Saturday, December 6, 2008

Intro. to Film Text Books

This semester I was handed an introduction to Film Studies course. However, there were several mandates with which the course came: first, that the course follow a general historical trajectory (with an emphasis on production and economic bases) from the beginning of the film medium (the competing trajectories of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Méliès), then the "important" narrative film movements, the golden age of Hollywood, the French New Wave, the "auteur" Renaissance in Hollywood, the emergence of the blockbuster; second, that the students have a working knowledge of the vocabularies for talking about mise-en-scène, cinematography, narrative, performance, etc.; the third, an introduction to cultural studies/film studies approaches to film (including Laura Mulvey's theory of the male gaze, auteur theory, Ideology critique, the Frankfurt School, etc.); and finally, I was enjoined to require 3 essays from my students, a midterm and a final exam.

To me this seemed partially an overwhelming set of mandates, particularly because I am a rather new initiate into film studies as I have only really taken interest in them in graduate school. I made the mistake of sticking close to my professor's syllabuses for the first half of the course, as my knowledge is limited on these films. To the second half I added weeks on the Documentary, and Pornography, two topics that are of central interest to me, moreso than most fiction film interests. To the critical perspectives, I added Laura Kipnis on Pornography, Paul Virilio on the Optics of War, Stuart Hall on the notion of audience formation, and perhaps most ill-advised Fredric Jameson on Reification & Utopia in Mass Culture.

The textbooks I selected, because I didn't have time to do the research, are choices that definitely need to be rethought.

The historical textbook I selected was Jon Lewis' American Cinema, recently released by Norton.

American Film: A History

Lewis does an excellent job giving context to a great deal of history and filmmaking. At times he focuses a little too much on specific films (and his descriptions are not always accurate). But he connects aesthetic and production trends to the general economic changes in the industry, acknowledges the contributions of women, talks about competing industries and film forms, and has just overall great big stills from the films which are useful historical documents in themselves. However, Lewis is not a great writer and his lack of evocative prose made it difficult to "riff" much off of the history he provides.

I will definitely select a different text for this. Also, I've realized that I am not great at teaching the historical elements in general, which is something I need to work on.

The textbook I selected to assist in discussing the formal vocabulary, was Bruce Kawin's How Movies Work.

How Movies Work

So I selected this book based on faculty input on an introduction to film studies course. While I think that is has very simple and clear examples, language, and the reading lengths were just right I find the distinctions Kawin makes in terms of techniques don't jibe with other film-studies scholars. This was particularly the case with distinguishing between constructive editing and dialectical editing. I am more inclined to use Film Art for my next course.

As usual, it is very difficult to teach my students (residing in the heart of the US technocracy and the seat of weapons industry development) that there are implicit political logics embedded in the formal, narrative, and representative functions of filmic texts. They had difficulty taking seriously, their own "entertainment," or even their boredom at takes that last longer than 20 seconds.

The misery of so many assignments I feel turned many of them against me.

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