Tales from the Teaching Crypt: American Film Genres syllabus from Summer 2000

Movie Poster for ShaftFrom another lifetime, here is class I taught at SUNY Old Westbury that was a total blast. A recent post on Film Noirs inspired me to start putting my old syllabi on bavawiki in order to begin archiving and making available some of the work I have done over the last ten years (has it been that long!). I’ll be blogging particular syllabus as I find them relevant, but one in particular that I couldn’t resist was an American Film Genres class I taught in the Summer of 2000. Primarily because it is so far out there. I have all sorts of deep seated issues with adjuncting at a University that I may get into in more detail in later posts, but one of the few benefits (and it is a huge one in my opinion) is the ability to experiment with subject matter, approaches, and arguments for a class you are teaching (with the understanding that every syllabus is in fact an argument). This particular class used the text Refiguring American Film Genres to approach the ways in which genres are much dynamically formed, re-shaped, and re-imagined over time. Below is the course description:

This course will examine a number of films through the classification tool of genre. Genre, in its traditional sense, designates a kind or type of film that can easily be delimited with such common labels as melodrama, horror, science fiction, musical, romance, etc. This understanding of the term genre immediately exemplifies its usefulness for categorizing films into specific groups, potentially satisfying particular viewer’s expectations. Such overarching film genres, such as those listed above, are often thought in terms of static, unchanging conventional forms that continually apply a particular formula for a familiar result. Such an understanding of film genres does little to suggest how and why these groups are formed, and what might account for a particular genre’s success in a particular historical moment. This class will look at four relatively distinct genres of American film (The World War II film, [[Film Noir]], [[Blaxploitation]], and Horror) in order to understand how film genres come about. This exploration will hopefully lead to questions about the role of genre films in marketing, selling, sustaining, and reinvigorating particular “kinds or types” of films. Genre is first and foremost a classifying structure, yet we will try and examine how this seemingly static structure depends upon rupture and deviation in order to keep film genres in circulation for any prolonged period of time. Finally, we will attempt to suggest how newer cycles of films (Slasher films, B-movies, Cult films, the Woman’s film, etc.) might use a different criteria to decide what constitutes a genre film, hence casting doubt on any entirely stable, universal definition of generic formations.

The class obviously is framing an argument, one which I believe opens up alternative ways to approach how we read film as a series of relations that tell us as much about the ways in which we categorize and understand films as it does about a particular moment in which these relations emerge. One quick anecdote in relationship to this particular class. Through week two the class was going pretty well, I had them on the ropes with the WWII and Noir films, once we got to Blaxploitation, more specifically the opening scene of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, an uproarious protest in the class amongst a few students broke out. In particular, some older, retired folks who were auditing this class were visibly shaken by the scenes of a young black man being introduced to the world of sexuality so vividly. When we had our discussion they were pretty vocal about the explicit nature of the film, and when they spoke with Mikhail Gershovich, a friend, benefactor (he got me this formative gig), and fellow professor at Old Westbury, one student remarked to him the following paraphrase: “The class was going well until that ‘Sweetback Sweet Ass’ came on the screen.” Experimentation has its casualties! The class was a lot of fun and generative (or at least I think so given the papers I received) for many of the students primarily because of these risks. How often are students asked to thinking critically about all the movies that are thrown their way on a regular basis?

Section 1: World War II Combat Films

Image of Wake Island Movie PosterRequired outside viewing: Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Thin Red Line (1998). Recommended outside viewing: The Big Red One (1980), Guadacanal Diary (1943), The Story of GI Joe (1944), 1941 (1979), and Why We Fight (Documentary Series 1942-1945), Triumph of the Will (1935), and The Olympia (1938).

* Tue, May 30th – Class Introduction (read Rick Altaman’s “Reusable Packaging” in RAFG for 5/31)
* Wed, May 31st — Wake Island
* Thu, June 1st – Bataan (read Thomas Schatz “World War II and The Hollywood War Film” in RAFG for 6/5)
* Mon, June 5th – [[They Were Expendable]]
* Tue, June 6th – [[Paths of Glory]] (I know this is a WWI movie, but I had to work it in!)
* Wed, June 7th – Class discussion AV

Section 2: [[Film Noir]]

Mildred Pierce Movie PosterRequired outside viewing: Out of the Past, Chinatown, Body Double, Blue Velvet, and Devil in a Blue Dress. Recommended Outside Viewing: The Third Man, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, Pick-up on South Street, Double Indemnity, Key Largo, Casablanca and One False Move.
* Thu, June 8th – [[Shadow of a Doubt]] (read Vivian Sobchack’s “Lounge Time: Post-war Crises and the Chronotope of Film Noir” in RAFG)
* Mon, June 11th – The Killers
* Tue, June 12th – Mildred Pierce
* Wed, June 13th –The Postman Always Rings Twice

Section 3: [[Blaxploitation]]

Dolemite (the movie poster)Required Outside Viewing: Shaft (2000) [if possible], Dirty Harry, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Foxy Brown, and Jackie Browne. Recommended Outside Viewing: Foxy Brown, Black Caesar, Shaft in Africa, Car Wash, Buck and the Preacher, Cleopatra Jones, Superfly, Shaft’s Big Score, Coffy, Friday Foster, and Slaughter.

* Mon, June 18th – Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song (read George Lipsitz’s “Genre Anxiety and Racial Representation” in RAFG)
* Tue, June 19th – [[Blacula]]
* Wed, June 20th – Shaft (1971 version)
* Thu, June 21st – [[Dolemite]]

Section 4: Recent Horror Cycles

Nightmare on Elm StreetRequired Outside Viewing: Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Stepfather. Recommended Outside Viewing: Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Friday the 13th, The Birds, Day of the Dead, Creepshow, The Exorcist, Child’s Play, Silence of the Lambs, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and Scream (I&II).

* Mon, June 25th — Martin (Read David J. Russell’s “Monster Roundup” in RAFG for 6/26) ML
* Tue, June 26th – Halloween
* Wed, June 27th – Evil Dead 2
* Thu, June 28th – Nightmare on Elm Street

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10 Responses to Tales from the Teaching Crypt: American Film Genres syllabus from Summer 2000

  1. Gardner says:

    Blogging syllabi. Brilliant idea. Wow.

    The Rev. does it again. What do you have tattooed on your knuckles, Jimmy? 🙂

  2. jimgroom says:

    Love, Gardo, L-O-V-E, Love!
    Thanks:)

  3. I might have to try following along… Very cool playlist!

  4. Mikhail says:

    Thanks for the plug, Jim. I taught the same class the following summer with a bit less adventurous syllabus. Here’s my course description:

    In the preface to Hollywood Genres, one of our two central texts, Thomas Schatz claims that a genre approach to American film (one which takes the way we might categorize a film as its point of departure) “provides the most effective means for understanding, analyzing, and appreciating the Hollywood cinema” because such an approach sees moviemaking as a “dynamic process of exchange between the film industry and its audience.” This allows us to think about a movie not just as an aesthetic object, but also as a consumer item molded in part by the shifting demands of the mass market. A particular film, then, can tell us as much about the audience for which it’s intended and the moment in history to which it belongs as it can about the institutions that produced it. In this course we will attempt to understand the way this “dynamic process of exchange” works by looking critically at examples of Hollywood genre filmmaking of the last several decades. We will also examine several conflicting currents in genre criticism in order to evaluate the usefulness of genre theory to a critical understanding of American film. Our class will be structured as a seminar rather than as a lecture course — this means that participants will be responsible for maintaining and perpetuating discussion. Course requirements include a mid term exam, an in-class presentation, and a final paper.

    Here are the movies:

    Week 1: The American Western: High Noon, Shane, Stagecoach

    Recommended viewing: The Unforgiven, A Fist-full of Dollars, My Darling Clementine, The Wild Bunch

    Week 2: Film Noir: Double Indemnity, Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Killers (1948)

    Recommended viewing: Touch of Evil, Blade Runner, Citizen Kane, DOA (Edmund O’Brien version)

    Week 3: The Hollywood Musical: 42nd Street, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Singin’ in the Rain, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

    Recommended viewing: Moulin Rouge, Dancer in the Dark, Funny Girl, Mary Poppins

    Week 4: Screwball Comedy: The Awful Truth, Some Like it Hot, It Happened One Night, Pretty Woman, Annie Hall

    Recommended viewing: Notting Hill, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, His Girl Friday

    Week 5: Distinctions: Horror and SciFi: The Thing (1951), Forbidden Planet, Alien, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing (1980)

    Recommended viewing: Frankenstein (Karloff), The Incredible Shrinking Man, Poltergeist, Them!

  5. jimgroom says:

    @Mikhail- That is the best comment ever left on the bava. Thanks for such an amazing contribution. Maybe we need to have a little syllabi war. Now, when, o when, are you going to start your own blog?

  6. Mikhail says:

    You are far too kind. Teaching together was fun. At least until that “Sweetass.”

  7. Mikhail says:

    Oh, and I almost forgot. I think sharing of syllabi in blog posts (war or otherwise) is one way to foster interest in this medium as a space to consider living, breathing syllabi. It can be one way to address the ol’ “why is this so great?” question.

  8. jimgroom says:

    It’s funny, the notion to post an annotated syllabus came more from sharing some of my picks with some context by way of a description and the specific readings for each sections to some friends who I know are interested in film and might find a it of interest. Sharing syllabi is a great idea that I really didn’t have coming into this post, and it is interesting how much of such a realization is a result of a more personalized relationship amongst many of us. I don’t think any of us would be so inclined to share our labor so freely is we didn’t have a good idea of the people who might use it and how they might use it. The context of community seems so important in this regard, and has made all the difference for me. I mean, think about it Mikhail, how cool is it that we can share this bit of our relationship in NYC with folks from just about anywhere?

  9. Matt says:

    Great syllabi, Jim and Mikhail. I want to take those classes. Let the syllabi war commence!

    Jim, your comments about experimenting with risky texts struck a chord in me, primarily because I recently taught Martin Amis’s Money in an Intro to Literature course.

    Although the book is very well regarded (indeed, some people consider it one of the best novels of the last thirty years . . . and I think it’s absolutely brilliant), it contains highly explicit (and hilarious) descriptions of sex, drugs, and pornography.

    I was extremely nervous about teaching the book, but it wound up being one of my best teaching experiences so far: the students loved the novel, and it provoked heated discussions and fascinating papers. On the last day of class, a student came up to me and told me, fervently, that it was one of the best books she had read in college, and that I should definitely teach it again.

    I hope I get the chance!

  10. jimgroom says:

    @Matt -I love it, I feel like Mikhail, you, and I are all back in Brooklyn thinking all this stuff through. I mean I just got a reading recommendation and a powerful insight to you in the classroom -and what a great vision that is- it is a good thing for society when a cat like you takes it to the streets of Brooklyn! And we all know you will have plenty of opportunities very soon to experiment with more books like this on a regular basis:)

    You rule!

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