Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Schedule: Your presentations

Below is a schedule for your presentations. When you present on the film of your choice, you will also hand in your paper, which is to be a thoughtful review of about two pages. You must see me first about the film, and, in advance, you must bring me the DVD so we can cue up the selected scene(s), which can total, at most 5 minutes. The entire presentation should run 10 minutes; I'll let you have 12 minutes at most. We'll be on a tight schedule, but that's why I've left the last day of class open: presentations nudged out of their slots can be done then.

If you handed in your paper directly to me, you got to choose your presentation date. For those that came in afterwards, I assigned dates based on availability. Those who have not—as of today—given me a paper got the stinkiest (i.e., earliest) dates by default.

Please contact me ASAP if you see any problem on this schedule:

Tuesday, Jan. 12
Mark Sieling
Marisal Dobbins
Justin Kuneman
David Munteanu
Miguel Goodlin-Saenz

Wednesday, Jan. 13
Pat Feeney
Will Bock
Kevin Dodge
Gerard Davis
Maryam Seraji

Thursday, Jan. 14
Tessa Green
Sammy Rodziewicz
Logan Gittelson
Carina Hodgins
Brandon Pu
Nate Johnson

Friday, Jan. 15
Jenna Grossman
Kelsey Weiner
Ji Won Song
Colin Leverich
Dan Singer

[Monday: MLK Day; read or listen to one of his speeches]

Tuesday, Jan 19
Philippe Lewalle
Jon Mangram
Rossy Katanga
Jonathan Embry
John Baringer

Wednesday, Jan. 20
Matt Rufo
Carl Stanbro
Caleb Batman
Connor Hoffman
Adam Hege
Kendra Futera

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Watch this site

Before you leave for break, you have to give me your paper. (Only one person has already done so.) Either in class tomorrow, or when you see me to give me the paper, or (for Nate) when I find you tomorrow, you'll choose (at random) a date for your final presentation. The presentations will take place over the final three classes of the semester; there will be five or six per block, and you'll hand me your paper for the presentation immediately afterward.

I'll post more details another time, but the presentations are meant to take only ten minutes, with a film clip lasting, at most, five minutes.

See you on 12/18.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Your paper for the 18th: another note

Be sure to confirm with me the film you're choosing. Some people have done so.

Also, let me know if you're having trouble finding critical articles. (I don't mean reviews; I don't want you merely referring to film reviews. These are great movies requiring critical perspectives, not simply plot summaries and recommendations to audiences.) I told Ms. Morrison to expect people from class.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Big Assignment Explained

Before we depart for the next break (are we actually managing to squeeze in a school year here?), you have to do a major paper. The grades for this quarter will be based on: the Psycho paper; a research paper on a film of some critical value; a review and presentation on a film of your choosing, great, not-so-great, or truly objectionable.

Choose a "classic" or critically acclaimed film. (Ebert's book is a good place to look for these.) I'm especially interested in having you choose something you haven't seen. Check with me to make sure it's not a film I'm covering in class. You can choose this film in collaboration with others; watching the film together would be both enjoyable and useful, as you can gain insight from each other's views.

The end result is an approximately five-page paper, a critical overview of the film plus your own view of its value and success as a movie. Use Ebert's comments as a springboard, but also use other critical commentaries on the film. I have several resources myself or can point you to some at the public library or online. At least three resources (one could be Ebert) are required. Knowing something about the history and having behind-the-scenes information about the film can also help flesh out your writing.

We'll talk more about this in class.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Psycho assignment

First, here are the brief citations for those essays, just so you know, for your; I don't require a bibliography, so it's enough to write something like "(Ebert, p. xx)" or "(Sterritt, p. xx)." Cite their ideas, don't plagiarize them:

"Psycho," The Great Movies, Roger Ebert
"Psycho," The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, David Sterritt

You're to write a formal argumentative essay of approximately 500-750 words that analyzes the movie by responding to the Sterritt and Ebert essays. Some possible approaches: What is the movie about? How does the movie use its visuals and words to address its issues? How does your own view mesh or contrast with the views of the essayists? As in an essay on a piece of literature, think about how to divide up the paper, focusing on a particular aspect of the film or idea from the film in each body paragraph. Use the Ebert and Sterritt essays as touchstones and reference sources. You could simply use the Sterritt piece as a springboard, with your entire essay responding to his arguments. Whether you merely reference the essays or directly quote them, you still have to cite them properly in the paper.

This is not due on your next class day, but on next Wednesday and Thursday. If you're having trouble framing an argument, please talk to me.

Post any questions here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A test approaches!

Next Wednesday and Thursday, I'll give you a test on film terms. You'll be given approximately 20 definitions; you have to produce the terms. Everything I'll use will come from the glossary I've linked to at right.

The one term there I haven't dealt with yet is "deep focus," which you'll see examples of in the next few days.

With any luck, we'll be watching one of the worst movies ever made on Thursday and Friday. Let's hope it comes in at the library!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Double Indemnity assignment

First: If you had me today, Thursday, I forgot to hand out some reference material at the end of class. If I don't locate you in the next day, please find me. Sorry about that.

The assignment is as follows; please read the directions carefully; if you have questions, please post them here, as others may have the same questions:

Read the handouts on film noir. (On the larger packet, there's a section after film noir about the blacklisting era in Hollywood; read that as well. It's likely you haven't heard of this odd time in Hollywood.)

You're to write a reaction piece on the movie. It's not a review, per se, but an organized essay of approximately 500 words that analyzes your response to the movie by focusing on three scenes in the film. (Each body paragraph would deal with a particular scene. Also provide some kind of introduction and conclusion. Again, I'm not looking for a research paper, but rather a response piece that employs the language we've been using in class to discuss film.) You'll want to consider scenes that had an impact on you--scenes that are at the heart of why the film struck you, why the film is successful, and the film noir aspects that make it interesting.


Monday, October 12, 2009

New links

Look to the right. Now look to the left. Now look to the right again. That's just good exercise after staring at the screen for too long.

But seriously, folks: Look to the right. No, really. I've posted two new links for your education and enjoyment. The Moving Image Collections site contains a host of research and browsing resources. I've linked you to their movie page, with links to resources about films, but if you go to their home page, you'll find even more pages and links of interest. Errol Morris's home page, with its somewhat wacky layout, belongs to one of the great filmmakers of our time. You may not have seen his work because he makes documentaries—but let me tell you, kids, his documentaries are more interesting and riveting and thrilling than 95% of what passes for an "action" movie these days. Ebert often speaks in praise of Morris, mentioning him in the same breath as Hitchcock. Anyone who cares about the history of warfare and U.S. foreign policy should watch The Fog of War; anyone who cares about Abu Ghraib, the Iraq conflict, torture, human rights, and the power of the image should see Standard Operating Procedure. Not every one of his films is quite so political: his first movie, Gates of Heaven, is about a pet cemetery.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review assignment

The assignment has three components:

• an approximately 250-word review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,
• an approximately 100-word review, and
• a ten-word-or-less snapshot of the film.

Keep in mind these elements:

1. What to reveal about the plot. This typically becomes a problem in the longer review as you're looking for something to say. Avoid getting too bogged down in the plot (" . . . and then this happens . . . followed by this happening . . . but that guy turns out to be . . . "); don't reveal the twist at the movie's conclusion.

2. Names. Go on to look up the names of the director, writer, the actors, and the characters. You don't need to mention everyone, not in short reviews like these (and not at all in the ten-word take), but you need to get these things right.

3. Elements of the film. Think about what struck you most in the movie. Comment on those elements (since this film has no sound, we're largely talking acting, script, direction, and set design). You'll notice different things than someone else.

4. Audience. Who is reading your review? Think of how you might write this for your peers so they appreciate what you've seen.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Batman, Yet Again

Back on Sept. 5 and 20, 2008 (look in the blog archives before reading this), I commented on The Dark Knight. This weekend, I watched the film again, and I gained an appreciation for it that simultaneously reinforced my view of its problems.

I watched it on my computer in half-hour chunks. This helped considerably, as I didn't have to see the movie as one giant block of narrative. One of my problems with the film is its novelistic structure: it's trying to do too much and gets somewhat lost doing it. This felt more evident on the big screen, where you're careening along and its easy to feel that something slipped past you. This time around, I appreciated how the Nolans did try to make a coherent argument. I still don't think it makes as much sense as they hoped, but by chopping the movie into pieces and viewing its pieces, the incoherence is actually less grating.

There remains the strange problem that Batman says "I'm going for Rachel" but ends up getting Dent. It was hard to be sure that he'd said that the first time around (that scratchy voice Bale uses is really a bad choice on somebody's part), but I confirmed it this time. So, does the Joker lie about who is where, knowing that Batman would choose to save the woman, which is who the Joker wants to kill? If so, fine, but at no point after these events does anyone say, "The Joker lied to us." When Dent is waving a gun around, why doesn't someone say, "The Joker set us up"?

It is an exciting film with solid direction. I think it should have gone in different directions, and some of its choices are baffling, but it's still a fine-looking movie, and it was nice to see Ledger's work again. (Really, all of the actors except Bale do great work; Bale is fine, but the script somehow hems him in.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

While you're away, I cogitate

As we view the earliest films, I want you to see how people drew on previous forms of expression and entertainment in order to craft the new medium. Those first movies, with their fixed perspective on unscripted scenes of ordinary life—the factory day ending, people disembarking from a boat, a couple feeding their child—are nothing more than animated photographs. The decision to film the arriving train at an interesting angle represents a decision to bring drama to the proceedings. The troublesome boy stepping on the hose is our first example of a script, a story.

Méliès takes his lessons not from photography, but from the stage. He not only crafts theatrical pieces, he constructs elaborate sets and moves from scene to scene through the use of the dissolve (know that term). He also employs special effects, some learned from his stage magician's act but others only possible with the invention of film. Multiple exposures and the use of cuts let his imagination take on reality.

What you're seeing is film develop its own language even as it borrows from the visual and narrative language of other forms that precede it. I started watching Watchmen last night (I had avoided the film, though—or perhaps because—I like the graphic novel) and it made me think about how film continues to compete with and borrow from other forms of narrative. One complaint about the film leveled by critics is that it tried to merely emulate or reproduce the images from the graphic novel rather than develop its own way of approaching the material. It's a complaint you could level, in a different form, at other adaptations. After all, films of books or plays borrow something of their narrative structure, even if there's no visual structure from which to lift. Though some of the shots are indeed exactly from the book, the director still has to present movement between those shots, so it's not as if the device spares him from having to employ some creativity. So far, he seems to handle that pretty well. However, I'd say that the narrative itself is a challenge for the unitiated to follow—or to care about. The actress playing Silk Spectre is dreadful. (The other actors seem fine, but Ozymandias's German-with-a-lisp is a profoundly wrong choice.) The conceit of the original material is that only Dr. Manhattan is superpowered, but the people in the movie shatter people's bone (and blocks of granite) as if they were super beings; that's just wrong, and misses the point. The script isn't working well to hold the narrative threads together. I find that the problem isn't the look of the thing but that, in trying so hard to have his film look like another art form, he forgot to labor on a script that didn't merely lift words from the graphic novel. Forms of entertainment always inform each other and borrow back and forth, but you still have to labor at every element.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

At the Movies (the TV show)

For future reference, At the Movies, with A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, airs on our ABC station on Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. (I happened to catch it yesterday).

Here's the web site, which has clips from the show:
At the Movies

I read a review at Entertainment Weekly's site, and I agree with their reviewer that Scott and Phillips still don't capture the fire—and sometimes outright hostility—of the classic days of Siskel and Ebert. It is strange that, in an increasingly rude and abrasive culture, a show about contrasting opinions lets people agree to disagree. Well, the show is owned by Disney . . .

I also agree with EW that the rating system is something of a cop-out: "see it," "skip it," and the profoundly ambivalent "rent it." I saw Phillips say "rent it" to a movie he didn't think anyone should see. I should still spend time and money on this? It's a puzzling solution. They're not allowed, for trademark reasons, to say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" as Siskel and Ebert did, but they could at least give movies stars or numbers or some clearer designation.

I'm a big fan of the system used by the San Francisco Chronicle: it's a drawing of a little man in a chair. If the movie stinks, he has nodded off; decent, he's sitting at attention; good, he leans forward with great interest; outstanding, and he's left the seat to applaud, mid-air.

Read reviews and watch reviews, even if you haven't seen the film or have no plans to see it. You're picking up the language reviewers use, as well as references (at least by competent reviewers) to film terminology and history.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Comments welcome

If you have any thoughts about what we've discussed so far—the Ebert essays and the opening minute of Star Wars—feel free to comment. In the next class, we'll watch a few more minutes of Star Wars and then I'll show you part of the film that inspired George Lucas's idea for the framework of the story. You should be surprised (unless you're one of those film geeks who already knows this stuff!).

Then we'll see some of those first films that you're to read about in the handouts.

I hope you're enjoying the class and, every day, taking away something new.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday update

As always, check previous entries to make sure you haven't missed anything . . .

My thanks to today's students; both sections have been great. I talked too much today, but I think it was the large room's fault. (I actually mean this.) In any case, please note: Both classes will be in HUM 8, my violet-colored classroom. Mr. O'Malley couldn't really teach his class in my room, which lacks both a computer and all of his language posters, and I wasn't comfortable in his space either. Some people have shifted sections and some have dropped the class, so at most each section will have 17, which we can manage in the smaller room.

Bring something with which to take notes and your Ebert book, but try to leave backpacks behind.

Everyone should be able to access the schedule, which for some reason wasn't available this afternoon. Please let me know if you have problems with the blog site. You can post comments here if you like, and it might help if I answer questions online for everyone rather than for just one person.

Monday, September 14, 2009

My answers

Before reading this, please look at the preceding blog posts for September 14.

Below are my answers to some of the questions on your homework assignment. Don't forget to mark up your assigned readings for comments and questions.

Do you ever watch just part of a film, and under what conditions?
If I’m flipping around on television, I might watch a few minutes of a cheesy action picture. We only get a few stations, so I don’t tend to stumble across great movies when doing this. I get a good laugh out of watch portly Steven Segal use his martial arts skills on bigoted toughs, and it’s kind of cool to see Jean-Claude Van Damme kick butt on evildoers harassing an innocent woman.

List three films you’ve enjoyed. You may have seen them once, many times, or they may be the kind of film that, no matter what else is happening, if it’s playing on television, you have to stop and watch. These can be films you enjoyed when you were a child; they don’t have to be recent. For each film, say a little about why you liked it.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Funniest movie ever. The thing I think I loved right away when I saw it, which was on television when I was in high school, was how the dialogue could be both silly and smart at the same time.

The movie manages to make science look exciting and action-packed, the special effects are beautiful, and Jodie Foster is just so interesting to watch. For all the obvious elements of the plot and annoying bits of directing, the film pulls me in because of the relationships surrounding the conflicted, smart character that Foster plays.

Certainly I’m pulled in by the time-travel idea. It shares, with Contact, that notion of communicating across a distance (both main characters operate ham radios) with a loved one. The plot goes a bit crazy at the end, but if you buy into the logic early on, it makes a kind of goofy sense. Jim Caviezel’s emotional performance appeals to me as well.

Name one film you’ve disliked. (Perhaps you didn’t even finish watching it.) What did you dislike about it?

The Sixth Sense
I figured out the movie’s “trick” right after its first scene. I couldn’t believe how obvious it was, and sat through the rest of the movie hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t, so the big surprise not only wasn’t a surprise, it seemed poorly revealed. In addition, the plot didn’t even follow its own rules for what the characters were capable of (this would also happen in Shyamalian’s next movie, Unbreakable, which was somehow both more moronic but more interesting).

Thinking back to your childhood, detail any key emotional or personal experiences you've had watching movies.

I believe the first movie I saw was Batman, a full-length feature with the actors from the television show. I must have seen it when I was four or five years old. I recall how startling the colors were--we had only a black and white television at home. Both the vivid, too-bright colors and the startling size of the people troubled me. The film was too much. When Batman ran around with a bomb, desperately looking for a place to drop it, I felt anxious, not amused.

* * *

Saturday afternoons, I watched horror and science fiction films on two UHF stations from Philadelphia. One program was called "Dr. Shock's Mystery Horror Theater." The good doctor, dressed like Dracula, emerged from a coffin into his laboratory and proceeded to introduce--and interrupt--the weekly films. I found that I loved to be scared. I loved the British movies, with the interesting accents and the foggy outdoor scenes. I couldn't judge the movies at all. I just sat on the floor in front of the television and stared.

* * *

My home town had one theater, an old brick building with a popcorn counter that faced you as you entered the doors to the lobby. Often, it showed second-run features. In my high school years, they showed special films in the evenings: the classic horror films of the 1930s; and W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Marx Brothers comedies.
I'd first seen the Marx Brothers on "the late show" on television one summer; my parents had let me stay up very late to watch A Night at the Opera. I was amused and puzzled. I didn't understand why the characters broke into song. I couldn't understand their relationship to one another. Why did Harpo not speak? These guys were brothers? Half the jokes were based on 1930s culture. But it was compelling, and so when the Newtown Theater showed their movies on summer evenings, I went, by myself.

Perhaps those evenings are still with me less because of the films, with their strange humor and their lack of color, than because of the walks home in the mild summer air. Nostalgia for a time long before I was born was somehow mixed up with nostalgia for the town in which I lived and which I could not imagine leaving.

* * *

Two college friends, guys who were a year younger (and who are my friends to this day), took on the job of running the weekly film night in my dorm. Both were students in the radio-television-film program. A company mailed film reels to them, 16 mm, and they threaded the movies into the machines and we watched them in the dorm's common room, where we held weekly wine-and-cheese parties with professors, occasional dances, and talks from visiting speakers.
The night that most hit me was the showing of Klute, a mystery whose villain is revealed almost immediately. The film was compelling, visually interesting, and the acting seemed almost dangerous. Every scene was fraught with anxiety, but very little actually happens in the movie.

When it was over, my friends and I talked about the movie, and they suggested we watch it again up in one of our rooms. We did, discussing how the film worked, marveling at the symbolism in the images, and rethinking the film's point and focus. That's when I saw you could sit and analyze a film and enjoy it even more. You could turn it around in your head and reinterpret what it meant. You could be both entertained and challenged.

List any reading you did over the summer that wasn’t part of a school assignment.

Norwood, Charles Portis
stories from Love and Hydrogen, Jim Shepherd
Death with Interruptions, José Saramago
Far Bright Star, Robert Olmstead
The City & The City, China Miéville
stories from Aye, and Gamorrah, Samuel R. Delany
Nova, Samuel R. Delany
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
The Forever War, Dexter Filkins

I also read various short stories from collections, many issues of the New Yorker, and books that I didn't finish.

First Day, Redux

Three issues:

If the handout I gave you was improperly copied—with the print too large and thus not fitting on the paper—let me know. I have good copies available. (I only found one copy like that, but I assume there were others.) Those handouts concern some of the earliest films made and the reactions to them. We won't get to those films next class, I realize, so read them for Friday's class rather than Wednesday's.

Secondly, I'm sorry to the students who didn't have chairs. We may be in a different (larger, more-chaired) room next time, but even if not, I'll get chairs. Obviously, you could have fetched some for yourselves—and I should have gone in search of some—but everyone seemed so comfortable . . .

Lastly, I just realized that I may have misspoken when a student asked if we're "annotating" the Ebert book. I said no, but that's because I think of "annotating" in a more formal sense. You should take notes, somehow, on Ebert's key points in those two essays. Also, be sure to mark any terms or ideas you find unfamiliar. Ebert does write for a "general audience," but that doesn't mean you'll get all of his filmic references.

Thanks for an enjoyable conversation today. We'll get to Star Wars next time, right at the top of the class.

First Day

I hope there was no confusion about the first assignment. I did not post it to the blog (I thought I had), but it was posted, along with every other upper school assignment, at the "Summer Assignments" link that was on the MPH home page.

For the first day of class, I'm going over those assignments (and possibly looking at some trailers to help you see how yours did or didn't really fit the form) and showing you part of two movies, Star Wars (A New Hope) and Hidden Fortress. Today you'll learn new terms to keep track of and, I hope, some things you hadn't considered when looking at film. Pretty much every day in this class should be like that.

For the next class, your assignments are:
One writing assignment on personal viewing history; you can see that on the link at right.
Reading: A handout about some of the earliest films [as per the note above, don't read the handout yet; do read the Ebert pieces] and, in the book Awake in the Dark, brief essays on Star Wars (p. 341) and on Ebert's lifetime of film viewing (p. 387).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pending presentations

In case you're checking in because you still need to do a presentation (and now find yourself stymied by our snow day), the presentations will now be on Friday, Jan. 30, at tutorial. Please see me on Thursday to set up your DVD. We will not have extra time on Friday for puttering about with the DVDs; we have four presentations to get through and will probably run a little long in any case.

Let your friends know about the presentations so that we can have an audience.

Thank you.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Here's the skinny:

Come see me the day before your presentation at the latest with the DVD so we can set it up for the clip (and, if you need, I can help you choose a clip).

The easiest way to do the presentation is to use the paper as the text of your talk. I don't expect much more than a two-page, double-spaced paper for this, a concise overview of the film with commentary on the story, acting, writing, directing, design, music--all the things that go into the look and feel of the film--as well as any other important context we might need (it's based on a story; it was a huge hit when it came out; it lost a lot of money; it started the careers of several young actors--that kind of thing). Identify what you liked and didn't like about the film, it's strengths and weaknesses.

You have a total of 10-12 minutes for your presentation. Practice with the paper and the clip. If you run long, you can trim some of the paper's material from the presentation (I'm happy to read the entire paper to see all that you have to say). If you simply want to work from notes in your presentation, that's fine. I want to see you have eye contact with people, speak audibly, clearly and without racing, and eliminate hesitations from your speech. (The benefit of reading from a prepared text is that one rarely slips into "uh"s or "like"s or "you know"s.)

You clip can be a maximum of five minutes. There's nothing wrong with a shorter clip.

E-mail me with any questions.