Film Critiques / Published

Film Studies at Yale: Learning at 24 Frames per Second

First published: 01/20/2012

Springtime is (not really) here. But what the spring semester has brought us — besides cold, snow and cold snow — is a new batch of classes in the Film Studies Department. I’m in love with almost every single course. But, for brevity’s sake, I bring to you the most promising.

Just in time for Shakespeare at Yale, there is “Shakespeare on Film.” Taught by Brian Walsh, this class goes beyond the words of the Bard and delves into the attempts of filmmakers to wrestle with the text and bring them successfully to the silver screen. From well-known works like “Hamlet” to lesser-known ones such as “Titus Andronicus,” this class provides a glimpse of adaptations across time and worlds. The real gem may be “Chimes at Midnight,” for two reasons: it’s directed by and stars the brilliant (if not always successful) Orson Welles AND it’s quite difficult to obtain in the States.

“Classical Hollywood: Art and Industry,” taught by J.D. Connor, is all about my favorite era of Hollywood and its history — its challenges both internal and external, its changes and its transformation into a movie-churning dream factory. It was the time of that slightly affected mode of acting matched by overzealous music. Ahhh, bliss. The class is sticking with the well-known basics of “Psycho,” “Citizen Kane” and “Singin’ in the Rain.” While it’s a shame that lesser-known films aren’t present on the list of screenings, those featured in the class represent a variety of styles and moods, and most have been placed on numerous American Film Institute “best of” lists. Besides, there’s a reason why the same films are studied and critically acclaimed over and over again: they happen to be pretty good.

Maybe you’re not interested in classical Hollywood for some obscure reason. Maybe the films seem too bloodless. Well, if you thought that Hollywood from the 1930s until the ’60s was squeaky-clean, think again. “Sexual Modernity and Censorship in American Film,” taught by Ronald Gregg (who, last semester, taught “Introduction to Film Studies,” a class that I took and EVERYONE should take) chronicles the internal struggles of the film industry to balance public concerns of morality with filmmakers’ desire to address mature content. The course begins with such films as “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Merry Widow,” created during the “pre-Code era,” when censorship was lax. The course goes on to chronicle the growing sexuality of films, the clamp down by the Production Code and, finally, the breakdown of censorship.

Alan Trachtenberg’s “Detection and the City in Film Noir and Fiction” is dedicated to that uniquely pessimistic American film mood (NOT genre) that the French called film noir. The world film noir paints is not one of Technicolor musicals and adventures or soft-focus melodramas. It’s a bleak, concrete playground where all the underworld degenerates and femmes fatales prey upon the weak. The lineup for the class, which is a survey of film noir from the 1940s to the 1950s, is exciting too: the prototypical film noir “The Maltese Falcon,” the “first” film noir “Double Indemnity,” and the last of the “classic” cycle of film noir, “Touch of Evil.” Although it seems to me that such earlier films as “The Maltese Falcon” — about a detective who becomes entangled with an unsavory group seeking a treasured bird — and “Laura” — yet another detective, who tries to solve the murder of a socialite — lack such definitive film noir signifiers as light filtering through blinds, stifling darkness and urban decay, they both have their share of perverse characters and horrible deeds. Who doesn’t like to turn their smiles upside down once in a while?

The complicated legacy of films like “Shaft,” “Foxy Brown” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” are given another look in Terri Francis’ course “Blaxploitation Reexamined”. Blaxploitation was a black film subgenre of the 1970s distinguished by its funk/soul music (that “wah-wah” sound), baadasssss blacks spitting jive way too hip for me and sticking it to “The Man” … despite the fact that some of the movies were being created by white people in some capacity. Awkward. Were such films examples of black empowerment or just a perpetuation of old, yet potent, stereotypes?

For a less America-centric view on filmmaking and analysis, there is Dudley Andrew’s “World Cinema.” How do films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The 400 Blows” reflect their respective countries and fit into the interconnected world? Another film to be screened is “The Battle of Algiers,” which concerns Algerian insurgents’ battle against French colonial occupiers during the 1950s and ’60s. It’s a tough, black-and-white film that nearly borders on documentary, as it details the heavy losses on both sides. In fact, the most striking part of the film is its even-handedness. The French are neither brutes nor benevolent oppressors, and the guerrillas can’t be neatly categorized as crazed terrorists or romanticized rebels.

Enough about all these film classes that don’t fit in my schedule. As for my personal choice, I’m taking “Spanish in Film” with Margherita Tortora, an L5 class that offers an appealing exploration of Spanish culture via celluloid. Movies like “Let’s Go with Pancho Villa,” an interesting — if too brief — look at the price of the Mexican Revolution and masculinity showcase the interesting cinema of the Spanish-speaking world that you probably wouldn’t experience anywhere else.

You definitely aren’t reading this article just to miss out on these films. If you’re interested, look up course syllabi for further information on screenings.

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