Film History and Theory: A Syllabus

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[For a graduate course I took this semester on “Curriculum Design and Innovation,” I constructed a syllabus for a projected “Film History and Theory” class that could be offered at the high school or college undergraduate level. (The syllabus was in turn part of a group project on media literacy education as a curriculum innovation.) I’m quite pleased with the result, so I thought I would share the syllabus and rationale here on my website. Please note that this course and syllabus attempts to be representative, not comprehensive; it is more of a personal canon than an objective one. I hope readers find it interesting and instructive.]

In order to demonstrate how one might conceptually organize a media literacy course centered on the history and theory of film, we decided to design such a curriculum and construct a sample syllabus. Before presenting it, there are several considerations that must be noted first. To begin with, this syllabus is intended for a high school or college undergraduate level course. In high school, school-appropriate content is obviously a consideration for the films chosen, but students would probably have to get a parental permission slip signed anyway. Secondly, a single semester-long elective course on the history of film cannot pretend to be comprehensive, so the instructor must strive for a representation that is as balanced and egalitarian as possible. (I.e., one must include cinema from all around the world and from across the span of cinema history, as well as traditionally underrepresented films made by women and minorities. That said, it is impossible for a semester course to be global in scope while also doing justice to so many different traditions, so one might deliberately limit the subject to just western cinema. The cinema of the east–India, Thailand, China, Korea, and Japan–deserves a course all its own, so perhaps the instructor could alternate teaching these two classes from semester to semester.) The teacher must also attempt not to alienate students who are unused to watching black-and-white movies, subtitled foreign films, or silent films, so the course should not be too frontloaded with these works. The optimal approach would be to organize films thematically while also hewing to a rough chronology. For example, Vertigo is followed by Sans Soleil and Mulholland Drive, two later films that riff on its ideas in intriguing and idiosyncratic ways. Finally, student interest and feedback should help influence the teacher’s selections from semester to semester and from year to year. The beauty of a thematic approach is that one can always substitute one film for another without losing the overall intellectual / conceptual structure of the course. It is tricky to strike the proper balance between the time spent watching films and the time devoted to discussing and writing about them, but we think that the following syllabus accomplishes this difficult task.

Film History and Theory Syllabus: Semester One

[Please see also Film History and Theory Syllabus: Semester Two.]

Every week will follow approximately the same pattern. Monday will be devoted to a lecture / demonstration in order to provide historical, biographical, technical, and artistic context for the week’s selections and assignments. The week’s selected film(s) will be shown on Tuesday and Wednesday. Depending on length, it may have to be started on Monday and / or finished on Thursday. The rest of the week, Thursday and Friday, will be spent on class discussion, demonstration, presentation, research, or a writer’s workshop. Philip Lopate’s hefty anthology of American Movie Critics would serve as an exemplary course text. Every week, the instructor could assign one classic essay or excerpt of film criticism for the class to read independently for homework. Then–also on a weekly basis–one pair of students would lead a brief presentation for the class on that piece’s argument concerning a single film in particular or cinema as a whole.

There will be four main written assignments given in this course as well as one required oral presentation. The first is a film journal, in which students will record their thoughts and feelings regarding that week’s movies and readings. While students are expected to use the correct terminology, this is a largely informal and freeform assignment; each weekly reflection would only need to be about two paragraphs in length, although the instructor may occasionally ask students to respond to a particular prompt. This ongoing teacher-student dialogue will be collected and commented on every four weeks, which also help to provide student feedback about their appreciation and enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the films shown so far, influencing the teacher’s selections in the future. (The journal project could theoretically be completed in the form of a blog, if desired.) The second assignment is a compare and contrast paper on a pair of films: students will choose any two of three great movies—Citizen Kane, There Will Be Blood, and La Règle du Jeu (all of which deal with themes of social class, wealth, power, desire, and violence, and whose directors influenced one another’s styles)—and write a report analyzing the similarities and differences between how their respective directors use the cinematic techniques of cinematography and editing in order to explore their common themes. The third assignment involves students choosing one or two works, older than five years before the present, from one of several pre-approved lists of classic films (such as the Sight & Sound 2012 poll, They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?, The Criterion Collection, film festival award winners and other prize recipients, critics’ end-of-the-year lists etc.), researching their director and historical / aesthetic context, and then writing a film analysis about the cinematic form and content of those works. Students could also propose another course of study on film(s) of their choice to be approved by the instructor. The fourth assignment asks students to view a contemporary film from the past few years (ideally, one that is still in the movie theaters) and then to write a piece of informal film criticism–in the manner of a newspaper, magazine, or web review–that evaluates it for an audience of their classmates and teachers.

For the oral presentation, students will work either individually or in pairs / small groups. Each one will be assigned one of the most important weekly readings, and then on Friday of the corresponding week, they will be responsible for presenting their analysis and interpretation of the main ideas of the text (perhaps with an accompanying visual aid), asking discussion questions of the rest of the class, and leading the course dialogue.

The syllabus that follows includes a tentative week-by-week schedule, listing the topics / themes for the course and the films that have been chosen to illustrate them. At least one film per week will be shown in its entirety, while many others may be excerpted instead.

Week 1: The Historical Origins of Film. The Science of Filmmaking.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (Georges Méliès, 1902)

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

readings: “The Function of the Photoplay” by Hugo Munsterberg, “An Hour with the Movies and the Talkies” by Gilbert Seldes

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 2: Fundamentals of Cinematography and Editing. Theory of Montage.

The Story of Film, Parts 1-3 (Mark Cousins, 2011)

Man With a Movie Camera & Kino-Pravda (Dziga Vertov, 1922-1929)

Selections from Abel Gance, F.W. Murnau, & Fritz Lang

readings: “The Film Critic of Tomorrow” by Rudolf Arnheim, “The Film Critic of Tomorrow, Today” by J. Hoberman

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 3: Silent Film. The Art of Comedy.

The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)

Modern Times & selected films (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Selections from Preston Sturges, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, Stanley Kramer, & Jacques Tati

readings: “The Keaton Quiet” by Walter Kerr, “The New Charlie Chaplin” by Edmund Wilson

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 4: Auteur Theory. Major Film Critics and Schools of Thought.

Citizen Kane & selected films (Orson Welles, 1941)

Selections from Ernst Lubitsch & Max Ophuls

readings: “The Gimp” & “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” by Manny Farber, selections from Andrew Sarris

assignments: film journal / reflections weeks 1-4 due


Week 5: Fundamentals of Cinematography and Editing, continued.

There Will Be Blood & selected films (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Selections from William Wyler, John Ford, & Sergio Leone

readings: Theory of Film Practice by Noel Burch, selections from Otis Ferguson & Manny Farber

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 6: European Narrative Film.

La Règle du Jeu & selected films (Jean Renoir, 1939)

Selections from Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Claire Denis, & Michael Haneke

readings: Notes on the Cinematographer by Robert Bresson

assignments: film journal / reflections, compare and contrast paper assigned


Week 7: European Narrative Film, continued.

Ladri di Biciclette & selected films (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)

L’Avventura & selected films (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)

Selections from Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Rainer Maria Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Miklós Jancsó, & Theodoros Angelopoulos

readings: selections from Michelangelo Antonioni, “L’Avventura” by Stanley Kauffmann

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 8: Visionary Film.

Un Chien Andalou & selected films (Luís Buñuel, 1929)

Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936)

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)

Mothlight & selected films (Stan Brakhage, 1963)

Koyaanisqatsi & selected films (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)

The Heart of the World & selected films (Guy Maddin, 2000)

Selections from Michael Snow & Hollis Frampton

readings: Visionary Film by P. Adams Sitney, selections from Jonas Mekas

assignments: film journal / reflections weeks 5-8 due


Week 9: The New Waves.

Hiroshima Mon Amour & selected films (Alain Resnais, 1959)

Cléo de 5 à 7 & selected films (Agnès Varda, 1962)

Selections from Jean Vigo, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, & Jean-Pierre Melville

readings: selections from Vincent Canby, Molly Haskell, Amy Taubin, & Kent Jones

assignments: film journal / reflections, compare and contrast paper due


Week 10: The New Waves, continued.

Vivre Sa Vie, Alphaville, & 2 ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais d’Elle & selected films (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962, 1965, & 1966)

Selections from Chantal Akerman

readings: Godard on Godard by Jean-Luc Godard, “Jean-Luc Godard” by Manny Farber, selections from J. Hoberman & Amy Taubin

assignments: film journal / reflections, classic film paper assigned


Week 11: Political Filmmaking. Realism / Naturalism.

La Noire de… & selected films (Ousmane Sembène, 1966)

Rosetta, Deux Jours Une Nuit, & selected films (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 1999, 2014)

Selections from Ken Loach, Gillo Pontecorvo, John Cassavetes, Djibril Diop Mambety, Peter Watkins, Terence Davies, Cristian Mungiu, & Cristi Puiu

readings: “From Caligari to Hitler” by Siegfried Kracauer, “Gone with the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth of a Nation” by Melvin B. Tolson, “Bad Movies” by J. Hoberman, selections from Molly Haskell

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 12: Genre Film. Film Noir.

Sunset Boulevard & selected films (Billy Wilder, 1950)

Fargo & selected films (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996)

Selections from Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, & Samuel Fuller

readings: “Notes on Film Noir” by Paul Schrader, “Billy Wilder” and “Billy Wilder Reconsidered” by Andrew Sarris, “Underground Films” by Manny Farber

assignments: film journal / reflections weeks 9-12 due


Week 13: Genre Film, continued. Horror Film.

Night of the Living Dead & selected films (George A. Romero, 1968)

Selections from Val Lewton, Alfred Hitchcock, Herk Harvey, Henri Georges-Clouzot, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, & David Cronenberg

readings: Men, Women, and Chainsaws by Carol J. Clover, “The Imagination of Disaster” by Susan Sontag, selections from J.G. Ballard & Tim Lucas

assignments:  film journal / reflections, classic film paper due, contemporary film paper assigned


Week 14: Oneiric Film. Psychoanalysis and Film.

Vertigo & selected films (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

El Espíritu de la Colmena & selected films (Victor Erice, 1973)

Selections from Nicholas Roeg, Jacques Rivette, Peter Weir, & Krzysztof Kieślowski

readings: selections from Robin Wood & Slavoj Zizek

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 15: Meta-Film.

Mulholland Drive & selected films (David Lynch, 2001)

Selections from Federico Fellini & the Coen Brothers

readings: selections from Slavoj Zizek

assignments: film journal / reflections


Week 16: The Essay-Film and Documentaries. Independent Film.

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983)

Selections from Claude Lanzmann, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Agnès Varda, Straub-Huillet, Jon Jost, Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Costa, & Jim Jarmusch

readings: “Kitchen Without Kitsch” by Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson, selections from J. Hoberman & Amy Taubin

assignments: film journal / reflections weeks 13-16 due


Week 17: Total Cinema.

2001: A Space Odyssey & selected films (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Three Colors: Blue & selected films (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993)

Selections from Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Kathryn Bigelow, & Wes Anderson

readings: “To Catch a Predator” by Nathan Lee, selections from Jonathan Rosenbaum & Paul Schrader

assignments: contemporary film paper due

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