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Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000) 83-89

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Connecting to Film History through Writing

Robin Bates

Rekindling the magic of early cinema--and not-so-early cinema--is the biggest challenge in my film history courses. How does one convey to students today why films that appear mannered and static, such as The Kiss (1896) and She Done Him [End Page 83] Wrong (1933), once scandalized and titillated spectators? Why were the interminably upbeat Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney so important to Depression audiences? Why did expressionless Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) mean so much to middle-class white men (including U.S. president Bill Clinton) in its initial release? Why did Sidney Poitier's returning Rod Steiger's slap in In the Heat of the Night (1967) mean so much to black men in its day? How could our students' mothers have become sick to their stomachs on seeing The Exorcist (1973), and how could their fathers sit through, much less thrill to, Easy Rider (1969)?

In the past, my pedagogical solution was to provide substantial historical context in the hope that my students would at least glimpse the sensibilities of a bygone era. But in taking this route, I have run into a different version of the same problem: the mostly middle- and lower-middle-class students at the small, state-supported liberal arts college where I teach are not much more open to history than they are to old films. Even when I am at my eloquent best, telling stories of how angry Depression audiences vicariously lived through the transgressions of James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, my students are often skeptical. I sometimes sense that they see me as an intellectual mountebank, impressive but ultimately unconvincing as I contend that deep fears and wishes are encoded in the cinema. I have therefore formulated the following sequence of written assignments to enhance my History of American Film seminar, in which few of the students have any academic film experience. These essays are designed to pump blood into the apparently dry and ghostly spirits of old movies and old times.

In Essay 1, I ask the students to identify a film that had powerful resonance for them and to account for that response historically. Essay 2, which I call a "vertical study," has them choose a film that was an "event" for an audience in the past. They are to figure out the dynamics of that viewing experience, formulating a theory about why spectators responded as they did. Essay 3, a "horizontal study," calls for them to choose three films that have something in common but the first and last must be separated by at least thirty years (to ensure historical range). They are to look for continuities and discontinuities and to explain them historically.

I began formulating these assignments when I discovered that many of my students do not see even themselves as historical, much less the films they watch. It took me a while to realize this, in large part because I had different historical experiences. As a child growing up amid the heated desegregation battles in rural Tennessee and then undergoing the anxieties of the Vietnam draft, I always felt connected to large historical events. Although my friends and I may have felt helpless and peripheral, we still felt like players on the world stage.

If my students today do not experience history as I did, it may be because history seems to move along with a small "h" for them. For the most part, they are not, to draw upon Fredric Jameson's formulation, unduly "hurt" by history. 1 Present-day history can therefore appear slightly unreal to them, an endlessly malleable television narrative.

To have my students examine how history does indeed enter into their responses, I ask them, in the first assignment, to describe and analyze a particularly powerful film experience, either positive or negative. They are asked first to describe [End Page 84] the experience as objectively as possible, both its "external dimensions" (did they see it with a date, a group of friends, or...


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