Film Form and Culture

Updated 30 March 2020. This online syllabus is always the most up-to-date version for readings and class activities. For in-depth policies and assignment descriptions, please consult the .pdf version above.

(Revised) Pandemic Contingency Mode

Hi! If you’re reading this, we’ve entered pandemic contingency mode. Exciting! I have revised these edits since before spring break, so please familiarize yourself with the changes below.

Here are the major modifications to the class given our new reality:

Remember: no one will be penalized for not having access to course resources online in the event of a pandemic. If you don’t have stable internet, housing, food, and otherwise what you need to be able to succeed in the college classroom, please come talk to me.

Pandemic Assignments

As this course is now pass/fail, as detailed above, the calculus for assignments has changed somewhat.

The way UMD does pass/fail is that I still provide a letter grade, which is converted on your transcript to a “pass” if it exceeds a certain threshold. You can safely assume that if you 1) make a good faith effort on the assignments; 2) participate in the Slack to the best of you ability; and 3) stay in touch with me if you need to dip in and out or if things get hard, then that letter grade hiding behind your “pass” will be an A.

UMD has also extended the date to withdraw from classes to May 12th, the last day of class. If I feel that your performance in the class doesn’t merit a “pass,” I will encourage you well in advance of the deadline to consider withdrawing. If you are a senior who needs this course to graduate, obviously come talk to me and we’ll be sure to work something out.

As for the remaining assignments—

The midterm essay remains the same. Please feel free to write me over the break if you want to brainstorm topics or have me read work in progress. I am also happy to set up individual virtual meetings.

I will send out more information about the editing assignment or short responses assignment when we return to instruction at the end of March. Essentially you will have the option either to 1) do the editing assignment as originally devised, or 2) write three short (1-1.5 pp.) papers throughout the back half of the semester. These short papers will be posted as regular discussion threads on ELMS. (Yes, they’re basically blog posts! My apologies, but it’s what we all voted for before the break.)

The final exam will be the same, but scaled back a bit. Think two short essays instead of three. Or perhaps just a short response to the class more generally. We’ll think about this together.

Pandemic Schedule

Weeks 8 and 9 (March 16th through 27th)

Extended Spring Break. No class meetings.

Week 10, March 31st / April 2nd :: Time

Week 11, April 7/9th: Narrative

Week 12, April 14/16: Animation

Week 13, April 21/23rd: Sound

Week 14, April 28/30th: Documentary

Week 15, May 5/7th: Post-cinema I — The New Seriality

NB: I recommend viewing Twin Peaks throughout the semester, since it’s a substantial undertaking even in this highly abbreviated version. I’ll distribute recommendations for timing screenings in the first few weeks of class.

Week 16, May 12th: Post-cinema II — Fragmentation


This is the original version of the syllabus, pre-pandemic.

Description

This course introduces you to the discipline of film studies: the formal, theoretical, and historical analysis of the moving image. We’ll pursue this goal in two parts: first, by developing a critical language with which to discuss film form and its historical progression; and second, by applying this language to questions of film’s cultural meaning. Along the way, we’ll discuss film’s relationship to related questions of media and mediation, in particular the status of film within an increasingly digital world.

Aims

It is my hope that by the end of this course you will:

Materials

There is one textbook I would like you to obtain for this class:

You will notice there are multiple editions and that some of the more recent ones (it’s up to the 12th) are extremely expensive. However, any edition from the 7th on will suffice for this class—and be much cheaper, especially used. (As of this writing, the 8th and 9th editions seem to have many cheap used copies on Amazon.) I will make the textbook’s readings for the first few weeks of class available as .pdfs to give you the chance to secure copies. If the textbook presents a financial difficulty for you, please contact me and we can make arrangements.

You can consider the textbook necessary background to our class discussions. We will spend comparatively little time on it directly, but rather focus on the films themselves as well as the other course readings. All these materials will be available on our course website: the films on streaming; and the readings as .pdfs.

The films we will watch this semester are:

You are welcome to watch these films in any manner you can, whether streaming on ELMS, off DVDs or Blu-rays from the library, or through your preferred streaming service. Many of these films are available on the Criterion Channel. We will also screen a variety of short films and excerpts in class.

A Brief Note on Watching Films for a Class

I admit you are watching these films under less-than-ideal circumstances: alone, small screens, low quality, distracted attentions, poor lighting, and meager sound. Unfortunately, these are the trade-offs under which contemporary film studies—and film-going more generally—operates, ones that we will discuss at length throughout the course. Given these circumstances, here are some recommendations for maximizing your viewing experiences and critical engagement this semester:

Assignments

Here’s the breakdown for the class:

What follows are short descriptions of the assignments. I’ll provide longer descriptions and prompts as we get closer to the deadlines, and will update these descriptions accordingly.

On Deadlines

Assignments are due at 11:59 PM on the listed days. As a rule, I don’t reduce grades for late assignments. But this comes with two caveats: I won’t accept any assignments turned in more than three days late (including weekends); and late assignments will not receive much, if any feedback. If you have an extenuating circumstance that will make it difficult to make a deadline, please write me, ideally well in advance, to discuss extensions and alternatives. You’ll find that I’m fairly generous in this regard.

You should email me assignments in a .docx file format. Since Instructure (the company behind ELMS/Canvas) was purchased by a private equity company last year, and since it makes its money by extracting data from student and instructor labor, I try to avoid using it at much as possible. I will not accept: Apple Pages files, PDFs, or links to Google Docs. I’m stringent about file formats because I use track changes to give you comments, and Microsoft Word doesn’t play nice with all other formats and programs. Please give your file a descriptive name, e.g., “LastName_shot-chart.docx”.

Finally, please use MLA formatting for all assignments. The Purdue OWL is a great resource if you need to brush up on this citation format.

Participation

In a discussion-based course, participation is crucial. Much of our intellectual work happens inside the classroom as we wrestle together with the material’s questions and provocations. I assess participation holistically, taking into account your attendance, thoughtfulness of response in a variety of media, preparation for and contributions to class discussions, and how you engage the material, me, and your peers outside the classroom. This means that if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t always have your hand raised, you can still do quite well by participating in a variety of ways. I’ll also administer the very occasional quiz in order to assess how you’re picking up the course’s language and engaging with the viewings/readings. Finally, I’ll give you a mid-term participation assessment during spring break so you have a sense of where you stand in the course.

Regarding attendance: more than two unexcused absences will begin to adversely affect your participation grade. Emphasis on unexcused: if you’re ill or have a death in the family, I certainly think you should miss class! Just please keep me apprised—better to tell me what you need so we can work something out rather than drop off the map. In general, if you’re absent, I encourage you to contact one of your peers for what you missed.

Miniature essay

A few weeks into the semester, I’ll ask you to complete a very small (c. 300 words) essay. This is ungraded. I’ll give you a prompt the week it’s due. Its purpose is to help us gauge together your performance in the class and how you’re picking up the course’s vocabulary.

Short essay #1 / shot chart

For this assignment, I’ll ask you to complete a shot chart: a table that works moment by moment through a scene and characterizes each individual shot. You’ll choose from a bank of scenes that I provide on ELMS. You’ll then use this shot chart to write a short essay (c. 900 words) about the scene in which you’ll connect questions of editing and cinematographic technique to the production of effect and meaning.

Midterm essay

For our midterm, I’ll ask you to write a longer essay (c. 1500 words) in which you’ll put two films from the course in conversation with each other. Your goal is to develop an argument about a particular function of film language through a comparative reading of these films. We’ll discuss techniques for writing about film at length during the classes preceding the midterm.

Short essay #2 / editing project

For this assignment, you’ll experiment with techniques of film editing in order to learn more about how a scene operates. An apocryphal quote, often attributed to director Jean-Luc Godard, states that the best way to critique a film is to make another one. In this spirit, I’ll ask you to re-edit a short scene (again, from a provided bank) in order to make an argument about the scene. You’ll pair the scene with a short (c. 500 words) artist’s statement.

Final essays

Our “final exam,” such as it is, takes the form of three short essays of c. 750 words apiece. I’ll release a bank of questions a week or two before the end of the term. You’ll then select three and respond to them.

Schedule

Please view the films and complete the class readings before our Tuesday meetings. If you’re looking to prioritze the readings, we’ll roughly go in chronological order, with the most important readings listed first. I imagine we’ll often spend Tuesday discussing the film primarily, and then bring in the readings more deliberately on Thursday.

Week 1, Jan 28/30th: Introduction

Week 2, Feb 4/6th: Movement

Week 3, Feb 11/13th: Montage

Week 4, Feb 18/20th: Continuity

Week 5, Feb 25/27th: Cinematography

Week 6, March 3/5th: Mise-en-scene

Week 7, March 10/12th: Composition

Week 8: SPRING BREAK

Week 9, March 24/26th: Time

Week 10, March 31st: Narrative I — Building

NB: Class is cancelled on April 2nd as Jeffrey is at a conference.

Week 11, April 7/9th: Narrative II — Breaking

Week 12, April 14/16: Animation

Week 13, April 21/23rd: Sound

Week 14, April 28/30th: Documentary

Week 15, May 5/7th: Post-cinema I — The New Seriality

NB: I recommend viewing Twin Peaks throughout the semester, since it’s a substantial undertaking even in this highly abbreviated version. I’ll distribute recommendations for timing screenings in the first few weeks of class.

Week 16, May 12th: Post-cinema II — Fragmentation

Acknowledgements

All syllabi are cumulative, built from bits, pieces, and people from the instructor’s own education. This syllabus features traces of: Timothy van Compernolle, Andrew Johnston, Marisa Parham, John Drabinski, Kyle Bickoff, and Amelie Hastie.

revision history for this page