Film History

Sarah Lawrence students approach film, first and foremost, as an art. The College’s film history courses take social, cultural, and historical contexts into account; but films themselves are the focus of study and discussion. Students seek artistic value equally in Hollywood films, art films, avant-garde films, and documentaries, with emphasis on understanding the intentions of filmmakers and appreciating their creativity.

As a valuable part of a larger humanistic education in the arts, the study of film often includes exploration of connections to the other arts, such as painting and literature. Close association with the filmmaking and visual arts departments enables students working in these areas to apply their knowledge of film to creative projects. And within the discipline, the study of film gives students insight into stylistic techniques and how they shape meaning. Advanced courses in specific national genres, forms, movements, and filmmakers—both Western and non-Western—provide a superb background in the history of film and a basis for sound critical judgment. Students benefit from New York City’s enormously rich film environment, in which film series, lectures, and festivals run on a nearly continuous basis.

2017-2018 Courses

Film History

Introduction to Film History, Part I

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course provides an introduction to the study of film from its “prehistory” in phantasmagoria, magic theatre, and chronophotography, through its technological development and institutionalization in the 19th century, to the diverse range of production modes in the mid-20th century. Lectures will explore key developments such as early cinema and the cinema of attractions, documentary and ethnographic cinema, the Hollywood studio system and genre filmmaking, the historical avant-garde such as German Expressionism, Soviet montage, Dada and Surrealism, early American avant-garde, and film noir. Students will acquire fundamental skills in film analysis and interpretation. Weekly screenings will be complemented by lectures devoted to in-depth analyses of films and their historical contexts. Assignments will emphasize close reading and sociocultural inquiry.

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Introduction to Film History, Part II

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course provides an introduction to the study of film and its history from the mid-20th century through contemporary digital technologies of production and circulation. Lectures will explore key developments such as neorealism, La Nouvelle Vague, cinéma vérité and direct cinema, Third Cinema, Yugoslav Black Wave, New German Cinema, postwar American avant-garde, New Hollywood and the blockbuster, Bollywood, video art, the essay film, and multimedia environments. Students will acquire fundamental skills in film and media analysis and interpretation. Weekly screenings will be complemented by lectures on in-depth analyses of films and their historical contexts. Assignments will emphasize close reading and sociocultural inquiry.

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Maghribi Cinema: From Independence to the Arab Spring

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course will provide an overview of cinema from the Mahgreb since its emergence following the end of colonial occupation. At their departure, the French left behind a filmmaking model and infrastructure, originally established for propaganda purposes, with film studios in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as a vast network of film clubs throughout the Maghreb. The effort to produce national films appeared slowly, initially with shorts. Our primary texts will focus on fiction films of diverse genres: The important societal themes therein treated will allow us to tackle key issues in Maghrebi life. Viewing films from all three countries (and possibly one from Egypt) will enable us to make comparative analyses. Special attention will be given to Moroccan cinema; the vitality of its current production represents a remarkable turnaround from 25 years ago. Today, Morocco produces between 20 and 25 films a year, making it, after Egypt, the second-largest film-producing country in Africa. We will consider and analyze the reasons behind the “Moroccan miracle” and discuss and evaluate the stakes in promoting a viable national cinema in the Maghreb. Most of these filmmakers who trained in Europe or in Russia are binationals. With the advent of the Arab Spring, Morocco witnessed the opening of numerous film schools—thus paving the way for a truly autochthonous cinema. Finally, we will also consider the challenges of Maghrebi directors to exhibit their films, with the number of cinema theatres ever shrinking and the competition of bootleg DVDs. (Films presented in either French or Arabic with English subtitles.)

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Italian Cinema

Open , Seminar—Fall

From the big-budget silent epics of the 1910s to the stylish art films of the 1960s, Italian cinema has long been a major player in world cinema. While it has on the one hand, particularly with the neorealist films of the 1940s, had an enormous influence internationally, it has also consistently adhered to specifically “national” themes, directly engaging with Italian political and social issues. The course will examine the relationship between these two seemingly contradictory facets, inquiring as to how Italian cinema has managed to balance worldwide popularity with decidedly local subject matter. We will watch films from throughout the history of Italian cinema, albeit with an emphasis on its years of greatest achievement and popularity from the 1940s to the 1970s. Given the course’s concern with Italian cinema’s close relationship to Italian politics and society, course readings will include a substantial amount of historical background material, as well as analyses of Italy’s self-representation as a nation. Other topics to be covered include the role of documentary in Italian cinema, the historical period piece, genre filmmaking, and the effects of television on the Italian film industry. Directors to be studied include Giovanni Pastrone, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Lina Wertmüller, and Marco Bellocchio.

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New Hollywood Cinema

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course will examine the so-called “New Hollywood Cinema”: the films and filmmakers who reinvigorated the Hollywood studio system in the late 1960s, only to be displaced by the blockbuster and "high-concept" films that followed. Films of the period will be examined within the context of industrial and cultural history, with special attention paid to the changing dynamics within the American film industry and to the cultural shifts that these films both responded to and expressed. These issues will be approached through a study of the form and style of the films of the era, with attention to how they revise or respond to more classical Hollywood approaches, how they appropriate and repurpose techniques derived from European “art cinema,” and how they develop their own genres or “cycles.” Other topics to be covered include youth and counterculture; changing representations of gender, class, and race; the decline of long-standing forms of self-censorship; and dramatic liberalization of attitudes towards depictions of sex and violence. Directors to be covered include Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Elaine May, and Robert Altman.

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Remembering May ’68 Fifty Years On

Open , Seminar—Spring

May 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of May ’68, a watershed moment that crystallized the mobilization of the young and the working class and their dissatisfaction with the status quo. This course will focus in particular, but not exclusively, on the French manifestation of May ’68, when the country virtually stopped functioning in the wake of student and worker demonstrations and ultimately led, one year later, to President de Gaulle’s unsuccessful referendum and resignation. We will consider the various factors leading up to this time that internationally drew strength from a growing youth movement whose members were part of the influential Baby Boom generation. In the United States, its cohorts were inspired by the Civil Rights movement, which led in turn to a burgeoning women’s and gay liberation movements. Over the course of the semester, we will analyze a series of films, including William Klein’s documentary shot during that May, the cinétracts of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker and others done in the white heat of May, as well as the so-called Zanzibar films financed by a wealthy Parisian heiress. We will also examine a series of mostly retrospective fiction films inspired by the tumultuous events of May, including Godard’s proleptic La Chinoise, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, Louis Malle’s May Fools, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air, Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers, Alain Tanner’s Jonah who will be 25 in the Year 2000, etc. Closer to home, we will consider the example of Columbia University, where student discovery of the school’s institutional support of the Vietnam War led to widespread sit-ins and the shutting down of the university. (All foreign films will be shown with English subtitles.)

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African American Cinema

Open , Seminar—Spring

Upon its inception in the late 1800s, African Americans were almost entirely excluded from the mainstream American film industry. By the 1910s, however, several successful independent African American film companies had been founded. This course will examine how African American filmmakers and performers have used a range of strategies to work within, on the peripheries, or outside of “Hollywood” ever since. While our emphasis will be on films produced and directed by African Americans, we will also cover major African American performers, particularly those who achieved success in the white-dominated Hollywood film industry, as well as Hollywood’s relationship to African American spectators. In addition to historical studies and theoretical texts, course readings will include polemical debates about many of the films we are watching, written at the time of their original release. Additional topics to be covered include the politics of representation and counter-representation in film and other forms of media, filmmaking as political practice, queer and feminist approaches to theory and practice, and activism through television and new media. Directors to be studied include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Gordon Parks, Ivan Dixon, Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, Marlon Riggs, Spike Lee, Cheryl Dunye, Kasi Lemmons, and Barry Jenkins.

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Cinema and the Digital Age

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

In the past 25 years, many of the elements that defined cinema for more than a century have begun to disappear. Films are almost never distributed and projected on celluloid film but, rather, projected digitally off of hard drives. Many are no longer even shot on film but, rather, on digital video. Perhaps even more importantly, much of what we see onscreen, especially in big-budget blockbusters, has not been photographed at all but, rather, generated by computers, narrowing the distinction between photographed cinema and animation. Films have also become more readily available to spectators than ever before through digital streaming services. Never before have so many people had access to so many films. All of these changes—spanning the fields of production, distribution, and exhibition—raise the question of whether we have, as many scholars have asked, moved “beyond” cinema as it existed for about a century into a different, new medium. This course will investigate this question through a series of films and readings that approach it from a variety of different directions. We will consider, for example, how film aesthetics have changed, how new viewing environments change our experience as spectators, and whether the use of new technologies for film production necessitates, as some theorists have argued, the abandonment of many of classical film theory’s assumptions about film’s relationship to the real. Screenings will include both mainstream Hollywood films (Spielberg, Lucas, the Wachowskis, Michael Mann) and art cinema that makes prominent use of digital tools (Alexander Sokurov, Eric Rohmer, Jia Zhangke, Peter Greenaway). Course readings will largely be theoretical texts on both film and digital media, so students should have some familiarity with film theory.

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Images of India: Text/Photo/Film

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

1) This seminar addresses colonial and postcolonial representations of India. For centuries, India has been imagined and imaged through encoded idioms of orientalism. In recent decades, writers and visual artists from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have been actively engaged in reinterpreting the British colonial impact on South Asia. Their work presents sensibilities of the colonized in counter-narration to images previously established during the Raj. Highlighting previously unexposed impressions, such works inevitably supplement, usually challenge, and frequently undermine traditional accounts underwritten by imperialist interests. 2) Colonial and orientalist discourses depicted peoples of the Indian subcontinent in terms of both degradation and a romance of empire, thereby rationalizing various economic, political, and psychological agendas. The external invention and deployment of the term “Indian” is emblematic of the epoch, with colonial designation presuming to reframe indigenous identity. 3) Postcolonial writers and artists, therefore, continue to renegotiate identities. What does it mean to be seen as an Indian? What historical claims are implicit in allegories of language, ethnicity, and nation? How do such claims inform events taking place today, given the resurgence of religious fundamentalisms? This seminar on the semiotics and politics of culture is based on works by influential South Asian writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

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First-Year Studies: Fundamentals of Nonfiction Animation

Open , FYS—Year

In this yearlong First-Year Studies beginning production course, students learn the basic principles of animation, develop an understanding of visual language, and attain skills in constructing short nonfiction narratives. Using a mixture of classical animation and 2D digital tools, students will complete practical exercises intended to familiarize themselves with basic animation skills and language. Animation will be treated as an approach that embraces documentary and other nonfiction media as an art practice. Screenings and discussions will help develop the specialized thinking needed to understand the discipline. Practice in this course is integrated with theory so that production is held within the context of critical thinking about the possibilities for nonfiction storytelling. In the first semester, we will undertake a series of short individual and group exercises in response to technical labs. Spring semester, each student will spend the majority of the term making a single nonfiction animated short on a subject of his or her choosing. With the recent explosion of interest in documentary film production, this course offers first-year students the chance to discover their own unique style for the telling of real stories with animated images. Technical instruction includes workshops in concept development, rotoscope drawing, cutout animation, miniature puppetry, lighting, cameras, and the software AfterEffects, Toon Boom Harmony, and Dragonframe. Prior drawing experience is not necessary.

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Media Sketchbooks

Open , Seminar—Fall

This one-semester production course is for adventurers, artists, and budding filmmakers interested in exploring the media of video for artistic expression and social inquiry. The images and experiences developed through experimental film and video are as varied as the artists who make them. There is, by definition, no formula for this kind of work. Like paintings or poems, each film reflects the artist as much as the content driving the work. This course is designed to introduce the language of experimental film and strategies for the use of video/film and audio design as an expressive tool. We will investigate the idea of radical content and experimental form by establishing the normative models and procedures of cinema and video and then exploring ways to challenge these conventions. Through a series of video and animation assignments, the class will consider moving-image forms and styles that blur the boundaries between and among narrative, documentary, and abstract filmmaking. Projects will be furthered by screenings, readings, seminar discussions, and field trips. Topics will include, but not be limited to, issues of identity, the performative body, border crossings, cultural equivocation and mannerisms, blemished topographies, ritual and transformation. Labs are designed to help students develop proficiency with film equipment and editing systems, including AfterEffects.

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Intermediate Italian: Modern Prose

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

This course aims at improving and perfecting the students’ speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills, as well as their knowledge of Italy’s contemporary culture and literature. In order to acquire the necessary knowledge of Italian grammar, idiomatic expressions, and vocabulary, students will be exposed to present-day Italy through the selection of modern Italian literature (e.g., short stories, poems, and passages from novels), as well as specific newspaper articles, music, and films in the original language. Some of the literary works will include selections from Alessandro Baricco, Gianni Rodari, Marcello D’Orta, Clara Sereni, Dino Buzzati, Stefano Benni, Antonio Tabucchi, Alberto Moravia, Achille Campanile, and Italo Calvino. In order to address the students’ writing skills, written compositions will also be required as an integral part of the course. The materials selected for the class—whether a literary text, song, or grammar exercise—will be accessible at all times to the students through MySLC. Research on the Web will be central to the course and will offer the basis for the weekly “Web piece,” a short paper on a particular topic. Individual conference topics might include the study of a particular author, literary text, film, or any other aspect of Italian society and culture that might be of interest to the student. Conversation classes will be held twice a week with the language assistants.

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Modern German Literature and Film From 1871 to the Present

Open , Seminar—Year

In this course, students will learn about the major cultural and historical developments in Germany since the late 19th century through an in-depth analysis of many masterpieces of modern German literature (novels, stories, plays) and film. Germany has seen five different political systems since its modern inception as a nation state in 1871: an aristocracy ruled by the German emperor, the Weimar Republic, the Nazi dictatorship, a divided Germany with a Socialist government in the East, and the creation of a reunified Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. While this is NOT a history course, students will be required to accompany their analyses of German literary and cinematic masterworks with a reading of primary and secondary historical and philosophical sources. In the fall semester, we will cover the period between 1871 and 1945; in the spring semester, the emphasis will be on postwar German literature and film since 1945. This seminar is open to all students, and no expertise in German history or literature is required; however, students will be asked to read a novel or play every week, some of which may be several-hundred pages long. You must be a dedicated reader! The preliminary reading list includes the following works of literature and film for the fall of 2017: Florian Illies: 1913; Theodor Fontane: On Tangled Paths; Rilke: The Diary of Malte Laurids Brigge; Hermann Hesse: Siddartha; Thomas Mann: Death in Venice and Other Stories; Franz Kafka: The Judgment, The Hunger Artist; Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz; Ernst Jünger: excerpts from Storm of Steel; Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front; Irmgard Keun: The Artificial Silk Girl; Berthold Brecht: The Three Penny Opera; Anna Seghers: The Seventh Cross. In the spring semester, the seminar will focus on postwar German literature after 1945 and, especially, the question of how writers and intellectuals have dealt with the Holocaust, the National Socialist and Communist dictatorships, and German reunification since 1990. Films such as The Murderers Are Among Us, Sophie Scholl, Germany Pale Mother, The Lives of the Others, and Good-bye Lenin will give students visual representations of the most important cultural and historical issues in Germany since 1945. Novels and plays include: Heinrich Böll: Group Portrait With Lady; Günther Grass: Crabwalk; Wolfgang Borchert: The Man Outside; Max Frisch: Andorra; Jurek Becker: Jacob the Liar; Monika Maron: Pavel’s Letters; Schlink: The Reader; Sebald: Austerlitz; Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone; Antje Ravic Strubel: Under Snow. German-speaking students may read some of these works in the original German and will meet with the German assistant, Nike Mizelle, once a week to improve their speaking and writing skills in German. Their conferences will also be conducted in German.

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