William Paul

Emeritus ​Professor of Film and Meida Studies
PhD, Columbia University
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    • WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
    • CB 1174
    • ONE BROOKINGS DR.
    • ST. LOUIS, MO 63130-4899
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    ​Professor Paul was the founding director of Film and Media Studies. He has specialized in writing about film genres, most especially comedy, and film spectatorship.

    Prof. William Paul was the founding director of Film and Media Studies.  He has specialized in writing about film genres, most especially comedy, and film spectatorship. He is the author of When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition and the Evolution of American Film (2016), Laughing/Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (1995), and Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy (1983), all from Columbia University Press.  He is currently working on a new book about contemporary romantic comedy.  In an earlier life, he was a movie reviewer for Rolling Stone, where he reviewed Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy as well as Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex, among other films, as well as a reviewer and feature article writer for The Village Voice, where he provided a report on the Lincoln Center gala honoring Alfred Hitchcock, a two-part article on the first showings of hard-core pornography in New York theaters, a consideration of André Bazin’s aesthetics in relation to contemporary documentary filmmaking, and a three-part career survey of classical Hollywood director Raoul Walsh, among other pieces.  Since then his writing on film genres, technology and movie theaters has appeared in academic journals and anthologies on film comedy, horror film and film exhibition.  He has also provided a video essay for the Criterion Collection disc of Design for Living.

    Selected Publications

    When Movies Were Theater, which won the 2016 Richard Wall Memorial Award "for an exemplary work in the field of recorded performance" from the Theatre Library Assocition as well as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title citation for 2016.

    Ernst Lubitsch's American Comedy

    Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror & Comedy

    "Uncanny Theater: The Twin Inheritances of the Movies," an essay awarded Honorable Mention in the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Kovács essay competition as “highly original and meticulous in its research, a significant contribution to our understanding of the cinema experience during the silent period.

    When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film

    When Movies Were Theater: Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film

    There was a time when seeing a movie meant more than seeing a film. The theater itself shaped the very perception of events on screen. This multilayered history tells the story of American film through the evolution of theater architecture and the surprisingly varied ways movies were shown, ranging from Edison's 1896 projections to the 1968 Cinerama premiere of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. William Paul matches distinct architectural forms to movie styles, showing how cinema's roots in theater influenced business practices, exhibition strategies, and film technologies.

    Laughing Screaming : Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy

    Laughing Screaming : Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy

    William Paul's exploration of an extremely popular box office genre - the gross-out movie - is the first book to take this lowbrow product seriously. Writing about "movies that embraced the lowest common denominator as an aesthetic principle, movies that critics constantly griped about having to sit through, " Paul examines their unique place in our culture. He focuses on gross-out horror and comedy films of the seventies and eighties - film cycles set in motion by the extraordinary successes of The Exorcist and Animal House. What links these genres together, Paul argues, is their concern with the human body - and all its scatological and sexual aspects. These "films of license, " as Paul calls them, embrace "explicitness as part of their aesthetic." Tracing both of these culturally disreputable subgenres back to older traditions of festive comedy and Grand Guignol, Paul finds their precursors in horror films like The Birds and Night of the Living Dead as well as comedies such as M*A*S*H and Blazing Saddles that were produced under Hollywood's then recently liberalized censorship code. Moving on to mass tastes, Paul asserts that American audiences are "not without powers of discrimination." He argues that gross-out movies challenge social tastes and values, but without the self-consciousness of avant-garde art. Through interpretations of classics by Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock, blaxploitation movies, horror films by David Cronenburg and Stanley Kubrick, and comedies starring John Belushi and Bill Murray, Paul establishes gross-out as a true genre - one that "speaks in the voice of festive freedom, uncorrected and unconstrained by the reality principle... aggressive, seeminglyimprovised, and always ambivalent."

    Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy

    Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy

    In this book, William Paul analyzes the style and social themes of the comic films made in Hollywood by the director, Ernst Lubitsch.