Looking Back on an Intro to Film Class

Back in December, I wrote a couple posts about designing an Introduction to Film class for the first time, and now that we've come to the end of the term, I thought I'd procrastinate grading look back on the things I wrote in those early posts to bring it all up to date.

The movies that we watched in their entirety during a weekly screening period were:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Manhunter
  3. Vertigo
  4. Zodiac
  5. 400 Blows
  6. Badlands
  7. Cabaret
  8. The Haunting
  9. The Shining
  10. Do the Right Thing
  11. The Living End
  12. Orlando
  13. Synecdoche, NY
Plus one optional film on the very first day of classes, Sullivan's Travels, and two films short enough to fit into our 75-minute class period: I Walked with a Zombie and Le Noir De... (Black Girl). If you're curious for even more detail of what we did, the course schedule is here.

Overall, this selection worked just fine, and it supported one of my basic goals for the class: showing the students a wide enough range of films to give them a sense of what cinema has to offer, while keeping the selection focused enough not to feel like a random potpourri of greatest hits. During class, I also showed extended clips of all sorts of things -- I was especially pleased when one of the students told me he'd really discovered he likes silent cinema, which we watched a lot of clips of, and which before the class he would have dismissed as old and stupid.

Clips worked really well, because they sparked lots of curiosity about movies the students hadn't encountered before -- the first 10 minutes or so of Hal Hartley's Trust especially got people writing in their notebooks and asking me if they could borrow my VHS of it (alas, it's not yet on DVD in the U.S.).

Some of the films worked better than I thought they would. The 400 Blows wasn't universally loved (each of the films had supporters and detractors, though there were clear favorites), but the students who loved it loved it in the way I did when I first saw it as an undergraduate -- as a kind of poetry that is immensely entertaining and then, in its final shots, emotionally overwhelming. Cabaret was the film that worked well for the largest amount of students, and it was a revelation for students who thought all musicals are sweet and silly. I expected a lot more pushback on The Living End and would not have been surprised if a student or two walked out of the screening, but though a number of them said they thought it was too explicit (which allowed us to talk about how hetero audiences tend to be oblivious to the explicitness of heterosex [that doesn't show a penis] and find even a same-sex kiss to be "too explicit" -- The Living End is definitely explicit, and certainly more explicit than just a kiss, but what is actually shown on screen is not more than in plenty of mainstream movies like Miami Vice or even Psycho, if we want to think about the scene that the students most focused on as too explicit: Jon and Luke in the shower. What is explicit in that scene is the way the characters talk to each other, which is much more specific than in mainstream movies, and welcomes the audience into imaginative participation. That's what can make the sex in The Living End unsettling for people, not the actual imagery.)

Orlando worked magnificently well, and led to one of my favorite class discussions, because it proved both entertaining and thought-provoking for the students. I'd previously thought of the film as somewhat superficial and light, but while it's certainly light, I have a new appreciation for the depths of its playfulness, given how well it caused my students to think hard about the world and their view of it.

Synecdoche, NY worked better than I expected, too -- I'd really been expecting about half the class to loathe it. But only one student said he really hated it, while a few others were just so bewildered by it they didn't know how to evaluate their experience. But many others said they found it fascinating and really powerful, and one student called it his favorite of any of the films we watched.

Do the Right Thing was probably the most divisive film for the class, with some of the students unable to see beyond an image they've acquired/imagined of Spike Lee, who some of the students sometime in their lives decided hates white people and therefore hates them and therefore they hate any movie he makes (except Inside Man, which they didn't realize he made). This was a difficult attitude to work through. We read an interview with Lee that many students quite obviously mis-read through the lens of their resistance to Lee, causing them to see only particular words, not even entire sentences. This all reinforced an experience I've continued to have with students of the type we tend to get, an attitude based on defensive liberal pieties of tolerance and niceness -- predicated on the ideas that 1.) discrimination is something that happened in the past, because I and all my friends are nice people who would not behave like the not-nice people back in the day; 2.) talking about race is not nice, because nice people are nice to everybody and don't point out their differences. Their educational experiences up to this point have not given them any vocabulary or templates for talking about difference in general and race in particular in any way other than "racism is bad" -- but "racism" is something that is very difficult for them to define beyond segregation.  In my Feminism in America class, I once had a student say flat-out, "Talking about race is racist," and other students in discussion agree that everything would be fine as long as we didn't talk about it.  I've had various conversations about this phenomenon with my colleagues in various disciplines, and they've shared similar stories.  (All of this is another reason I'm looking forward to my Outsider course in the fall, because it will, among many other things, allow us to explore the constructions of certains stereotypes and attitudes.)  I think I understand some of the reasons why so many students respond the way they do to the discussion of race -- not the content, but the fact of discussion itself -- since my background was similar to that of many of my students at least through 8th grade, but I'm still sometimes surprised when I encounter the fear, resentment, defensiveness, and ignorance that comes out when I try to get them thinking about some of the nuances, paradoxes, and complexities of racial discourse.

So yes, Do the Right Thing.  Good choice, but not an easy conversation.  College shouldn't be about easy conversations, though.

Only two of the films stand out to me as ones I will definitely replace if I teach the class in the future, though with one of them it's entirely a technical problem: Our classrooms are equipped with projectors that are ... less than ideal. This was annoying with all of the movies, but proved utterly destructive to only one: Zodiac. I was in pain watching it during our screening time, because what I most wanted the students to pay attention to -- the way the digital image represents night -- was exactly what the projector most obscured, turning everything less than twilight into flat black, and making entire scenes of the movie indecipherable. (I complained to our IT folks, who are very helpful and put up with a lot from me, and they said there wasn't much that could be done with these projectors, alas.) So unless there was other equipment available for a screening, I wouldn't -- couldn't! -- use Zodiac again, alas.

The other one I wouldn't use again is Vertigo, because my students' almost universal hatred of it led me to realize that it's really not a good film for the average undergraduate. A few of the students appreciated elements of it, but for the most part they just don't have enough experience of life and, particularly, experience of obsession to really access the film's power. I adore the movie even more every time I watch it, but I didn't myself really develop a love for Vertigo until I was in my late 20s or so (though my basic respect for it dates back to when I saw the restored print when it was released in New York in the 1990s). There are lots of other Hitchcock movies I could show.

If I teach the course in the future, I might switch out a few other films, just to keep things fresh for myself. The three horror movies worked well together, but I might want to play around with another genre, especially since I'd like to put in something by Howard Hawks, who I missed getting a chance to talk about at any length. (I'd be tempted to do something on westerns -- maybe Rio Bravo with The Furies, my favorite of Anthony Mann's extraordinary westerns, plus one or two others to balance things out.)

The Corrigan & White textbook worked pretty well, though I expect the students would mostly say it was boring. I expect they'd say that about all the readings I gave them, in fact. To a certain extent, you either like reading about film or you don't, and I'd bet the latter group is much larger than the former. The book worked well for our purposes, however, in that it provided them with ways of thinking, talking, and writing about film that they wouldn't otherwise have access to, and it helped expand their perception of what can be said about cinema. I'd also assigned the Village Voice Film Guide, which we didn't make as much use of as I thought we would, and I'd probably drop it in the future. The goal was for the students to have easy access to brief, informed writing on a lot of movies they might not have heard of, but there's enough out on the internet that I can point them to, and, in fact, I'd try to do more such pointing if I taught the class again.

Inevitably, there were students who didn't like the class and students who were indifferent to the class, but I was pleased with the many students who really did seem to get excited by what we were doing, and it was especially pleasing to see many of them develop really nuanced and thoughtful responses by the end of the term.


  1. Fascinating post. This sounds like a great introductory class to me, if maybe a bit light on comedy.

    I've been thinking about watching Do the Right Thing again lately. I think Spike Lee's movies are much less overtly political than he is in person. He tends to take a much more nuanced view of things in him films. I think many people who are put off by what he says would appreciate what his films say.

    And, honestly, I don't remember any actual sex in The Living End. That was a movie I saw multiple times in the theatre. Loved it, wanted to live it for a while, but it does illustrate how straight people are unaware of the amount of sex in "straight" movies.

    I'm surprised they didn't like Vertigo at all. I loved it when I was their age.

  2. Excellent post, Matt. I'm teaching intro. to film right now, and have lots of overlap with those films. We're doing Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Psycho, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, Wall Street, Unforgiven, Shawshank and No Country for Old Men.

    The most teachable? From both a craft and narrative perspective, it's The Exorcist.

    Hope all is well...

  3. Sounds like a great class, chockfull of great movies. Hal Hartley's Trust was the first of several of his films that I've seen--by no means all of them--and it remains my favorite, by far. I disliked Henry Fool and thought he'd fallen off the map after that. (I found by chance a more recent film of his on television, No Such Thing, which I found engrossing and quite moving in that way Hartley can be; I was surprised to find it had not been well-received.)

    Perhaps instead of Vertigo you might show Shadow of a Doubt, which remains startlingly contemporary today.

    I had a few film courses in college, strictly for fun, and I took two classes with one professor, who, when he first asked students their thoughts about that week's assigned film, was always scornful of the immediate reactions of "I liked it" or "I hated it." He wasn't interested in whether we liked the film, but only what we thought about it, what we had noticed in it--the motifs, visual cues and action and props, and so on--and how did those things we noticed carry us to an interpretation of the filmmaker's intent and success in achieving his intent. He inspired a lot of non-film majors who had never thought about the ways and means of artistic expression to do so with surprising success.
    (One of the courses I took with him was "Hollywood on Hollywood," in which we watched films about the film business and milieu. Our text for that class was Robert Sklar's Movie Made America, which I found fascinating.)

    This was in 1978 at the University of Florida.

  4. Makes me wish I was back in school.

    Are you familiar with Understanding Movies by Louis Gianetti? It's been years, but I recall that as being one the best introductory textbooks I'd run across, film or otherwise.

  5. Wow, another Hal Hartley fan (why am I not suprised?) I waxed poetic about Trust once upon a time. BTW, I really love the arty Hartley film Surviving Desire. It's quirky and self-consciously arty -- and students won't like that, but I think you would.

    Synecdoche, are you serious? (I guess I had seen that exact same film before in various incarnations.

    Probably not right for your class, but I'm lately became enamored of John Sayles. He has some youth-oriented films (Baby It's you).

    Thanks for mentioning Sembene again. I've seen one or two of his films before and have a (still unwatched) Xala on my Netflix Instant Viewing list...

    Speaking of Sembene, you might enjoy his book God's Bit of Wood .

  6. Silly me, I forgot the most important detail.

    Trust has been available for instant viewing on Netflix. Really, using Roku to stream your Netflix movies to your TV is an incredible bargain.

    I've watched an incredible amount of stuff on Instant Viewing. My faves: Carbide and Sorrel and Man from Earth .

  7. Glad to know Trust can at least be streamed -- I hadn't checked it on Netflix, so didn't know that. Cool beans!

    James asked about Gianetti, and, indeed, one of my colleagues uses that book for this course. I wanted to teach from a somewhat different, or more varied, perspective, so went with Corrigan & White. (All described in more detail in the post on choosing a textbook.)

    (And C.B. James noted the lack of comedy, which, too, I discussed in the long first post about designing the course -- there were entire genres I chose to eliminate so I could come up with a useable list of films to screen.)

    And yes, Sayles! I adored him when I was in my late teens/early twenties, and back in the days before Netflix and DVDs, one of the reasons I worshipped Kim's Video in NYC was that I was able to see a bunch of Sayles films I'd never been able to find in New Hampshire -- Return of the Seacaucus 7 (filmed in New Hampshire!), Lianna, Brother from Another Planet, Baby It's You... (Before that, I'd seen Matewan, City of Hope, Lone Star, and -- alone in a cinema in Newton, MA -- Men with Guns. Nowadays, I tend to find Sayles a little bit schematic for my tastes, but they're still movies I'm terribly fond of, partly because of their inherent decency and humanity, but mostly because they remind me of a previous time in my life.

    Hartley didn't completely fall off the map -- somewhere here I even wrote about one of his recent films, one I thought was awful. But he seems, for whatever reason, to have lost something after Henry Fool. (I haven't seen Faye Grim, the sequel.) When a local video store went out of business about ten years ago, I picked up tapes of most of Hartley's movies up to Henry Fool. One of the best teachers I had in college, David Greenspan, has a small part in Amateur as George The Pornographer, so that film has a special place in my heart. There's a consistency to them that makes them more or less equal in my mind, up through Henry Fool, which sort of falls apart in its epic aspirations, but there's so much to love in it nonetheless, at least if you're tuned in to Hartley's wavelength. Flirt, too, which deserves more attention than it's gotten. I should watch them all again and write something...


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