This course aims to take Hollywood cinema seriously as an institution of cultural importance. We will examine the way it operates to support mainstream ideologies and render them as "natural" and "common sense" while also offering the possibility of subverting these dominant ideologies. The course focuses on genre films and on genre criticism, specifically on Hollywood films from the 30’s to the 90’s. This quarter, we will focus on the romantic comedy genre. Students will become familiar with the foundational methodology of formalist film analysis as well as theoretical approaches to the ideological interpretation of cinema. Although this is not a course in film history, I will provide you with background on both the films and the historical context in order to better understand the films.
You will spend the first part of the course mastering the analytical tools and language necessary to do formalist film analysis. After assessing your competence in this area, you will then learn to apply formalist film analysis to ideological analysis of Hollywood cinema. Since learning film language is similar to learning other languages, I would strongly encourage you to stay on top of the reading and learn as you go. Since each week is meant to build on the next, missing one week will mean weakening your learning process for the entire course
In the second half of the course, we turn to the theoretical tools needed to examine ideological subtext within a cultural context. We will be looking specifically at genre development, historical context, the role of stars in creating "authorship" of a film text, and the reception of culturally-specific audiences. In our last week, we will apply these perspectives to a recent film and relate it to issues currently being debated. You will have the opportunity to interpret a film from your own "subject position," using your own assumptions as the basis for understanding how someone like yourself would have responded to a film's ideological subtext. Beyond the issues raised in this course regarding formalist and ideological analysis, I hope that you will explore the relevance of these critical tools when considering your own relationship to the mass cultural forms that permeate our lives.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Seventh Edition)
To succeed in this course, you will accomplish the following:
1. Memorize and comprehend the key terms and concepts in formalist film analysis.
2. Apply these terms to formalist film analysis, including the identification of the functions and effects of cinematic elements within a scene in an untimed and timed exam setting. The first approach assesses your ability to a “close analysis” of a scene; the second approach assesses your ability to do film analysis "on the fly" (that is, similar to a “real world” setting of the movie theater, etc.).
3. Effectively interpret a scene within the context of the entire film using formalist analysis and key theoretical concepts in an interpretive argumentative essay format.
4. Effectively interpret a scene within the context of a film combining formalist film analysis and insights from readings on ideological interpretation in a timed exam setting.
5. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the conventions used in the romantic comedy genre and their ideological meaning.
6. Demonstrate a critical awareness of the process by which Hollywood cinema supports and/or undermines mainstream ideology.
7. Demonstrate a critical awareness of how a specific cultural context affects the
1. Increased awareness of and appreciation for the art and craft of cinema.
2. Increased critical awareness of the way Hollywood cinema specifically, and visual media more generally, shapes cultural attitudes and assumptions.
CLASS ASSIGNMENTS, ASSESSMENTS, AND GRADING
1. Scene analysis: A short (250-500 word) analytical essay of an assigned scene (from Working Girl). This assignment will provide practice for the midterm, enabling you to apply your comprehension of stylistic elements within the narrative structure of the film. In this assignment, you will select key elements that support your thesis of the narrative function of the scene. You will be assessed on your writing skill as well as your command of course content. You will also have the luxury of viewing the scene repeatedly and doing shot-by-shot analysis if necessary. You may not collaborate with another student on this assignment. You will be given a more complete assignment description with a sample essay on Jan. 7. Due Feb. 4. (10% of grade)
2. In-class midterm exam: The midterm exam will include: a section testing your knowledge of key terms in Film Art (matching terms with definitions) and a descriptive essay based on the formalist analysis of a scene from the films shown in class, applying the terms and concepts from Film Art. Students must be able to identify the title of the film, the director, and the names of the key characters in the scene, as well as be able to set the scene in the larger context of the film. You will receive a list of key terms (the only ones that are mandatory for the course) and a sample midterm exam with this syllabus. (25% of grade)
3. Interpretive essay: 750-1000 word (3-4 page) essay employing formalist analysis to perform a focused ideological interpretation of a film from the first half of the course based on an understanding of your own "subject position.” A fuller explanation of the assignment will be available after the midterm. This assignment will assess your ability to do "close" formalist analysis and ideological interpretation, using repeated viewings of a scene and film without short time constraints. Due March 11. (30% of grade)
4. In-class final exam: The final will include: a short-answer section testing your comprehension of the reading from the second half of the course; and a short analytical essay, based on a scene chosen from one of the films in the second half of the course, in which you will be asked to apply your understanding of the readings to your formalist and ideological interpretation of the scene. You must be able to identify the title of the film, the director, and the names of the key characters in the scene, as well as be able to set the scene in the larger context of the film. Study guides for the readings and an exam review will be provided. (35% of grade)
ACADEMIC DISHONESTY OF ANY KIND WILL NOT BE TOLERATED IN THIS CLASS. It is your responsibility to be knowledgeable about this topic. As with all other courses at UWB, this course is now guided by the new campus-wide policy on academic dishonesty. All suspected cases of academic dishonesty will immediately be referred to the UWB Factfinder for Academic Dishonesty.
STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES—I gladly accommodate all documented disabilities as directed by Disability Student Services at UWB. You must be a documented DSS student to receive accommodations. I encourage anyone believing themselves to be covered by DSS guidelines to visit the UWB DSS web page.
Readings marked with an asterisk (*) are available as electronic reserve material at the Campus Library. Some of these listings (“definitions”) are links to short essays on my web site.
PART ONE: FORMALIST ANALYSIS: FUNCTION AND EFFECT
Jan. 7: Putting It All Together At the Start: Using Formalist Analysis as an Analytical Tool for Ideological Interpretation
Film: Pretty Woman d. Garry Marshall (1990)
Jan. 14: Narrative Structure and Form
Reading: Film Art, Ch. 2 and 3 ("The Significance of Film Form," "Narrative as a Formal System")
Film: The Lady Eve (1941) d. Preston Sturges
Jan. 21: The Shot
Reading: Film Art, Ch. 6 and 7 ("The Shot: Mise-en-Scene," "The Shot: Cinematography")
Film: Working Girl (1988) d. Mike Nichols
Jan. 28: Editing and Sound
Reading: Film Art, Ch. 8 and 9 ("Editing," "Sound in the Cinema")
Film: His Girl Friday (1940) d. Howard Hawks
Feb. 4: Midterm Review