11 August 2009

If I Taught "Introduction to American Film"


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.

22 comments:

Juliette. said...

Terrific post-- thanks for sharing your views. I've often thought about which movies I'd choose if I were ever to become a film teacher. Definitely Chaplin, definitely The Big Parade...good pick with Bonnie and Clyde. Really illustrates the change from Old to New Hollyood. Thanks again-- I liked you're response to CK. :)

Goddess said...

Only 13 movies? our classes here at college meet 3x a week during the regular sessions and 4x during the summer. You have the opp. to show up to 26 movies or more if they are shorts. True this makes it tougher to choose but you can include women directors, the Brits, war films, more silents, different genres, etc...I took a film history class once, of the 26 films I had seen all but 3 and if I never see blowup again it will be alright.

AS for my class; I'd show some Chaplin, Keaton, Sennett, Arbuckle, Busby Berkley, John Ford, Ida Lupino (both starring and directing) and of course Mable Normand! I think showing the best of all the studios (and some of their worst) might be difficult but worth while.

Shanerology said...

Why Chaplin over Keaton?

Also, you totally skipped the 80's. There had to have been at least one film from that period that was the cinema at its finest: probably a Speilberg film?

I concur with every choice of yours with the exception of Monster's Ball. Rather than that choice, though good, I'd have taken Magnolia.

Anonymous said...

In my "U.S. History Through Film" we did watch "The Searchers" accompanied by a gret deal of lively conversation. I might also suggest "Birth of a Nation"

Pell said...

Quite honestly I've always wondered why teachers don't occasionally just offer to teach people online in some way, with webcams or something, so those willing and eager to just learn.
I understand the financial aspect, and how it could never replace a true teaching environment and interaction between students or student and teacher, but with such restrictions on how what is taught, it just seems if you really wanted to do such a thing, as a side project for fun or something, or as a test run for a "real course" you just could.
Excuse the run on sentences, I haven't slept in over 28 hours and I tend to babble.
Personally, I'd snap up the opportunity to just learn subjects like this to simply learn. The graduation and piece of paper after so long of being graded and etc isn't so important as the process of being educated.
... I believe I had more of a point in here somewhere but I think it's wandered off. Sorry.

Craig said...

No Clerks, Pulp Fiction, or sex, lies, and videotape? If you're going to use Taxi Driver to express the auteur filmakers of the 70's, you have to include at least one of those films which revolutionized independent film in the 90's. Also, I'm not sure why Monster's Ball is included on this list. Other than a very raunchy sex scene I've never found this movie to stand up against others of its ilk.

The Ringleader said...

I have to agree with Shanerology, you have 2 films from the 1930's, 1950's and 1960's, while leaving out the 1980's. Additionally, all of the films presented seem to be what I'll call "adult cinema", in that none of them are targeted at a younger audience. Perhaps you can rectify this in the addition of an 1980's film by adding a teen drama, or the like. But perhaps that's my bias from growing up in the 80's.

Mitch said...

I would have Birth of a Nation as the week 1 film. Regardless of it's subject matter, it was the first true feature with modern editing techniques.

Some one mentioned 80s films, the one that really sticks out as exceptional is Die Hard. Simply in the way it subverted the action genre of the time.

Anonymous said...

Great choices. I'd briefly mention the 80's however, specifically John Hughes's Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink. Very iconic, and introduced a whole new genre geared toward a demographic that has since been targeted with a vengeance in the film world.

Josh said...

Where is "Birth of A Nation" it did afterall, regardless of content, establish the close-up. Pretty good list though.

Peter said...

I agree with your format completely. I also agree with your inclusion of Chaplin. He's better than Lloyd or Keaton when it comes to comedy. I also agree with Baby Face, Citizen Kane and Star Wars, but the rest of your choices are suspect.

No noir, no gangster movies, no crime drama?

Rather than The Big Parade, why not All Quiet on the Western Front? If you want to engage your students, why not a WB gangster film rather than the (sappy) melodrama of Jezebel?

While we're at it, Singin' in the Rain is more entertaining (and in my opinion a better movie) than The Band Wagon. I'd take High Noon or Red River over The Searchers.

I'm not a fan of Hitchcock and I really don't like either Psycho or its modern day equivalent. However, I have no ideas for possible substitutions in that genre.

I don't care if it was cute and revolutionary, Bonnie & Clyde is not a very good movie. Factually it's all wrong, meaning it's just a vehicle for pretty people. Fast & Furious anyone? How about a movie covering the 60s, like Harold and Maude or even Easy Rider?

JFK is just wrong. I mean, JFK is a conspiracy nutcase, couched in non-fact and innuendo. It's not socially relevant or cinematically important. Wall Street says more about America than JFK.

Monster's Ball? Did we see the same movie? I don't know what your angle is here, but that was not an especially good or significant movie. I don't like them very much, but the Matrix or Pulp Fiction would be better than Monster's Ball.

Richard Hourula said...

Peter, Not a fan of Hitchcock? Don't think Bonnie & Clyde was a good movie? JFK "just plain wrong"? And your use of the tired "did we se the same movie?"
If I taught such a class you'd really benefit from it. I mean seriously, not liking Hitchcock..goodness me.

Yodapollo said...

Nice post. Totally agree with Chaplin for the early shorts, but Birth of a Nation definitely deserves a place in the first couple of weeks.

I'd also like to see at least one Preston Sturges film in there, as he was one of the most popular directors of the 1940s and 50s. Maybe Sullivan's Travels or Miracle of Morgan's Creek.

As far as the 80s go, maybe Raging Bull, The Dark Crystal or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (i think this predated any of the John Hughes teen films). If you need to use a Hughes film, Sixteen Candles is probably the best example.

I still don't understand the use of Monster's Ball. And the lack of independent 90s films is a little bizarre. You need something like Reservoir Dogs, Dazed & Confused, or something of that sort.

Still, on the whole, good list. Just needs some tweaking...

R. Earl Grant said...

If I were to make changes I'd drop JFK and Monster's Ball only to add the theme of modern film and Roger Corman. When a film like Bucket of Blood is compared to Psycho you can see how "independent" films targeted at teens (baby-boomers) and the grindhouse market were able to skirt the code (rather than wink at it as Hitchcock did masterfully) and eventually challenge the code.

Short story from Wikipedia. Academic resources should elaborate.

A number of noted film directors worked with Corman, usually early in their careers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Donald G. Jackson, Gale Anne Hurd, Carl Colpaert, Joe Dante, James Cameron, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Paul Bartel, George Armitage, Jonathan Kaplan, George Hickenlooper, Curtis Hanson, and Jack Hill. Many have said that Corman's influence taught them some of the ins-and-outs of filmmaking. In the extras for the DVD of The Terminator, director James Cameron refers to his work for Corman as, "I trained at the Roger Corman Film School." The British director Nicolas Roeg served as the cinematographer on The Masque of the Red Death.

Actors who obtained their career breaks working for Corman include Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Michael McDonald, Dennis Hopper, Talia Shire, and Robert De Niro. David Carradine, who received one of his first starring film roles in the Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha (1972) and went on to star in Death Race 2000, later noted: "It’s almost as though you can’t have a career in this business without having passed through Roger’s hands for at least a moment."

Anonymous said...

Great post.
I agree with the others with your lack of 80s movie. I would have Who Framed Roger Rabbit? on the list, it also touches on animation in American film.

Catherine said...

Citizen Kane is shown in pretty much every intro to film class I've ever heard of. Not saying that it doesn't deserve it, though.

Anonymous said...

The Band Wagon not "totally bereft of artistic merit" ? That sounds like you think it is somewhat bereft of artistic merit. Actually it's one of the greatest musicals of all time.

Chaplin but not the far superior Keaton?

Psycho as the best representative of Hitchcock, instead of Vertigo, Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, or Rear Window?

I think I'll take somebody else's class.

Anonymous said...

seriously- there is not one brando film on your list- you don't know what you are talking about.

Anonymous said...

I took a basic Film Study in class, and we watched movies about filmmaking and exemplifying film and film history:
Living in Oblivion
El Mariachi
City Lights
Singin' In The Rain
Streetwise
Double Indemnity
I think that's it. Pretty good choices I think if you wanted to be taught about filmmaking and history.

Robert said...

not bad, but i'd show Vertigo instead of Psycho, Jaws instead of Star Wars, and Pulp Fiction instead of Monsters Ball.

Richard Hourula said...

Thank you to the anonymous who concluded that because I don't have a Brando film on the list I don't know what I'm talking about. I will now take delete the blog and never write about films again. On second thought, you must just be an idiot.

Richard Hourula said...

And to the anonymous who would take someone else's class: Good, I wouldn't your likes mixed in with my students.
(Anyone else notice that the mean spirited and obnoxious comments always come from people who hide behind anonymity?)