Reel Changes, Again

Instead of rushing to assemble three syllabi–four if you consider the fact that my composition classes meet on separate days necessitating individual schedules–I find myself wanting to revise my Introduction to Film class again, and given all of the helpful advice I’ve gotten before, I’m seeking your suggestions. Given some of the arguments that I make in the book about my interest in digital cinema and textual ephemera, the current version of the class feels a bit dated .

Of course, given time and budget constraints, I can’t do a whole lot of reinventing right now, but after a rather tepid class this fall, I’d like to find some ways to keep the course fresh. I’m still teaching a film textbook I really like, Corrigan and White’s The Film Experience (and I’m bummed that I didn’t get a chance to skim the 2nd ed at MLA), and the syllabus is still packed with a few “standards” that I think are important. Otherwise, I’m trying to think of ways to make the course seem livelier this time around. Below the fold, I’ve listed a brief outline of the week-by-week course schedule with a couple of gaps (I’d appreciate suggestions) and a couple of questions about what you think the Intro course should do.

  1. Intro to class, Edison shorts (ca 1900).
  2. Narrative, North by Northwest (1958).
  3. Mise-en-scene, Do the Right Thing (1989).
  4. Cinematography, The Third Man (1949).
  5. Editing, Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
  6. Sound, The Conversation (1974).
  7. The Film Experience, ____ (?).
  8. Genre I, His Girl Friday (1940).
  9. Film History, Citizen Kane (1941).
  10. Experimental Cinema, La jetee (1962), Meshes of the Afternoon (1942).
  11. Documentary, Harlan County, USA (1976).
  12. International Film, Breathless (1960).
  13. Documentary II, The Thin Blue Line (1987).
  14. International II, The Harder They Come (1974).
  15. Genre II, Blade Runner (1982).
  16. New Independents, ____ (?).

The “film experience” week focuses on the various distribution and exhibition contexts and how the affect our viewing practices–what Corrigan and White call “the film experience,” so I usually teach something “about” movies that week, such as All About Eve, but I’d kind of like to do something different this time.  One alternative might be to look at a 1950s film that used widescreen–possibly Rebel without a Cause or maybe The Searchers–to convey how films were reworked in response to competition with television.  I also usually teach Daughters of the Dust and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, but my enthusiasm for teaching both films was starting to lag a bit. One of my biggest problems is that my syllabus doesn’t have any films after 1989, which I only noticed when a student asked me if I disliked newer films or thought older ones were better. Obviously I don’t, so I’m considering substituting Once for Blade Runner as my second “genre” film, and I do want to teach something contemporary.

One issue that often comes up for my students, especially since they are literature majors, is the issue of adaptation. My research doesn’t really focus on that, but to make the course feel more pertinent, it’s probably worth addressing, so a relatively contemporary adaptation, especially if it adapts a short story that I could assign along with some basic adaptation theory essays (Brokeback Mountain or Memento, maybe), might work well near the end.  Any suggestions about texts that work especially well (or if you’ve had success teaching Once) would be much appreciated.

My bigger question is whether teaching a film class as a classic “introduction course” makes sense for students who are literature majors, most of whom are planning to be high school English teachers.  Many of the complaints I got about the course last semester was that students felt it wasn’t pertinent to their goals (although it is, for reasons that are a little unclear to me, a state requirement for the BS in English Ed).  I’m wondering if it would be better to teach 332 as a “themed” course focusing on films that I find exciting or that fit within current research interests instead, worrying less that my students get a canonical overview of the history of film and focusing more on a sustained look at a specific genre or question.

Writing through these questions has actually helped me to answer some of them, but I’d welcome any discussion of how you’re teaching the intro class, how you think it should be taught, or whatever responses you might have.


  1. cinetrix Said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    FWIW, my students loved “Once.” There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on with sound bridges and slippage between diegetic and nondiegetic music, not to mention the accents and the ambient noise from shooting without permits in Temple Bar. Could be fun to contrast the recording studio scenes with those in The Harder They Come, too.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Yeah, I was hoping you’d comment on teaching Once. I haven’t seen the film in a while, but yeah, it would make for a nice comparison with The Harder They Come. I’m leaning toward teaching it, especially because one of my colleagues teaches Blade Runner quite a bit. And it could be useful for reinforcing sound elements.

  3. cinetrix Said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    I say go for it. I can recommend some articles, if you do.

    Also, the Fesser’s experience showing Blade Runner is that the young people find its pacing interminably slow.

  4. Chuck Said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:01 pm

    I’ve taught Blade Runner several times, and most students do find it slow, although they are often amused to see a much younger Harrison Ford. It teaches well enough.

    Once seems like a good idea, and I’d appreciate whatever articles you can suggest. I’m leaning toward Memento as my neo-indie, if only because it covers the adaptation issue easily enough and because I happen to own a copy.

  5. McChris Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    Would Sherlock Jr. work for “the film experience”? Perhaps you could bundle it with a newsreel and and a short to highlight how different kinds of film went by the wayside with TV. William Castle movies come to mind, but they probably wouldn’t make sense in this class.

    Do high-school students in North Carolina read To Kill a Mockingbird? That might be a book your students know well and a film that would work well for teaching adaptation. Blade Runner is sort of an adaptation, too…

    One thing I wonder looking at the syllabus is if you’re going to touch industrial or political-economic aspects of film. I imagine teaching English majors leads you to focus on textual issues, but it’s something I found compelling as an English undergrad in film courses.

  6. Chuck Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    You know, I’ve been entertaining the idea of doing Sherlock, Jr. I think I’d have to buy a copy, but it would be interesting to do a silent. And because it’s relatively short, I could pair it with other stuff.

    Blade Runner is an interesting case as an adaptation, and there is an article–I believe from Jump Cut–that traces the development of that film and how remote it is from P.K. Dick’s novel. I’m just tired of teaching it. I assume that students read Mockingbird here, so that’s an option as well.

    I’ve been in the habit of teaching textual issues, but because my scholarship is informed by political economy, albeit in a haphazard way, I try to introduce those issues. It might be worth bringing them to the forefront using people like Janet Wasko, Toby Miller, et al.

  7. Chuck Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    I’ll add that when I do introduce political economy issues, students seem to be engaged, so that’s a really good idea.

  8. Chuck Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    I missed the newsreel idea before. At worst, I could have them watch one episode of Capra’s “Why We Fight” films, which would do something similar. That would work quite well, actually, especially since my only other docs are Harlan County and Thin Blue Line, which are both responding to documentary modes that students may not know that well.

  9. McChris Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

    I thought a little more about your education students saying that the course wasn’t pertinent to their career goals. (I suggested Mockingbird because they might find themselves teaching it.) I remembered RTF offers a media literacy course that’s designed for education students. I think it’s required for social science majors who do a certification program. This would probably be an overhaul of the course, but I wonder if recasting this course as a media literacy course emphasizing film might make it more relevant to these students. I don’t know how this course is situated with other courses in your department – I can imagine you have students who need a course to learn how to write about film as well.

    Thinking about it in these terms, I wonder about weeks on gender and race.

    re:industry stuff, I was actually thinking of Bordwell/Thompson/Staiger kinds of stuff more than more contemporaneous political economy, but the stuff you mention probably fits better.

  10. Chuck Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    The course’s official title is “Film and Visual Literacy,” so that full recasting (which would have to happen in the fall) might be a good idea, and I like the UT course as a model.

    It’s a required course for students getting an English ed BS and a popular elective among students getting a non-teaching BA. I had “race” and “gender” weeks, unofficially at least, but the new syllabus might alter that a bit. Obviously I could introduce those themes with Do the Right Thing, Harlan County, and others (including, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain).

    The Bordwell-Thompson-Staiger modes of production approach could be helpful and might be more accessible, but there is definitely a lot of interest in the history and practices of production stuff.

  11. Rachel T. Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:40 pm


    I think what you’re trying to achieve is a cross between what will be relevant to your students, what’s generally deemed necessary for a intro film course, and what media texts/issues you find most fascinating and closest to your own interests–a tall order, to say the least!

    Have you considered showing Hollywood Shuffle? You can talk about race, and how the industry operates (in/outside the film), etc. Also, what about Ran? I don’t know how much Shakespeare your students would be familiar with, but it might be an interesting way to approach adaptation.

    I’d imagine your students would enjoy anything that tells a story in an unusual way, or has some other sort of literary roots… What about Betrayal (Pinter), or some David Mamet (Spanish Prisoner, etc.)?

    do you use many clips? i usually do..some other suggestions include The Limey (editing)….maybe Safe for mise en scene.. Oops I’m turning it into an indie cinema course.

  12. Chuck Said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:12 pm

    All of these choices are excellent. Do the Right Thing works really well for mise en scene. I do use clips, especially early in the semester. I really do like Safe, so that’s a thought. It would also be interesting to compare Haynes’ Far From Heaven with some of Sirk’s films.

    I think you’re right about unusual narrative structures, which was part of my reasoning in choosing Memento. Betrayal would be fun, though, especially if students have seen the Seinfeld episode that parodies it.

    To some extent, I’m already looking ahead to next fall–I can only revise a little in the next 24 hours–but I am looking to rethink the course a bit and maybe reconsider how the course is working in its current format.

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