Film and Modernism

This is a course from a previous year. View the current courses

Central to modernism—that vast, diverse movement that transformed the arts in the late 19th and 20th centuries—was the desire to modernize art, to break with tradition and cultivate new artistic forms and styles more suited to the modern world, even though, paradoxically, modernists often did this by mining “the greatest works of the tradition for irreducible structures which can be made to support new works” (P. Adams Sitney). But how did modernism impact the cinema given that, as a new medium, it initially lacked traditions to break with? In the first semester of this course, we will consider what modernism was in general and how it initially took root in film. Beginning with German Expressionism of the 1920s, arguably the first modernist movement in cinema, we will examine how European filmmakers sought to create equivalents of modernist and avant-garde movements in the fine arts, theatre, and literature while simultaneously attempting to purify film of these arts. We will see how modernist and avant-garde filmmakers negotiated the transition to sound in the late 1920s, as well as the re-emergence of varieties of realism in the politically charged 1930s and war-torn 1940s. In the second semester, after considering whether Italian Neo-Realism is a form of modernism, we will turn our attention to European filmmakers—such as Bresson, Tati, Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, and Godard—who cultivated innovative forms and styles in the postwar period, often in dialogue with Hollywood genre filmmaking. Beginning with Hitchcock and continuing with Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and others, we will also look at the extent to which modernism influenced filmmakers working in the studio system in the United States. Finally, we will return to Europe to witness the politicization of modernism in the late 1960s and 1970s in the work of filmmakers such as Godard, Jansco, Straub and Huillet, and Akerman; and we will ask whether modernist cinema, as many have argued, came to an end in the 1980s. Some prior exposure to modernist and/or avant-garde art is a prerequisite for this class.