I've been a teacher for most of my adult life with decidedly mixed results. I've always enjoyed creating and teaching lessons and have had wonderful and fruitful relationships with most of my students. On the other hand there have been those many students who in addition to not caring to learn would just as soon no one else did either. Often, spineless administrators prove to be an encumbrance.
But what if I had a teaching assignment with guaranteed attentive and interested students and without bureaucratic interference? And as a further change of pace, let's imagine that this was not a course in American History but in American film. What fun!
A term is usually about 13 weeks long so I would have that number of sessions to give what would at best be a cursory introduction to American film. Let's put aside for now what reading I would assign and the manner in which students would be graded (maybe a paper on a particular director, genre, studio or time period). Let's just look at the films that would occupy the vast majority of instructional time.
A film a week. I would only select films that I liked. Each would have to represent a different time period and trend in films. I'd give a brief introduction and perhaps a short wrap up and take questions at the end. Picking only 13 films to represent American film is next to impossible. But teachers are used to that sort of challenge. Here's what I'd show and a brief explanation of why. Think of it as part of my course syllabus.
Week One A Collection of Charlie Chaplin Shorts. I've diverted from my intended path in the first week but for the only time. These shorts would show film in its relative infancy. It would be a look at early comedy in particular a style that has influenced future generations at that. More particularly we'd see the genius of Chaplin and his use of pathos.
Week Two The Big Parade (1925). The highest grossing silent film of all time, The Big Parade was both a powerful anti-war picture and a blockbuster. It melded a realistic depiction of war and a love story. Directed by King Vidor. An intimate story told on an epic scale.
Week Three Baby Face (1933). The very best example of pre code Hollywood. Barbara Stanwyck plays a young woman tired of being pimped out by her father. She flees to the big city where she cynically sleeps her way to the top. It's like would not be seen for another 40 years. Shocking in any era, it is an excellent film. Indicates the direction American film could have gone were it not neutered by the enforcement of the code.
Week Four Jezebel (1938). Bette Davis and Henry Fonda starred. William Wyler directed. Its a costume drama struggling under the strains of the strict enforcement of the production code. Classic example of the sophisticated Golden Age melodrama.
Week Five Citizen Kane (1941). Well duh....
Week Six The Band Wagon (1953). My one example of the Hollywood musical and the early 50's sensibilities of mainstream film. Features Fred Astaire. It's glossy and fun with toe tapping numbers aplenty. Light, airy without being totally bereft of artistic merit.
Week Seven The Searchers (1956). The flip side of Hollywood in the Fifties. Also represents the Western and the work of John Ford. Rife with meaning and an early challenge to racism in film. Breath taking cinema photography.
Week Eight Psycho (1960). An Alfred Hitchcock film at last. The famous shower scene, the very idea of a star being killed off half way through the movie. The forerunner of a kind of film that is made so poorly today, the slasher movie. The closest thing to a noir I've got.
Week Nine Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Helped shake Hollywood out of a long stupor. Introduced violence, albeit somewhat stylized, and a very different look at sex. Two gorgeous stars, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in an anthem to the anti establishment ethos of the late Sixties.
Week Ten Taxi Driver (1976). In some respects the quintessential Seventies film and from one of the great directors of the era, Martin Scrosese. Featured an important star in Robert DeNiro. Powerful and very adult themes and memorable scenes. Social commentary told in a totally compelling style.
Week Eleven Star Wars (1977). For better or worse Star Wars revolutionized films. Special effects were front and center. Sequels and prequels were to come along with merchandising tie-ins. The Summer blockbuster would be a permanent fixture. Ridiculous amount of money made. All this and a rollicking good movie too.
Week Twelve JFK (1991). Hugely controversial in subject matter, totally unafraid to take on multiple targets at once. Very impressive cast of stars directed by Oliver Stone. Brilliantly edited and regardless of one's view of Stone's message it was bravura story telling. Actually helped create awareness of questions surrounding the Kennedy assassination and led to some documents being de classified by the government.
Week Thirteen Monster's Ball (2001). Very explicit sex, interracial at that, but not at all gratuitous. Though boasting a major star who would win an Oscar for her performance, Halle Berry, this was clearly not a mainstream Hollywood movie. Enjoyed critical success and did only moderately well at the box office. Like a lot of the best films of this decade it straddled the line between independent and mainstream.
In future posts I'll provide syllabi for intermediate and advanced courses, and maybe even for a graduate seminar.