Media in Cultural Context

This seminar will explore the ways American films past and present have confronted fundamental social problems. Three topical areas will be the focus: urban life (in particular, the problems of congestion, poverty and crime); advocacy for and opposition to women’s rights (with alternate consideration of issues of race and gay rights); and conflicts revolving around immigration and citizenship. From its beginnings in the earliest years of the twentieth century until the present, a huge number of films both fictional and documentary in nature have addressed these issues. In each unit we begin by studying examples of such films that were made during the silent period. These will include fictional narratives (long, short, tragic, comic), educational films, animation, and/or newsreels. One principal “text” for this early material will be the DVD anthology Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 (2007), but we will also study various “mainstream” narrative film landmarks (e.g., Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Vidor’s The Crowd.). In counterpoint to this material, we will examine various films (and one or two recent television series) from both the early sound eras and the present—films that continue to address the same issues. Readings will provide background for each group of films, including the aims and methods of the people who made them, as well as aspects of critical reception and media theory.