Omaha World-Herald: Films are her life, but don’t try to pin her down to one favorite

By Micah Mertes / World-Herald staff writer

Why film?

“Why not film?” said Diana Martinez.

Martinez is a film scholar, writer, critic and fanatic finishing up her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon. This summer she was brought on as Film Streams’ education director, building programs for high school students and adults to screen, discuss and learn about cinema.

Film is her life. Which makes Film Streams a great place to be.

Martinez’s movie love started at an early age. She was born and raised in a Southern California suburb about an hour north of L.A.

Her parents had emigrated from El Salvador, and movies were one of the main ways they learned English.

“So I kind of just grew up watching anything and everything,” Martinez said. “I was allowed to see everything, probably things I shouldn’t have seen.”

Being exposed to so many films gave her eclectic tastes. She remembers watching Brian De Palma’s bizarro “Phantom of the Paradise,” one of her dad’s favorites and a film that instilled in her a love of the excessive. (“That led to Tarantino and all these other guys who have that aesthetic of blowing everything up, blood everywhere.”)

She also liked rom-coms. “You’ve Got Mail,” for instance, was weirdly formative.

“Nora Ephron as a writer-director led me to Woody Allen and these other New York directors,” Martinez said. “They encapsulated what I saw as this myth of the city that was artistic, that was creative, that was totally the life I wanted to be living in suburban California.”

It wasn’t until college that she realized movies could be more than just the greatest thing ever; they could also be a career. She was an English lit major at California State University, San Bernardino when she took a film class taught by a medievalist professor. He talked about the film “Alien” as an adaptation of “Beowulf,” and that was pretty much it for her.

“This guy who has a Ph.D. is teaching these classes, merging this thing that people think is really archaic with film,” Martinez said. “I thought that was so cool. I was, like, ‘I’m going to grad school.’ ”

After several years of schooling and teaching at the University of Oregon, Martinez is now wrapping up her own Ph.D. (Her dissertation is on female comedians.)

She hasn’t been able to contain her ideas about film, gender, race and media to purely academic writing. She’s written a lot, for publications like Slate, Indiewire and the Atlantic, on topics such as “Jane the Virgin,” “Narcos” and Katy Perry.

Martinez comes to her Film Streams position with an appreciation of high and low culture.

She recently kicked off the nonprofit theater’s first Courses seminar, the inaugural topic being American independent cinema. The first film screened was John Cassavetes’ challenging, iconic “Shadows.” The Courses classes are for adults, but Martinez will also teach high school and middle school students for Film Streams’ Daytime Education Program. Last school year the theater brought in more than 3,000 students for screenings and discussions.

“And one of the goals (this year) is not just to bring in more students but to bring in a greater diversity of students from around the metro area,” Martinez said. “It’s a more fruitful discussion when you have students in the room who have different backgrounds and bring in different perspectives.”

The Film Streams position, Martinez said, allows her to ease out of academia while still getting to teach and write about film. As a teacher, she’s always liked to contextualize ideas within contemporary concerns.

For example, she said, “I will make my students talk about Kim Kardashian with me. Endlessly.

“One of the things that I really truly feel is that because everybody has access to film and everybody has access to television, people are immersed in media all the time, and they’re much savvier critics of media than anything else.”

People don’t read Shakespeare every day, she said, but they are mired in the Internet and Kim Kardashian, whose Instagram can serve as a way to think about “how the media treats women, about celebrity culture, about the self-made YouTube reality show entrepreneurial spirit that’s in the culture right now.”

“She’s like a way to talk about these larger things,” Martinez said of Kardashian. “It doesn’t make you any dumber to think about Kim Kardashian for a few minutes … critically.”

This bridging of the high and low extends to Martinez’s own tastes and interests. She believes there doesn’t have to be a wall between the arty and the frothy.

This is one of the reasons Martinez hates the question “What’s your favorite movie?”

“ ‘Rear Window,’ ” she said. “It’s a great movie, but I don’t know if in my childhood it would have made me escape in the way films do when we’re really young. When people ask me my favorite film, a film I really love is ‘Charade,’ but, like, do I like it more than I like ‘Clueless’? Really, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t know.

“I don’t like that question because I don’t feel like it gets at all the different purposes film has had in my life.”

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