2014-2015 Film History Courses
Latin American Cinema
This course surveys key developments in the history of Latin American cinema. Latin America has generated thriving movie industries with strong output of popular genres, low-budget indie filmmaking scenes, politically engaged documentarians, influential arthouse dramas, experimentalism with strong ties to fine-arts practices, and much more. We will look at a number of the films considered classics of the region, spanning the early national landmarks of the ’30s, the industrial “golden age” of the ’40s and ’50s, the “New Latin American Cinema” of the ’60s and ’70s, the post-dictatorship films of the ’80s, and the post-’90s diversification of styles and topics that continues in the present. A distinct set of questions and issues will comprise the themes of the course: How have filmmakers elected to represent the history of their country or region? What are the various ways in which filmmakers have sought to construct dialogues with older cinematic traditions? How have political concerns shaped the cinematic practices of specific periods and regions? How can we characterize the contemporary trends and tendencies of Latin American cinema today, and what is their relation to past cinemas? The process of delving into these issues will entail reading texts of various kinds, including filmmakers' manifestos, interviews, popular criticism, and academic studies. Most of the films that we will discuss are fictional narratives, although a sampling of documentaries will also be screened. Our main focus will be on films from Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil.
History of Film Art
This class will introduce students to the art of film through a survey of its rich history. We will begin with the emergence of the technologies for making and exhibiting films around 1894 and the major genres of early cinema (1895-1904), most of which were non-narrative. We will then turn our attention to the development of "classical" narrative film in the United States in the 1900s and 1910s; the creation of alternatives to classical cinematic storytelling in the 1920s in France, Germany, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere; the rise of documentary and experimental film; and the coming of sound in the late 1920s. We will see how European filmmakers on both the Left and Right responded to the increasing political turmoil in the lead-up to World War II in the 1930s, while filmmakers in Japan created popular traditions of filmmaking. We will consider the impact of World War II on film history; the emergence of Italian Neo-Realism and “modernist” art cinema in the late 1940s and 1950s; the New Waves of the late 1950s; and political modernist, postcolonial, feminist, and other radical forms of filmmaking that arose in response to the political crises of the 1960s. Finally, we will survey world cinema since the 1970s, focusing on the changes that have occurred in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and the contributions to film art of filmmakers in Hong Kong and in other non-Western countries.
The Essay Form in Film and Video
In one of the most useful, but also controversial, treatments of “a cinematic genre that barely exists,” the critic Phillip Lopate identified the necessary elements of the moving-image essay: a thesis grounded in a unified and personalized point of view, “an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem,” and a refined use of language. This course considers how the essay form has been taken up within alternative moving-image practices such as art cinema, experimental film, and video art. We will closely examine works that meet these criteria, including Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil; but the course will also consider other manifestations of the moving-image essay, especially those that foreground reflexive, self-conscious modes of addressing the spectator. We will begin in the silent era, but our timeline of films places emphasis on films from the ’60s to the present. One key issue for our studies will be the moving-image essayist’s tendency to explore theoretical and conceptual issues through structure, form, and style. In other words, we will track how the aesthetic properties of each work that we view are designed to convey or embody important ideas or theses. In addition, we will see that it is often the case that the artist’s process of “thinking through” the work is accompanied by attempts at opening up a space for spectatorial reflection. Through intricate montage techniques, the rhetorical devices available to cinematic narrators and various other means, cinematic essayists have sought to simultaneously embed their own reflections in their work and challenge viewers to alternative forms of engagement and response. Given this, how students respond to essay films and videos will make up an especially important element of the course.
The Contemporary Cinema
In this course, we will study the art of film and its practitioners around the world in the past quarter century. This has been a period of change and of significant accomplishment. We will look at the work of such notable filmmakers as Pedro Almodóvar and Kathryn Bigelow, Gillian Armstrong and Ousmane Sembène, the Coen brothers and the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Luc Godard and Richard Linklater and Lucrecia Martel, Michael Haneke and Terrence Malick and Béla Tarr, Hong Sangsoo and Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Michael Mann and David O. Russell, Jia Zhangke and Abbas Kiarostami and Spike Lee and Agnes Varda and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among other possibilities. We will examine important trends as well as outstanding films.
Storytelling in Film and Television
What is a story? How do films and other audiovisual mediums tell stories, and what kinds of stories do they tell? Are audiovisual and verbal storytelling the same; for example, do films and TV shows, like novels, have narrators and single authors? And are there significant differences between storytelling in film and television? These are the major theoretical questions that we will address in this comprehensive survey of narrative and narration in television and film. We will begin by considering how filmmakers in the early part of the 20th century developed a “classical” mode of storytelling that proved enormously popular and profitable. We will examine the reasons for its appeal, such as the opportunity it affords viewers to “identify” strongly with characters. We will then look at experiments with alternative modes of cinematic storytelling that first arose in the 1920s and reemerged in the great flowering of “art cinema” in the post-World War II era. We will see how these alternatives have influenced studio and “independent” American filmmakers since the late 1960s and will then turn our attention to contemporary Hollywood to determine the extent to which popular cinematic storytelling has or has not changed since the 1910s. The second half of the semester will be devoted to television. We will consider how the “classical” mode of cinematic storytelling was adapted to television beginning in the 1940s and examine the characteristic genres that arose as a result, such as the police procedural and the sitcom. We will spend the last part of the semester on the emergence of more complex and challenging storytelling in television since the 1990s, considering the narrative and stylistic innovations in shows such as Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and The Walking Dead.
Rhetoric of Film
How movies move us, how they engage us and affect us, is the subject of this course. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, originally practiced in oratory, a speaker addressing an audience, but coming into play whenever someone aims to influence someone else by any suitable means. Anything done with the intent of eliciting a response qualifies as rhetoric. Even if not directly, like a lawyer pleading a case or a politician making a speech, a movie addresses us in the audience and seeks to make us feel and think in certain ways. The plot of a movie, the character portrayal, the acting and staging, the arrangements of camera and cutting—these are techniques for gaining our involvement, shaping our response, swaying our view of things. In this course, we will look into the forms of transaction with the audience and the various means of persuasion—emotional or logical, aesthetic or ethical, personal or social—employed in films from the silent era to the present day. We will examine how tropes and figures of expression have been put to use on the screen and consider both classical tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony) and specifically cinematic figures like the close-up, the reverse angle, cross-cutting, or camera movement. Identification, a more complex matter than often supposed, will be a central concern. Students should have some background in film or in related subjects such as literature, philosophy, or art history. Permission of the instructor is required.