Teaching the Intro to Film Course

I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days about how I might be able to contribute to this month’s Teaching Carnival. Like Mel, I think George has asked some excellent questions, and because I’ve just started a new teaching gig here at Fayetteville State, I’m most interested right now in thinking about what I’ll be doing differently this year. I addressed this question in passing a few weeks ago when I discussed my plans for my freshman composition classes this fall, but I haven’t really discussed my other course, Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy, in much detail.

Right now, I’m teaching the course as a variant of the Introduction to Film courses that I’ve taught at Purdue, Illinois, and Georgia Tech. Like an Introduction to literature course, the intro class requires a lot of juggling, introducing students to the formal language of film study (close-up, low-key lighting), to film genres and histories, and to the basics of film theory (the male gaze, etc). And because I’m interested in how social and technological forces affect our experience of moviegoing, I’ve decided to teach the Intro course using Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White’s The Film Experience, but in general, like Chris at Dr. Mabuse, I’ve been thinking about what the Introduction to Film texts and courses–including some specific classroom practices–say about our discipline, and I’ve been specifically trying to address this question as it relates to my position withing Fayetteville State’s student population.

One of the challenegs I’ve faced so far is the lack of a recent institutional history of teaching an Introduction to Film course, which means that I’ve had to scramble a bit more than usual to organize screenings of the films that we’ll be discussing in class. At the same time, the relatively small class size (15-17 students) and the number of students who work or live off-campus have translated into screenings attended by only a few students each night. In the past, one of the pedagogical goals of the screenings was the hope that it would model for students the colllective experience of moviegoing. Now, if my course proves to be popular, these numbers may change, making it more productive to schedule class screenings, but given the challenges of setting up these screenings, I’m wondering if my students will be served just as well watching the films independently, either by placing them on reserve in the media center or by allowing them to track down movies on their own. But this experience has also alerted me to the fact that the Intro course practice of scheduling required movie screenings may in fact be the result of a technological history in which many of the films would be shown on film rather than on DVD.

The second question I’m confronting is related to these technological issues and is also implied in the official title of the course, Film and Visual Literacy. As I put together this semester’s class, I found myself becoming acutely aware of the degree to which the Intro course should perhaps be more honestly described as an “Introduction to Classical Hollywood Cinema” course emphasizing film’s status as an art, a bias resulting in part from the need to justify the cinema as worthy of study. And this question draws from my own interests in new media studies. Should a course introducing students to the discipline of film studies today spend a week looking at videos on YouTube? At home movies? At industrial or pedagogical films such as those found in the Prelinger Archives? These questions might be more relevant at a university such as Fayetteville State where I’m not involved in the task of preparing students for a film major because there won’t be other opportunities for me to present such alternative film practices to my students. The most recent film that I teach right now is Run Lola Run, a movie I love, but I can’t help but think that my Intro course, as it stands right now, needs to be updated for the new ways in which we watch and engage with motion pictures of all kinds.

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18 Comments »

  1. Chris Said,

    August 31, 2006 @ 12:20 pm

    chuck — vslid points about youtube and other ways we experience the moving image these days. my opinion there is that these other things are still so influenced by cinema and television that ultimately we still have to teach ‘classical hollywood cinema’ as at least the starting point and major influence. in my postproduction class, i sometimes wonder about the wisdom of teaching what must seem like ancient principles, given modern editing, but in truth, good editing (like good cinema or youtube video) all originates from the same basic concepts.

    on the subject of screenings, we’re struggling with that, too. starting in the spring, we’re adding a lab component to classes that require a screening, so when students sign up for the course, the lab time (usually a weekday evening) is built in to the course schedule. but this semester, i make a copy available for checkout (and i’ll probably still have to do that next year).

    in terms of positive reinforcement, some of our profs offer extra credit to attend their screenings. so, yes, the students CAN rent the DVD on their own, but the extra credit encourages them to come to the screening and experience the movie in a “collective” ssetting. you might consider some minor form of extra credit for attendance at the screenings.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 31, 2006 @ 3:44 pm

    Most universities where I’ve taught film have had a “lab,” but until the course gains traction, I probably won’t be able to swing for that. Extra credit is an interesting possibility.

    Certainly a major goal of the course is textual analysis, and the classic intro course does that as well as anything, but for non-film majors, many of whom may eventually teach in public high schools, I’m wondering if a unit on new media isn’t warranted.

  3. McChris Said,

    August 31, 2006 @ 4:15 pm

    I’m not sure how strictly you take “Classical Hollywood Cinema,” but I imagine students would get bored only watching old black-and-white movies. Could you move into different terrain late in the semester. I could see doing a week on documentaries and avant-garde short film and a “media specificity” week addressing television and perhaps new media.

    As a grad student, I think screenings are important since it puts everyone on the same page, even if we’re watching television programs. In addition, it can help raise issues about reception contexts and situate film-going historically.

    I’m rushing off to class, but I think you’re right about screenings as a historical vestige. Here’s a great article about how the VCR killed public screenings at UT. Our film and TV studies classes still have screenings though – we have three really nice screening rooms, and plenty of classrooms that work OK.

  4. Chuck Said,

    August 31, 2006 @ 5:08 pm

    I probably should have clarified the idea that I focus solely on “classical Hollywood cinema,” especially if you take that term in the strictest sense of Hollywood films from 1917-1960. I have one documentary (The Thin Blue Line) and three films made outside the US as well as one or two “New Hollywood” films. So I’m not focusing solely on “classical Hollywood cinema,” but we are looking primarily at feature-length, narrative cinema for the most part.

    My reasons for wanting screenings are similar to yours. I like using the screenings as a way into talking about reception contexts, but they’re also valuable in keeping everyone involved in the course. Given that I’m the lone “film and media guy,” I’ll have some freedom to experiment in the future, so maybe a course on TV or unit on TV/media specificity will fit into future versions of this class.

    The article about screenings at UT is interesting. As part of my service contribution to the university, I’ve been trying to think about how to make public screenings here at FSU worthwhile. Popping a DVD into a player offers little incentive for people to attend. Interesting questions here.

  5. McChris Said,

    August 31, 2006 @ 10:20 pm

    I think in my rush I pointed you to the wrong article, it’s still a little interesting in terms of how the film culture on campus has changed. We still have old Cinematexas posters hanging around the department, which are interesting in their own right, since computers have changed the way posters are designed and printed.

    I was going to mention earlier that Oklahoma, where I did my undergrad, doesn’t have a film or media studies department, either, but the English department makes some of their class screenings open to the public. When I was a math major, I would wind up going with my friends to the screenings and illicitly sit in on the neo-realism class. Eventually, it occurred to me I should take some film classes since I was basically going to them anyway.

    I think the English department’s “film series” was pretty successful in drawing in people from the broader Norman community, but I don’t remember seeing many students who weren’t enrolled in the class or hardcore film junkies. One big contrast between OU and UT is that most of the students at OU taking film classes were non-majors or English majors branching out. At UT, you have to be an RTF major to take nearly any RTF class, which I think is kind of a pity.

  6. MZS Said,

    September 1, 2006 @ 2:35 am

    Chuck–

    Dunno how much leeway you have in designing an intro syllabus, but I wonder, have you ever done an intro/survey course in reverse chronological order? For instance, starting out with viral videos, an MTV clip, something from “Survivor,” and maybe a bare-bones local news story, to show how they all have certain shots in common; and then moving systematically backward through various eras and assorted types of media within each era, to demonstrate that the basic language of motion pictures have never been truly dismantled or repudiated, just updated, challenged or futzed with, for reasons both commercial and aesthetic.

    By the time you get to, say, “Citizen Kane” or “Sunrise,” maybe the students will feel more confident in their analytical abilities, because they’ll have started from a familiar place, and come to understand that certain aesthetic principles remain a presence in every era, if only as a force to react against.

    I’ve never been a teacher, so I have no idea if that sort of course has been done before (or if, for whatever reason, it just wouldn’t work). But I thought I’d throw it out there.

  7. Chuck Said,

    September 1, 2006 @ 7:46 am

    I’m the only film professor in my department, so that gives me a great deal of autonomy, although the lack of a significant film library limits what I can show. Teaching in reverse chronological order would be an interesting thought experiment, for sure. I typically don’t teach the Introduction course chronlogically (I started this semester with The Player and will teach NxNW next week), but I do tend to show earlier films (Edison shorts, Blonde Venus) earlier in the semester.

    But I think you’re right that it might provide a useful ground for illustrating that basic film language has remained consistent.

  8. HarryTuttle Said,

    September 4, 2006 @ 6:24 pm

    I’m not a film teacher, so I would rather give my perspective as a potential film student. A few thoughts to your questions :
    - First contact to film vocabulary should be illustrated by exemplary films, meaning established masterpieces, and not arguable/fresh/subversive aspects of cinema.
    - Your idea to draw parallels with You Tube and MTV are interesting but maybe would better serve an advanced class, when students acquired a solid basis for comparison. Although you could probably try to propose a few of those at the end of your semester to see the reaction.
    - If your class is meant to be a generalistic initiation, I find it terribly restricting to confine students who are already conditionned by the Hollywood machine to expose them to Classical Hollywood only… What better opportunity is there than a Film 101 class to be introduced to the wonder of world cinema variety.
    - In my opinion Hollywood Golden Age is only worth teaching in regard to world cinema history.
    - If your class include screening time, you won’t have room to teach a lot in great details… Keep it simple and cover basics that will open them to a more critical approach of what they will watch elsewhere.
    - For an introduction to “visual literacy” I think the “communal experience” and the “full length projection” are irrelevant IMHO. Don’t hesitate to use DVDs on TV in your class to give a live analysis (best way to grasp composition, blocking, editing, mise-en-scene…). And let them watch the films on their own how they like it (ask them to watch it uncut before the class). What matters more is your presence/walkthrough during the experience.

    One question though, you say this class is not within a film program, so why student want to learn about cinema there? What would be there background and motivation?

  9. Chuck Said,

    September 4, 2006 @ 9:21 pm

    Harry, I appreciate getting the student’s perspective. It’s hard for me to see my courses from that point of view. To answer a few of your questions and comments, there is definitely a benefit to teaching canonical films when illustrating film terminology (something I always try to do).

    In terms of film selection, I do have at least three films made outside the US and at least two others that would qualify as “independents” in most meaningful senses of that term. In some cases, I’ve known professors who were cautious about showing too many difficult films, in part I think because they wanted to keep enrollments high.

    And I do have clip tapes/clips that I use to illustrate specific film concepts, which we talk about as a class. Given that I won’t be showing the assigned films on celluloid, I *think* you may be right about requiring communal screenings. Something to think about, at least.

    The most explicit motivation is that students who are majoring in English to teach at the high school level would then be “qualified” to teach film at that level after taking my course. And of course, it’s not a bad elective for students seeking a humanities credit. After all, watching movies is fun, right?

  10. HarryTuttle Said,

    September 5, 2006 @ 4:54 am

    Ok I understand now why you made distinction with film major credits, the purpose of your class is definitely more “superficial” than I imagined. What kind of film studies could one teach after just one semester?
    Do you then focus on high school level movies (rather than silent films and high brow canonical films)? What is your film list?
    I guess the influence of the content of your class bears an even greater responsability to open these future “film” teachers to world cinema. Do you think foreign films are more “difficult”? At high school level I wouldn’t worry about students watching a dubbed film, if the point is to teach visual grammar. Why show in class movies from the american culture that are already popular among students?

  11. Chuck Said,

    September 5, 2006 @ 11:02 am

    I’d agree that you can’t do justice to film and media studies in a single semester, which makes designing such a course a bit difficult.

    I teach a few non-US films, but I think that many students aren’t aware of the history of US film culture and how that shapes contemporary film practice (and I would say that the films I teach aren’t necessarily populr or terribly familiar except for genuine film buffs). I don’t think that “foreign” films are inherently more difficult, but they’re often perceived that way. And I still prefer subtitles if only because most films are both visual and aural texts (something that gets elided in the concept of visual literacy).

    I wouldn’t expect my students to necessarily teach the same films when they become teachers, but hopefully they could translate some of the concepts to the films they’d like. Off the top of my head, I’m teaching:

    The Player
    North by Northwest
    Do the Right Thing
    Tocuh of Evil
    Citizen Kane
    The Conversation
    The Harder They Come
    I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
    The Thin Blue Line
    His Girl Friday
    Blade Runner
    Run Lola Run
    Breathless

    The list is a bit heavy on contemporary films and weak on non-Western filmmakers, but in teh future, I may include Tampopo, among others.

  12. HarryTuttle Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 6:52 am

    Ok, thanks for clearing up. Your list is an interesting mix. It’s not as “classic” and “canonical” as I imagined you meant it.

    I think I would love teaching cinema… :) And I would probably pick different films.

    Since you’re interested in new media forms, the MTV-like montage (or mash-up) of various touchstone-scenes responding to each other would be a great way to show how cinema can be broken down into elementary units and re-composed together to emphasize the implicit grammar inherent in each plan.
    I generally don’t encourage remote-control action, but for teaching purpose I think it’s really helpful.

    Anyway, good luck for your class. I hope you will blog about how your class evolves ;)

  13. Chuck Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 8:26 am

    I’ll probably blog about it occasionally, but since the course is somewhat familiar to me–at least in its current set-up–we’ll see. I do have a course blog that I may make public at some point (there’s really not much to see, though, to be honest).

  14. HarryTuttle Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 11:50 am

    Speaking of YouTube, you haven’t blogged about the LonelyGirl15 controversy, did you? What is your take on this phenomenon? ;)

  15. Erik Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 1:37 pm

    I am finally getting around to making my Intro to Flim syllabus, as class starts tomorrow, and just yesterday I was thinking about the issue of in-class screenings. Here at WSU, the classes are four-hour blocks, once a week, meant for screenings and lecture/discussion. I used to show a lot on 16mm, but over the years that dwindled, and now everything is on DVD. So, I was thinking, what is the value in making them stay in the sometimes uncomfortable room and watch a film when they can just go home and watch it in the comfort of their own homes? I do think there is value in collective viewing, and we have a very nice display setup with a huge projection screen and all that, and some of the titles I teach are harder to find, but I don’t know. I was thinking about making the screening optional, or having them doing it at home. I will probably go with the traditional way of doing things for the beginning of the semester and think about changing it mid-semester, when it starts snowing. Maybe open it up for class discussion.

    Ok. Back to syllabus-writing.

  16. Chuck Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 2:13 pm

    Harry, I think I started an entry on LonelyGirl15 but I don’t think I ever published it. It’s an interesting discussion and I might be persuaded to throw in my two cents tonight.

    Erik, that’s a big question for me, as well, although we don’t have to worry about snow down here. We also don’t have access to 16mm projection here (or it would be difficult to get access). I’m resistant to getting rid of the collective screenings entirely, but given the student population (commuting students, working students, parents, etc) here and the history of the course, it’s something to discuss with my students.

    Now back to teaching prep work.

  17. HarryTuttle Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 7:50 pm

    Yes please, Chuck. I’m getting interested in the LG15 buzz as it goes… For one it’s unbelievable how it captivates so much “conspiracy” theorists and even a journalist from the NYT!

  18. Chuck Said,

    September 6, 2006 @ 8:21 pm

    Okay, I had no clue how deep this conspiracy thing went until now. Now I’m completely addicted. Guess I know how I’ll be spending the next three days.

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