Intro. to Cinema Studies // Syllabus

Spring 2017 // T 6 — 8:45 PM // CMBS 237 and HCC Digital Auditorium
@Jessifer // //

This is a course about reading film, from single film frames to shots, cuts, and narrative. Susan Sontag writes, “One can’t possess reality, one can possess (and be possessed by) images.” This remark alludes, in a slightly sinister way, to one of the central goals of this course, which is to help us learn to better dissect, analyze, and interpret film. The words “possess” and “dissect,” though, suggest an analysis that is forceful and violent — reading into and not out of the work. The best analysis does not attempt to control its subject but is, rather, a dialogue.

According to the UMW Catalog, this course “equips students to analyze and understand the art of narrative cinema within the Anglophone tradition.” The point of the course is not to become an expert in any one film or perspective on film; instead, we will watch, discuss, close-analyze, and read about a wide variety of films, approaching them from numerous perspectives, considering both the effect films have on individual viewers and their ability to reflect culture.

We’ll begin by asking important questions about the nature of film: What is film? Why do we watch film? How do films “work” on viewers? What is the relationship between film and other artistic media? Our questions will build upon one another, and where we end up will be something we determine together. All the while, we’ll think also about our own relationship to the film medium (and our own evolution as viewers), exploring the real (psychological and physical) impact film has on us.

This course has its own narrative, a particular rabbit hole we’ll go down. In part, this will keep us from being aimless in our study, but we also can’t divorce ourselves from the specific historical and cultural moment we’re in. The films I’ve chosen explore representations of gender, including issues of power, heroism, embodiment, trans politics, feminism, misogyny, voyeurism, rape culture, masculinity, sexuality, and intersectionality. We’ll also think about the way films are made and marketed for gendered audiences. These specific films are just a starting place to conversations that will hopefully reach well beyond. And this topic is just an opening, a place to begin our discussions, even as we attempt to leave no stone unturned. There are happy films among the bunch, images for us to celebrate, and calls to action, but we will also traverse some difficult terrain — which means we’ll have to trust, respect, and challenge each other along the way.

There is not a traditional textbook for this course. We will do some reading that gives us points of entry to studying film and the issues these films raise, but the course will center around our discussions and what we uncover.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
Gustavo Mercado, The Filmmaker’s Eye
The Internet (the rest of our readings will be available openly online)

You will watch most of the films on your own in preparation for class. All of these are available free or can be rented online for just a few dollars. In addition to our required texts, plan to spend about $30–50 on rental fees for these films. (Watch films together to save money.) Films that aren’t available online for less than $5 will be screened in class.

Lemonade (2016) [will watch in class]
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) [iTunes] [Amazon]
Run Lola Run (1998) [Amazon] [iTunes]
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush” (1999) (42 min) [will watch in class]
Brave (2012) [Amazon]
The Birds (1963) [YouTube rental]
Alien (1979) [Amazon] [iTunes]
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) [will watch in class]
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) [Amazon]
Boys Don’t Cry (1999) [YouTube]
The Hunting Ground (2015) [Amazon] [Netflix]
The Social Network (2010) [will watch in class]
Advantageous (2015) [Amazon] [Netflix] [short]
Black Mirror, “San Junipero” (2016) (61 min) [will watch in class]
Her (2013) (126 min) [Amazon] [iTunes]

Nothing in this syllabus will be set in stone or taken for granted. The instructions and outcomes laid out here are a beginning, something we’ll treat roughly as the course proceeds. This is not a map, but rather a direction in which we’ll point ourselves at the outset with the goal of vigorously rewriting the syllabus as we go, discovering what we’ll learn together as we learn it, questioning what we’ll do even as we begin to do it.

In this course we will:

  • Practice reading films individually and collaboratively, analyzing and interpreting through and beyond our immediate impressions.
  • Investigate the interconnections between films, the various ways one film is often (and usually) conversing with other films.
  • Examine how films have and can be put to use for more than just entertainment, but also as information, history, cultural documents, advocacy, and activism.
  • Consider how notions of authorship work in (and are challenged by) a collaborative industry/art like filmmaking.
  • Experiment as filmmakers ourselves. This is a course about critical thinking and also critical making.
  • Have epiphanies.

This course will be as much about breaking stuff as it is about building stuff. We’ll all be writing regular posts on Medium, commenting on each other’s posts, and engaging in discussion and doing activities via this course publication. There will be discussions online and face-to-face. The final assignment for the course will be a film screening organized by us with one or more films we’ve made collaboratively.

• Participation. This is a collaborative course, focusing on discussion and work in groups. The class will be a cooperative learning experience, a true intellectual community. And so, you and your work are, in a very real sense, the primary texts for this course. In order for us to work together as a community, we all have to come prepared to participate. If you can’t finish work for any reason, chat with me (and your collaborators) in advance.

• Medium posts. Throughout the term you’ll be writing posts here on Medium. Some of these responses will be more structured (i.e. a response to questions I offer), while many of them will be more flexible, allowing you to respond to any aspect of the text/film we’re studying. Responses should be as collaborative as possible. Don’t just throw your ideas into a vacuum. Instead, ask questions of each other and use other posts as a jumping off point by answering questions, amplifying or complicating ideas, etc.

• Treatment. A treatment is a short summary used to pitch an idea for a film. At the start of the term, you’ll work on this project in a group of 2–3. Your treatment will be around 750 words and include a logline (a 1–2 sentence summary of your idea), market research, a description of the major scenes/characters, and a discussion of themes the film would explore. You can also include sketches or other visual aids to support your proposal. Click for more details.

• Poster. Everyone will create a poster that engages in an analytic or argumentative way with themes from the course. These could be posters that directly advertise the film(s) we are making as a class, or they could be more tangentially related, such as a map or timeline of the historical/cultural progression of gender and film or a mash-up of significant moments. You will have the option of completing a poster on your own or with a group of 2–3.

• Final Film Project. As a class, we will be producing a short (20–25 min) film (or an anthology of shorter films). Throughout the term, you will work in small teams on various aspects of the film (production, screenwriting, filmmaking, post-production, and marketing). All of the other assignments you complete for the class will serve as ancillaries for the finished film. During our first weeks together, we will begin to discuss the shape of the final film and divide into teams:

Production: The production team will be in charge of legal, financing, casting, and location scouting. They will produce a production schedule for the film and will work on coordinating the release of our film. The production team will also work on a short behind-the-scenes documentary.

Screenwriting: The screenwriting team will create a screenplay and storyboards for the film and will work on a published shooting script (a polished and formatted version with images, etc.).

Filmmaking: The filmmaking team will be in charge of shooting, lighting, directing, sound, etc. The filmmakers will be responsible for acquiring equipment, building sets (if necessary), assembling costumes/props, etc.

Post-production: The post-production team will be in charge of editing, music, sound-effects, titles and credits, visual effects, etc. In advance, they will begin to prepare music, sound effects, and visual effects.

Marketing: The marketing team will produce a teaser trailer, a full preview, a press-release, a web-site, and be responsible for coordinating a print advertising campaign.

You will collaborate with your peers on many of the assignments you complete for this course. If you have questions about the various ways collaboration can work, feel free to chat with me at any point.

This course will focus on qualitative not quantitative assessment, something we’ll discuss during the class, both with reference to your own work and the works we’re studying. While you will get a final grade at the end of the term, I will not be grading individual assignments, but rather asking questions and making comments that engage your work rather than simply evaluate it. You will also be reflecting carefully on your own work and the work of your peers. The intention here is to help you focus on working in a more organic way, as opposed to working as you think you’re expected to. If this process causes more anxiety than it alleviates, see me at any point to confer about your progress in the course to date. If you are worried about your grade, your best strategy should be to join the discussions, do the reading, and complete the assignments. You should consider this course a “busy-work-free zone.” If an assignment does not feel productive, we can find ways to modify, remix, or repurpose the instructions.

One of the primary platforms we’ll use for the work of this course is Medium, where the syllabus you’re now reading lives. During the first weeks of the term, you’ll set up a Medium account, complete your profile, and be invited to the course publication.

Slack: You should create a Slack account at our class’s domain as early as possible. The mobile app is handy.

#cinemastudies: Whenever you slack, blog, tweet, tumblr, facebook or instagram anything related to class, use the hashtag #cinemastudies to contribute to our distributed conversation.

The UMW Honor System is the ethical guideline for this class, and it defines our core beliefs and expectations as a community. You can find extensive details about the UMW Honor System online here.

The Office of Disability Resources has been designated by the University as the primary office to guide, counsel, and assist students with disabilities. If you already receive services through the Office of Disability Resources and require accommodations for this class, get in touch with me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs. I will hold any information you share with me in the strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise. If you have not contacted the Office of Disability Resources and need accommodations, click here or call 540–654–1266.

The majority of your work for this course will live publicly on the web within open platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Medium. If you would like to remain anonymous, I encourage you to use a pseudonym. If you don’t want to include a photograph of yourself, you can upload an avatar to represent you. Think carefully about these choices.

Authorship is a hotly contested topic in the academy. At what point do we own the words we say and write or the images we create? In literature and digital media, creative influence, collaboration, and borrowing are usually acceptable (even encouraged). So, what sort of statement or warning about plagiarism would be appropriate in this class? Let me go out on a limb and say: in this class, I encourage you to borrow ideas (from me, from the authors we read, from the films we watch, from your classmates). But, even more, I encourage you to truly make them your own — by playing with, manipulating, applying, and otherwise turning them on their head. In the end, it’s just downright boring to rest on the laurels of others. It’s altogether more daring (and, frankly, more fun) to invent something new yourself — a new idea, a new way of thinking, a new claim, a new image. This doesn’t give you license to copy something in its entirety and slap your name on it. That’s just stealing. Instead, think very consciously about how you’re influenced by your sources — by the way knowledge and creativity depend on a sort of inheritance. And think also about the real responsibility you have to those sources.

Critical thinking is like eating, something lively and voracious, something that drips and reels. It isn’t (and can’t be) virtual. And yet, somewhat paradoxically, we must increasingly find ways for this work to happen online. We must bring our subjects to life for both ourselves and our digital counterparts. Learning must fire every neuron — must touch us at the highest levels of consciousness and at the cellular level. No matter where it happens, this is what learning must do. It must evolve — and revolt.