assistant professor of film studies, is a 1992 Wesleyan alumna, and is a
specialist on film form, the American film industry and contemporary East
Sight for Cinema: Assistant Professor of Film Studies Looks for
Directors' Visual Styles
rarely watches a movie just once.
Or twice. Or even 10 times. In fact, it often takes her more than 20
screenings to fully analyze a film.
“Each time I watch a film, I’m looking at it for different reasons,”
explains the assistant professor of film studies. “I’ll watch it once to get
the initial sense of the narrative, and the next time I’ll count how many
shots are in it, and then I’ll focus on the use of the camera, for instance.
Is the director using lots of close-ups, or is the camera far from the
subject? Is the camera moving a lot? Essentially I’m looking for how the
filmmakers’ choices influence our viewing experience.”
Dombrowski, a 1992 Wesleyan alumna, is a specialist on film form and
analysis, authorship, the history of film style, the American film industry
and contemporary East Asian cinema.
Dombrowski teaches Introduction to Film Analysis; The American Film Industry
during the Studio Era; American Independent Filmmaking; and Contemporary
East Asian Cinema. This spring, she’s teaching Melodrama and the Woman’s
Picture and Contemporary International Art Cinema.
In her classes, she often replaces textbooks with films. Dombrowski
accentuates the importance of visual style and has her students look for
ways in which filmmakers employ narrative structure, composition and
framing, editing, lighting, camera angles and movement, and sound to cue
certain emotional and intellectual responses.
She cites as an example Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller “Jaws.” Viewers are
introduced to the shark from his visual perspective in the water. What he
sees as he swims, combined with the tension-packed musical score, give the
audience clues that the shark is on a man hunt.
“We begin affiliating the famous ‘dun-da dun-da’ musical motif with the
shark on the prowl for human flesh,” Dombrowski explains. “We actually see
very little of the shark until late in the film, so when the shark finally
emerges from the water, the shock value is very strong.”
Dombrowski, who also advises the student-run Wesleyan Film Series, says
selecting films to show in her classes is a time-consuming and challenging
aspect of her position. Only a fraction of all motion pictures are available
from distributors, and 35mm film prints can cost more than $800 each to
rent. She prefers to show films in the Center for Film Studies’ new
state-of-the-art Goldsmith Family Cinema. That way, students can watch the
film the way the director originally intended it to be seen: on the silver
Janine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, curator of the
Cinema Archives and chair of the Film Studies Department says Dombrowski was
one of the most brilliant students she taught in the Wesleyan film major.
Basinger encouraged her bright pupil to get a master’s and Ph.D so she could
teach at the collegiate level.
“Lisa is a great addition to our department,” Basinger says. “She brings the
ability to teach classes in new areas: the contemporary cinema, East Asian
cinema, the history of the film industry, and the independent cinema. Her
colleagueship is outstanding, and she's reached out to the entire campus to
help connect Film Studies to all four divisions. Her brains, her energy, her
enthusiasm make her a real asset for Film Studies and for Wesleyan.”
In addition to teaching, Dombrowski is reviewing the production notebooks of
director Elia Kazan, whose papers are held in the Wesleyan Cinema Archives.
Kazan, who directed post-WWII films including “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and “On the
Waterfront”, took meticulous notes concerning all aspects of his
productions, from the acting to the cinematography. Dombrowski plans to edit
a publication based on the filmmaker’s thorough journals.
In the past few years, Dombrowski has presented conference papers on the
aesthetics of black and white widescreen pictures in the 1950s; the
distribution strategies adopted by Miramax in the release of Hong Kong films
in the United States; and comparative approaches to low-budget filmmaking.
In March, she will present “Adrift in Time: Free-floating Camera Movement,
Memory, and Loss,” at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference in
Dombrowski didn’t always have a heart for Hollywood. A resident of Akron,
Ohio during high school, she came to Wesleyan in 1988 to study English and
history. During her first year, she took two film courses, which opened her
eyes to a new way of watching film. She ended up majoring in American
studies and film studies, graduating from Wesleyan in 1992.
“When I was younger, like anyone, I went to movies and looked for a good
story line, solid acting and beautiful visuals, but I was never thinking
about the choices that filmmakers made, and why I responded in a certain
way,” she says. “When you watch film as an artistic creation, and see its
historical and cultural context, it becomes a completely different
During a 16mm viewing of Samuel Fuller’s 1963 thriller “Shock Corridor” in
Prof. Jeanine Basinger’s Film Noir class, Dombrowski found herself curled
into her seat, stunned by the director/producer’s bold approach and shocking
visual style. Fuller would later become the focus of her dissertation at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she received her master’s of arts and
Ph.D. in film.
Dombrowski has rewritten her dissertation into a soon-to-be-published book,
“If You Die, I’ll Kill You: The Cinema of Samuel Fuller.” The book
highlights Fuller’s career from the late 1940s through the 1980s, and
examines his films from an aesthetic perspective.
Dombrowski has written or co-authored three recent grants, including a
Wesleyan University Pedagogical Grant in 2003; an Edward W. Snowdon Fund
Grant in 2004; and a Fund for Innovation Grant in 2005. She’s used these
grants to develop a Contemporary International Art Cinema course, support an
interdepartmental film and speaker series and support interdisciplinary
courses, workshops, and speaker events on science and visualization.
She still tries to catch as many new flicks in the theater as possible. Her
recent theater trips included viewings of “The New World,” “Brokeback
Mountain,” “King Kong,” “Match Point” and “Pride & Prejudice.”
Her interest in international and independent films has also taken her to
the South by Southwest Film Festival, the Toronto International Film
Festival, The Chicago Film Festival, and The New York Film Festival. She’s
been a jury member for the Bethel Film Festival in Bethel, Conn. and Film
Fest New Haven; and she’s served as curator of the Samuel Fuller Series at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cinematheque.
She’s studied thousands of films, averaging two a day. But to date, there’s
still one film-related question she’ll always shrug her shoulders at.
“So, what’s your favorite movie?”
“I’ll never have an answer for that,” she says, smiling. “There are too many
good movies out there, each with its own distinct style, to have only one
Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection