Dr Iain smith, a film studies lecturer at King’s College London and one of ten academics selected by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council as a New Generation Thinker, explains how his late night viewings of old Godzilla films reinforced his desire to work in the arts.
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in a little village on the outskirts of Glasgow in a family of scientists and mathematicians. They instilled in me a deep passion for learning but I knew from a young age that I wanted to work in the arts rather than the sciences. In fact, I can probably trace that back to my formative years when my parents let me stay up late at night to watch old Godzilla films on Channel 4. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew it must have something to do with that.
During my undergraduate days, I explored various career paths related to cinema – film magazine journalism, filmmaking, TV production – but I ultimately realised that my love of cinema would be best placed in the academic world and, after many years of postgraduate study, I ended up in a job where I get to pass on my love for cinema to my students. Indeed, they often laugh when they first come into my office because it is filled with film memorabilia (including a toy Godzilla!) so I think I’ve held onto some of that childlike glee.
What is the area of your research?
I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which films travel and what that can tell us about processes of globalisation. My first book, The Hollywood Meme, is a study of the international influence of American popular culture and it focuses on the unlicensed remakes of Hollywood films produced around the world.
My case studies include Şeytan (1974), a Turkish remake of The Exorcist (1973) that replaces the Catholicism with Islam, and Kaante (2002), a Bollywood reworking of Reservoir Dogs (1992) that incorporates musical numbers. Analysing these kinds of examples, I investigate what they can tell us about the international impact of American popular culture and the unequal histories of cultural exchange.
Right now, I’m developing a project on ‘Global Cult Cinema’ that is an attempt to de-westernise the field of cult film studies. To date, scholarship on cult cinema has predominantly centred on the West with a particular emphasis on Anglo-American cinema and fandom. I’m attempting to interrogate why that focus exists – my latest conference paper was titled ‘The Whiteness of Cult’ – and I’m also trying to propose a more productive way forward for the field.
What is the importance of this research?
It is funny you ask that because this is something I’m often asked when I tell people about my research (either explicitly or implicitly!). I tend to write about relatively low-budget genre films ranging from Turkish superhero films through to Filipino re-workings of James Bond and these are exactly the kinds of films that have traditionally been ignored by film historians or even dismissed as being superficial and therefore unworthy of academic attention.
My research, though, argues that these kinds of films are actually essential to an understanding of the messy and complicated politics of globalisation. For example, why is it that in the 1970s Turkish filmmakers produced more than 100 re-workings of Hollywood films including local versions of Superman, Star Trek and The Wizard of Oz? How does that relate to Turkish-US relations in the mid-20th century?
These films are not the celebrated arthouse masterpieces that tend to win awards at international film festivals and get picked up for distribution in the West. But they can nevertheless still tell us a great deal about what Edward Said, one of the leading literary critics of the last quarter of the 20th century, calls ‘the slow working together of cultures that overlap [and] borrow from each other.’ (Said 2003: xxii)