwell

Finding My Way into Film

I can distinctly remember my first television set. It was one of those behemoth wooden consoles that weighed about 80 pounds and had turn knobs for channels and volume. Being that I was born in the late 80's, well after this sort of TV set had fallen out of fashion and been replaced by smaller, sleeker versions, this early television memory comes courtesy of my grandparents. Being the only child raised by my Grandma (Jeanette) and my Grandpa (Earl), there were a few concessions a kid had to make: the biggest one being adopting an attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." This essentially meant that my grandparents had no problem using the same old junky TV console for 20 years if it still worked. And work it did: we had access to 4 whole channels (ABC, NBC, FOX, and PAX, the latter being a Christian network that mainly showed reruns of Touched by an Angel and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). At a certain point, I think I whined enough for an upgraded television set with a VCR, which I'd use to watch the same four Disney movies on a loop until the tapes inevitably wore down and became unusable. Given my very limited early exposure to media - four television channels and a handful of yard sale VHS tapes - it still surprises me that I've somehow become a film and media scholar.

And it isn't like I became significantly more media savvy when I had the money and means to pursue alternatives. As a high school kid with a part-time job and a small disposable income, my main worry was never stocking up on DVDs or catching movies in the theater. Until I was 16 or 17, I couldn't have told you who my favorite film director was—hell, I still might struggle with that question (although I'll tell you my least favorite if you ask politely). Until I was 25, I never took a class that was explicitly about film (notwithstanding an incredible course called Writing About Film that I took in high school, which was far more about writing than about film). My interest in film has no real lightning strike moment of inspiration behind it, but more of an admiration slowly built up over many years.

My first real understanding of the difficulty of film scholarship came in high school, during the aforementioned Writing About Film class. We were supposed to write responses to each film screened in the class, and the one that I struggled with the most was Some Like it Hot. Despite feeling very confident in my skills as a writer, I could not figure out how to explain why something is funny. It just is, right? How could I possibly presume to break down the way that humor works on a human brain? How could I ever explain how a fictional story projected onto a screen can alter our brain chemistry—make us feel scared or sad or alone or hysterical or overjoyed or anxious? It is that question that I'm still grappling with today. The wonderful and terrifying thing about that first foray into film scholarship and the work I'm doing currently (as a Ph.D. student in a film & media studies program) is that, after all these years, I don't think there is an answer. For me, film studies is like trying to solve a puzzle where the pieces are constantly shape-shifting, disappearing, and reappearing, with no rhyme or reason. And that is why I got into film—to solve an unsolvable puzzle, to answer an unanswerable question, and to immerse myself into a world of stories and ideas and problems that seven-year-old Shelby couldn't have even imagined.

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