This course will consider the work of directors Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers. While you may not know these women’s names, you likely know their movies: Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia, Something’s Gotta Give, and The Intern. Perhaps you have also seen When Harry Met Sally, Baby Boom, and Father of the Bride, for which Ephron and Meyers wrote the screenplays. At the domestic box office, the 14 films they’ve directed have grossed over 1.1 billion dollars, and Meyers has been labeled the most commercially successful woman director ever.
With this level of success in a male-dominated industry, it seems reasonable to devote an entire course to the two directors. To this end, we will screen five feature-length films by Ephron and Meyers as well as two which they wrote for other filmmakers. We will explore the comedic subgenres in which they work (or are possibly predetermined to work), their depictions of heterosexual romance and friendship, their takes on feminism and working women, and among other things, their unfortunate inattention to characters of color and America’s varying social classes. We will also consider the screenwriter-directors as auteurs, a label rarely bestowed upon women in Hollywood. On their own, students will explore works by Ephron and Meyers not screened in-class so they may deepen their understanding of the directors’ styles, intents, ideology, etc.
Kelli Marshall, Spring 2017
Today, genealogy is big business. In 2015, Ancestry.com earned a revenue of $683 million, MyHeritage.com claimed 80 million registered members, and FindMyPast.com boasted records dating back to AD 1200. Boosting these numbers are popular televised documentary series like Who Do You Think You Are? (NBC/BBC), Finding Your Roots (PBS), and Genealogy Roadshow (PBS)—all of which Ancestry.com very visibly sponsors. (There’s even a drinking game!)
Along with these three shows, this class will consider documentary films and web series spawned by this latest interest in genealogy. As we relate the works to larger historical issues and examine some of the political, racial, economic, and nationalist sensibilities that surround tracing one’s roots, we will ask questions like the following:
Kelli Marshall, Winter 2017
A comedian at the Oscars
Is the saddest man of all.
Your movies may make millions,
But your name they'll never call.
Comedian Will Ferrell sang these lyrics at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Ferrell is correct: film comedies bring in millions of dollars for Hollywood, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely acknowledges such achievements. Also ironic, the AMPAS hires comedians like Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, and Steve Martin to host its televised gala, but the organization seemingly has little regard for the comics and their craft after the gig is up.
Unlike the Academy, this course will take film comedy seriously. American Film Comedy will introduce students to canonical films of the genre (i.e., critically acclaimed and historically influential works). It will also consider the genre’s formal features, characterization, and narrative structure(s). It will look at what American film comedies came to mean to certain audiences at certain times. And finally, the course will examine the ways American film comedy represents gender, class, race, and sexuality. Classes will consist of lectures, film screenings, and discussion.
Kelli Marshall, Fall 2016
American stand-up comedy is experiencing yet another boom, following the rise of the chitlin’ circuit and Borscht Belt performers of the 1930s and 1940s, the “sick” or “cerebral” comedians of the 1960s, and the comedy-club set of the 1980s. As a result, the craft has been the subject of several recent cinematic, televised, and streaming documentaries.
For more than 15 years, filmmakers Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino have feuded publicly over the use of the N-word in Tarantino’s films. “Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee complains. “What does he want to be made—an honorary black man?” Without missing a beat, Tarantino strikes back: “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white […] is racist.”
This course examines the rise and growth of documentary forms including audio, film, television, photography, literary journalism, and ethnography. Our primary focus in this class will be film and its transference to television after WWII. But students will study representative works from the other documentary approaches and learn to analyze the techniques of observation and representation at use in these pieces. Finally, students will become familiar with major theoretical constructions of documentary and be able to use these analytical tools to critique documentary forms.
Hollywood in the 1980s will explore Hollywood’s output during the Reagan administration (1981-89). Among the topics we will consider: the films’ formal aspects (e.g., MTV editing, the special-effects blockbuster, a return to classical-style storytelling); America’s nostalgia for the 1950s; select genre cycles and star-performance vehicles; and dominant modes and themes signified by the films (e.g., the denial of America’s recent past, multiculturalism and political correctness, the white man as victim). Classes will consist of lectures, film screenings, and discussion.
In an essay for Sound Stage (1965), Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly confesses to his readers that dancing, because it is "a three-dimensional art-like sculpture," is actually not a good medium for motion pictures. In fact, the star continues, when such bodily movement is transferred to screen, most of the physical force is lost. Also missing is what Kelly calls "the personality of the dancer's whole body, which coupled with line and style, form the basis of a dance performance." For these reasons (and others we'll explore), Gene Kelly along with his frequent co-director Stanley Donen, worked arduously to modify the way dance numbers were shot onscreen. Indeed, via special effects (Anchors Aweigh), vigorous camera movement, on-location shooting (On the Town), and even through the burden of Cinemascope (It's Always Fair Weather), Kelly and Donen created and perfected something called cine-dance, or "any dancing choreographed specifically and particularly to be filmed or televised." This class will consider the concept of cine-dance and its evolution over a decade in six films starring and/or (co-)directed by Gene Kelly.
An introduction to the critical study of film, this course familiarizes students with canonical films (i.e., critically acclaimed and historically influential works), various methods of filmmaking, and several ways to interpret and evaluate films. Specifically we will consider the following: conventions and techniques of film art (mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing, sound); narrative styles; specific types of films (genres, documentaries, experimental); and some critical theories within the field of film studies. Classes will consist of lectures, screenings, and discussion.