Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Film in American Culture class

   I am currently in a class entitled "Film in American Culture".  I took it because I knew there was a very low  possibility of my hating it.  Now I do really like it but there are a lot of things I would do differently.
   My teacher is having us watch seven movies as a class to explore the topic.  He chose Stagecoach, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives, Rebel Without a Cause, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, North By Northwest, and Dr. Strangelove.  Now these movies are all certified classics and I understand why he chose most of them.  The thing is that I think it is kind of an eclectic bunch.  First, I feel there is lacking a central theme, which you kind of have to have with something so broad.  For another thing, we've mostly talked about how these movies reflect history and not as the title of the class would seem to indicate- films that change or reflect American culture.  If my mission was to create a class around movies that shows American culture say before 1970, I would pick different movies:
   First I think he should have a silent film.*   I think it is really important to understand why movies became such a thing and it didn't start with the talkies.  You could show something like The Birth of a Nation to reflect some of these ideas, but I think I would show Why Change Your Wife?  For one thing, it shaped fashions in both clothes and interior design. (Demille bathrooms)  For another you could talk about stardom and movie culture's universality in the early 1920s.  Lastly I think the movie is hilarious and that most people with an open mind about silents would enjoy it.  Also the fact that it is not horribly offensive and long is a plus.[Also included in my discussion of the silent era would be several shorts featuring Chaplin, etc.]
  For post-World War I we would watch Wings.  Wings is one of the greatest action movies and it would be fun to talk about how they had to fly.  It's also interesting to look at as an artifact of post war America.  You could also talk about Clara Bow, which is always a good thing.
  In my class we were supposed to look for Depression themes in Stagecoach, which are there, but the movie was made in 1939.  Gold Diggers of 1933 was made during the depths of the Depression.  You could talk about why showgirls and backstage musicals were popular.  Also the number "Forgotten Man" opens up a whole discussion about the Bonus March and the memory of World War I and isolationism.
    For a discussion of pre-World War II, The Great Dictator would be amazing.  We'd have watched some Chaplin shorts featuring the Little Tramp so students would understand the implications of making Charlie Chaplin Jewish.  We could also discuss how Chaplin's speech is basically a call to stop being isolationist.
This scene in particular would be fascinating to discuss
    As an example of World War II films, I would probably show So Proudly We Hail.  While I completely agree that Casablanca is a must see, many of my classmates had seen it.  So Proudly We Hail tells the story of nurses in the South Pacific.  Made in the middle of the war, it is a lovely tribute to the women who fought in the war and also shows many of the emotions that people obviously felt.  (For example Lake's character's anger against the Japanese.)  You also discuss the phenomena of Veronica Lake and what it meant to be a patriotic woman during the war.
  For postwar America I would show From Here to Eternity.  Made several years after the war and fairly critical of the military, it would be an interesting companion piece to So Proudly We Hail.  (You could compare the romances for example.) As a plus Montgomery Clift shows the postwar penchant for sensitive actors.
  Bonnie and Clyde would be a great movie to show in a class like this.  Although it is set in the 1930s, it's about the 1960s and influenced styles and later movies.  You could talk about the violence and the disillusionment with the establishment many Americans were feeling.  It would be fun to see how they use a clip of Gold Diggers of 1933.

   As is probably evident in my choices, I find it fascinating to look at the effects of war upon society.  I would probably set up the class and use Why Change Your Wife? as an example.  From there we could talk about perceptions of women in movies (especially with Why Change Your Wife?, Gold Diggers, and So Proudly We Hail).   The three movies dealing with World War II, in particular would be interesting to compare and contrast.
  Also I tried to have a variety of genres, comedy, action, musical, drama, melodrama, etc.  I find it fascinating to see how different genres and time periods deal with war and stress.
  It killed me to exclude movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, but I thought From Here to Eternity would be better in order to talk about Monty Clift and other post war method actors.  By the way I am studying to be a history teacher and I love cultural history which probably explains some of my choices.

*My teacher doesn't seem to know that much about silents, when I've talked to him before class, I found out that the only Gloria Swanson movie he'd seen was Sunset Boulevard.  Also for our final paper we have to write about a movie and how it reflects the time period.  I picked It with Clara Bow because I like to challenge myself and didn't want to go with something easier like Gone With the Wind, which has a ton written about it.  Anyway in talking to him about my paper, he asked questions about if Clara Bow was different from other stars of her day and if she had made the transition to sound.

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