Syllabus: Cinema and the City

What are the best practices for introducing students to the complex of film and urbanism? Does that change depending on who the students are, or what the instructor is working on? In this installment of On Teaching, Nathan Holmes presents two different "Cinema and the City" syllabi that he prepared five years apart for use in two distinct institutional contexts.

We try to convince our students that a syllabus is a contract written in stone but, at the front of the classroom, it’s an object constantly in motion. A syllabus is tweaked and tuned, it evolves with considerations of the field and the objects of study, and it bears the imprint of pedagogical ideas experimented with and discarded. To give a sense of this motion, I submit two “Cinema and the City” syllabi. The first is for a class I taught at the University of Chicago in 2010, this was also the first college class I had ever designed and taught. The second is from class I taught this past fall semester in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa.

Classified as an undergraduate seminar, class enrollment for my University of Iowa class was mostly upper-year film majors (at Chicago, the class was open to all undergraduate students). My plan was to mix mini-lectures with presentations, and ample opportunity for discussion. In designing the more recent class, I had a better sense of the historical narrative that could be told with both the films and the readings (most of which mix readings from urbanism with film studies attendant to issues in urbanism), and of the types of questions that could be sustained across the entirety of the class. Here a few thoughts on how the recent class unfolded and what I’m thinking about for the next syllabus.

  • Because we spent so much time on it, and because it was a current running through the early films, conceptual oppositions such as gemeinschaft and gesellschaft and modernity vs. tradition worked very well in the early stages of the class dedicated to urban modernity, and particularly in our discussions of the Ozu film Woman of Tokyo and in the concept of “mo-ga” (modern girl) in 1930s Japan. Due to a technology problem, we were unable to watch Babyface, which would have set up a great transnational contrast.
  • I quickly realized that I had planned too many readings per week so I announced in class that I would likely be making adjustments to reduce readings (the highlighted readings in the 2015 syllabus are the ones we actually read).
  • For the “Bodies, Machines, and Motion” week, I screened all the song and dance numbers discussed in the Scott Bukatman’s chapter on New York musicals. This went splendidly.
  • Students enjoyed talking about utopia and dystopia. Discussing Le Corbusier’s ideas in relation to Playtime worked very well here. I was particularly pleased when a student developed a paper comparing Playtime with The Truman Show that drew on Le Corbusier and New Urbanisst concepts. The students were also very into talking about dystopian genres. Blade Runner was good for this, of course, as was Only Lovers Left Alive (although I personally don’t care for that one).
  • Instead of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, we watched Across 110th Street. The latter is excellent for discussing racial geography but it’s also a fairly bleak film that stands apart from the exuberance that marks other films in the blaxploitation cycle. Next time I think I’ll screen Black Caesar.
  • Los Angeles Plays Itself is excellent for teaching with as it both opens up to questions of the way that urbanity appears within different modes of filmmaking, and offers much to disagree with. I would actually prefer to screen it earlier in the course next time, as it serves a great reference point, especially for film genre.
  • How could I have eliminated Paris is Burning in this iteration of the class? Bad call, Nathan! This was a missed opportunity to pick up the thread of urban sexuality and subculture, and to reconnect with a number of concepts from the urban modernity unit.
  • For the final class we viewed The World by Zhangke Jia. Like the amusement park it depicts, the film seemed to contain many of the conceptual strands developed in the class—modernity vs. tradition, alienation and labor, utopia… Or maybe this was just my end of semester sentimentality.
  • Early on I realized that many students in the Iowa class were from small towns, rural areas, and the suburbs of small cities. For those who hadn’t spent time in major cities, I worried that the discussion might take on a kind of alienating cosmopolitanism. In fact, their experience worked well for discussing the novelty of urban modernity in city symphony films. But their experience also made me rethink other possibilities for the class. For one, I think a cinema and the suburbs class would be very interesting and well received. There’s definitely a good corpus of films–American, European, and Asian—to make this a lively topic, and it would more directly speak to many students’ immediate experiences of built space. Perhaps even “Cinema and the Built Environment” is a much more appropriate way to approach this topic today. This class could engage with many of the same topics as a Cinema and the City class, but also with ideas relating to landscape, studio-based production, the suburbs, physical infrastructures, and questions of climate and ecology.

holmes chicago syllabus                   holmes iowa syllabus

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