Bookbag: THEATRST272 - America Dreams, American Movies

Writer: 
June 6, 2016

THE CATALYST: In 2008, English department professor Marianna Torgovnick and now-retired theater studies professor Michael Malone jointly launched this survey course to explore the role of movies in American cultural mythology. Seventy-five students enrolled in the first class; this year the student cap was set at 200. Elizabeth Landesberg M.F.A. ’13 is now the co-instructor.

THE GIST: Movies are a driver and a product of American culture. Students explore how twentieth-century films continue to define the cultural landscape. Lectures, held at the Nasher Museum, cover topics such as the impact of emerging technology on the mass entertainment industry, and the degree to which cinematic history correlates with American cultural history. Professor Torgovnick says she hopes students learn “different ways to view movies critically and analytically in terms of genre, frame and shot composition, and the big themes that run through American movies.”

ASSIGNMENT LIST: Students view classics, such as The Gold Rush (1925), King Kong (1933), Gone With the Wind (1939), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Godfather (1972), the first Indiana Jones (1981), Wall-E (2008), and Her (2013)— popcorn not included. John Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture is the course text. At the end of the semester, students produce their own collaborative genre films.

THE TWIST: Occasionally, the class gathers for evening screenings and discussions at White Auditorium. As the term ends, the spotlight turns on the students when the team-made genre films are screened for the entire class. Students then vote for the ADAM Awards (the name is the acronym for the course title). Winners are announced—and the Golden Apple awards distributed—at a gala evening ceremony Torgovnick says has “a spirit of openness and inclusiveness that the Oscars themselves have sometimes lacked.”