Studies in Film

This seminar in film explores elements of cinematic texts—and two in particular, misen-scène (the setting of action in time and space, the background landscape, the lighting, the decor, the placement of camera) and story or plot-line—in order to determine what makes a film an instance or version of a film of a particular kind, all of whose members discernibly expressing the same underlying narrative pattern despite differences in narrative details. Since each genre is adept at communicating a particular view of reality, classification by kinds is not an empty academic exercise. Discrimination of genre is implicit in understanding film narrative, as it is in understanding narratives of any kind—why the actions of the characters make sense and what they mean in relation to lived experience.

To get a handle on generic similarity, we will begin with two films which would seem to have the same kind of overt narrative premise and which yet do not belong to the same genres (as, say, a movie with all the trappings and plot-devices of science-fiction can have closer affinities to Westerns than to other Science-Fiction movies) and then move on to examine several popular American genres, such as Westerns, Detective Films, Screwball Comedies, Gangster movies, Romances, and also a nameless genre: films about the relation of the cinematic medium to reality. Directors whose films will be examined include Buster Keaton, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Francis Ford Coppola, Leo McCarey, John Houston, Roman Polanski, and Clint Eastwood. In addition to viewing films, we will also read some literary or dramatic texts or portions thereof to compare the treatment of similar narrative patterns in two different media, and we will take a glance at some theory of narrative—not just film narrative—as well.