‘Don’t know much about history …’

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson.

My apologies to Same Cooke for borrowing a line from “Wonderful World” for the title of this.

Don’t take this post too much to heart; it’s a musing, a passing thought, not a lecture. But, do feel free to chime in with ideas.

My youngest saw Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett and said, “He’s so handsome; she’s so beautiful,” and I realized he was talking about their clothes. To him, they’re “really dressed up,” but people wore suits and dresses all the time in the 1940s, not just for special occasions. My son is 6, but he’s not alone in his reading of the movies from the 1940s. Costuming sometimes throws my college students for a loop because many of them assume characters in the older movies are supposed to be very wealthy or high-class because of their clothing.

While I understand that keeping up with things like fashion and furniture trends of the 20th century might be asking a bit much of the students, it is disconcerting to have people misunderstand a movie because they don’t have much familiarity with historical events. For example, many students assumed that “the Great War” mentioned in Hugo was a reference to the French Revolution instead of World War I—I can possibly understand mixing up the two World Wars, but the French Revolution isn’t even in the same century in which the film was set. In other years, I’ve had students who wrote exam answers that described the “thriving movie industry during the Civil War’—problematic since the American Civil War ended in 1865 and the some of the first movie cameras didn’t appear for almost another twenty years; a “thriving” film industry wasn’t around until the early 20th century.

If  these kinds of misunderstandings happened with only one or two students each semester, I would figure I was witnessing individual cases of people who didn’t like their history classes and did better in other subjects. But, because there are so many students lacking knowledge of history each semester, it makes me worry about what else they’re not able to put into context. To not really understand the Civil Rights Movement may leave them without an understanding of the deep social changes it brought, nor of the continuing struggle of different groups to find equality in America.

Kindergartners like my son can’t be expected to put many things into a historical context, but at what point should we have an awareness of what happened in the past or what our society was like a generation or two before our own time?

On a lighter note, I wonder what people in the future will assume about contemporary movies based on the clothing?

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.

Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl.


‘Inception’ and genre



This week, we’re looking at the Science Fiction genre. We’ll also spend a little time thinking about Horror and Fantasy. The film the class watched was Inception; whether it is an example of science fiction is something we can debate.

First, let’s consider the three genres mentioned. They’re closely related and many films combine elements from all three. It should be noted that each genre has subgenres, such as slasher flicks, ghost stories, and monster movies under the larger umbrella of horror.

Science Fiction‑generally has imaginative, but somewhat plausible premises. As the name implies, the genre is concerned with technology and science. Classic sci-fi movies were often set in the future or outer space or focused on the consequences of scientific discovery (robots, clones, etc.) This tends to be a genre of ideas and filmmakers use it to explore philosophical ideas, such as ethics, social structure, and identity‑especially what it means to be human. Some examples of science fiction movies are: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, Aliens, Bladerunner, Frankenweenie, and The Fifth Element.

Fantasy‑usually contains supernatural or highly fanciful elements such as magic, supernatural creatures, and magical or enchanted places. Often the theme is one of good vs. evil. Some examples of fantasy films are The Harry Potter series; The Lord of the Rings Trilogy; The Dark Crystal; Ghost Busters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Wizard of Oz; The Corpse Bride, Coraline, and the Black Cauldron.

Horror‑contains unnatural or supernatural themes and elements and is designed to unsettle or frighten the viewer. The genre has roots in folklore and traditions that tried to explain death, the afterlife, and the nature of good and evil. Even modern horror tales and movies often focus on societal fears surrounding these themes. Some examples of horror movies are: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, An American Werewolf in London, The Shining, The Grudge, The Exorcist, Stigmata, Night of the Living Dead, and Psycho.

While these genres are often looked at as mindless entertainment, they often address deep issues about identity, ethics, or society. The surface may look escapist, but the images and ideas may leave the viewer mulling over the implications of what he or she has just seen. For example, we might think about mind control and personal privacy after watching Inception. If it were possible to control someone else’s dreams, should we? What ideas are truly our own? Which of our thoughts come from external suggestions?

Why are genres even necessary?

The genre system helps with marketing and distribution. It also helps in development. A screenwriter will have better luck pitching a script that fits into an understandable category like Romantic Comedy, Horror, Thriller, etc. He or she can spend less time describing “what kind of story” it is and get into a more specific pitch—how this film is different from all the other slasher flicks or which ones it is similar to so that the marketing department is likely to know which audience is likely to see it.

On the marketing and distributing end, it is easy for viewers to scroll through specific genres on a streaming site like Netflix or iTunes. Most of us know what types of movies we like and these services use broad genres and fine-tune suggestions based on what we watch, rent, or purchase. My Netflix suggestions direct me to “dark humor,” “British drama,” and “psychological thrillers,” because I’ve watched movies like Shaun of the Dead, the BBC’s Sherlock, and North by Northwest recently.

Even if you go to a brick and mortar movie theater or video store, genres are used. If you go see Bullet to the Head or Skyfall, you’ll also see previews of the action movies coming out in the next few months. If you go to a video store, you’ll find the films arranged by category, and if you’re a regular, the staff will probably make recommendations based on what you seem to like.

With the rise of independent filmmakers, the genre lines are getting more blurry, but are still used as a part of the cultural shorthand. A film like Chasing Amy might get categorized as both a romantic comedy and a gay/lesbian film because of the lesbian character.

How should we classify Inception?

Some might argue that Inception is not a science fiction film.  Inception contains “dream sequences,” but many of these seem like the typical fare found in action movies even if the special effects used to indicate the dream sequences sometimes seem like the stuff of fantasy; these effects and the fantastic element are not consistently used. But, the biggest problem with labeling the film a science fiction movie is that it doesn’t seem to address any of the anxiety over technology and ethics that the typical sci-fi movie does.

Because we can’t get a real handle on the reality of the world in the film or of Cobb’s character, we aren’t given insight into what is truly at stake for him or society as a result of dream manipulation.

Others might argue that the film is a science fiction movie because of the theme of using mind control and the ethics of how that can be applied. Is there ever a time when it would be acceptable to enter someone else’s mind and place ideas there? The very thought is chilling to most people, and playing on modern anxieties about who might be monitoring us at any given time, does put the film in the realm of classic science fiction like 1984.

If you have not watched the film or are getting ready to watch it again, consider whether it has a stable structure. At first, Inception seems like a series of random events, which like a dream, change constantly without reason. But, some threads do continue to appear throughout Inception, possibly giving the film an underlying structure. At the very least, the attempt to replicate the dreamstate gives the film a series of disruptions that finally become a pattern.

Another element to think about is Cobb. Are we in his story or is he the prominent figure in the dreams of another? Do we have a reliable narrator?

Film terminology

CGI: computer-generated imagery is the use of computer graphics to create or contribute to an image used on screen. Some of the first well-known uses of CGI were in films like Jurassic Park and Toy Story. As the software becomes more affordable, more independent and smaller artists are producing film and video games using CGI.

Extreme close-up: when the camera shows an actor’s face in detail or a single object is the focus of the frame, with little or no surrounding background for context. The spinning top in Inception is an example.

(Un)Reliable narrator: the degree of truth in a narrator (or point-of-view character)’s story gives the viewer a sense of whether he or she is trustworthy. The Usual Suspects makes great use of an unreliable narrator.



Night view of The Strand theater in Key West, photographed by Dale M. McDonald. Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/101079

This blog comes with an expiration date: May 2013.

I’m keeping the blog for my film studies class for the Spring 2013 semester, and while it will be written primarily for my students, I also see it as an experiment in contributing to public learning. This blog is a way to open the discussion up to a wider community so all of us can benefit from shared knowledge and idea exchange. Unfortunately for the general reader, you won’t get college credit for reading and taking part in the conversation, but I hope you find useful information and interesting discussion.

The class focuses on American cinema and representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in movies and popular culture. Over the next few months, we’ll talk about how the images we see on screen affect us and our understanding of one another. We’ll also look at how societal changes impact Hollywood and its representations of different groups.

Next week we’ll consider reasons for studying films as something with more than simple entertainment value.