Images of the City: Teaching History through Film at Syracuse University
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 2, May 1974
- pp. 27-30
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- Additional Information
elements which any filmmaker has at his disposal to effectively report his message. In this respect, Desert Victory stands as an excellent example of a film which takes both the reportorial and dramatic/didactic roles of the documentary film seriously. John Grierson said that the documentary film had a special role in a world where "the educational system has forgotten to equip the citizen for the social realities in which the poor devil has had to participate." Applying this role to the wartime documentary, Desert Victory (1943) delivered a realistic message about the dangers ofwar to life and limb, but, at the same time, it also supplied an explanation of how the home audience was expected to cope with it as loyal British citizens. This latter message was communicated with a minimum of overt didacticism and a maximum use of the true elements of the documentary film—sound, image editing. Images of the City: TEACHING HISTORY THROUGH FILM AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY By Arthur LeGacy Since the moving picture was invented, and even before movies became popular entertainment, the city has been the subject of innumerable films. The image of the city in films has not been static but has been changing constantly in the twentieth century. It has been variously depicted as a mecca for impoverished farmers and immigrants, a breeding ground for cnme and political corruption, a safe haven for seekers of anonymity, a prison for the poor, a playground for the rich, a stepping off point for the upwardly mobile. My course explores the changing image of the city through the use of important films in an attempt to understand what the city has meant to millions who have been fascinated and repelled by it. I taught the course for the first time four years ago with Professor George Mitchell, now in the Department ofAmerican Studies, Upstate Medical Center, Syracuse, New York. Since then I have been teaching it alone. The class meets for three hours one day a week for a lecture and then a film. Later in the week there is an optional discussion section which ten per cent of the students attend. About 100 students enroll in the course, and they pay a special fee of $10.00, like a laboratory fee charged in science courses. Book buying is kept to a minimum because of the fee. The book list includes, Alger, Ragged Dick; Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Ellison. Invisible Man; Bellow, Seize the Day; and Bergman, We're In The Money. The course begins with The Magnificent Ambersons ( 1 942), Orson Welles' adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel (191 8). It is certainly one of the best films I have ever seen, even though it has been grievously cut, and affixed with a mawkish ending by a company hack after Welles had gone on to other projects. Welles recreates the ambience ofan early twentieth century suburb in the midst ofbeing overwhelmed by an expanding city. He translates the novel into film faithfully, but the new medium, and the director's mastery of it, improves Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize winning book. 27 The lecture is "Film and History: Two Levels ofReality." The principle of film selection one most often attempts to satisfy in a course like this is the principle, which finds two levels ofreality united by a single symbol or a single intuitive configuration. In the Ambersons it is the automobile which unifies external action with underlying plot. The external action revolves around the demise ofthe "Amberson Addition," a suburb close to the center of a midwestern city. The city expands around the Amberson home as the fortunes ofthis once magnificent family contract. "This town's already spreading," says Eugene Morgan, the automobile manufacturer (Joseph Cotton). "Bicycles and trolleys have been doing their share, but the automobile is going to carry city streets clear out to the county line. Already the boarding-house is marching up National Avenue. There are two in the next block below here, and there are a dozen in the half-mile below that. My relatives, the Sharons, have sold their house and are building in the country-at least, they call it 'the country.' It will be city in two...