So how do you teach a film class, anyway?
September 8, 2020 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm teaching a college class on classical antiquity in film. I've never taught a film class before, or even taken one. It's going okay so far, but I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing and could use some advice on how to make the most effective use of class time.

I'm a linguist and classicist and, though I know about ancient Greek and Roman culture and literature, I don't know much about film theory; in fact, any of my students who've taken an intro to film studies class are sure to know more about it than I do. So I've been focusing so far on providing the kind of classics background that they might find useful for thinking about the films -- e.g. since our first movie was the Wolfgang Petersen Troy, an introduction to the Trojan War myths, Homer etc. We had a small group discussion session about the differences between the movie and the original myths, and this seemed to go well (they were especially eager to talk about different approaches to portraying the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus). I plan to do the same for different periods of Greek and Roman history as we move forward, but I'm a bit unsure what else I could be bringing to this class beyond historical and cultural background.

Previously I've mainly taught either language classes (where of course the format is totally different), or literature in translation classes where a lot of class time was spent on close reading of dense texts. Neither of those skill sets seems to translate over to this class very straightforwardly.

After Troy we're watching the Cacoyannis Iphigenia, then the Italian Ulisse with Kirk Douglas followed by O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Oliver Stone's Alexander, and 300; then onto Rome with Spartacus, Gladiator, Quo Vadis?, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and some episodes of the BBC I, Claudius. (Many of these were suggestions in response to my previous question, so thanks for those!) The class is online and fully synchronous.

So MeFites who've taught or taken film classes, what teaching approaches / techniques / activities have you found interesting and effective?
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark to Education (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My first thought in response to your question: The classics on film help shape perception of what antiquity was like. That has huge consequences for our understanding of ancient history generally, its cultural evolution and its influence on our culture. It undoubtedly also influences whether we seek out more information on it.

In fact, I see that "Rome" was one of the responses to your last question, but you don't mention it here. If you're not including it, I urge you to reconsider: It got as much press on the scholarship behind it as it did on the actual storyline. Part the reason it got so much press was because its accuracy was costly.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine might offer food for thought:
HBO is filming its $100 million series “Rome” (which began airing August 28) on a five-acre set that re-creates the city in the last days of the Republic. Bruno Heller, the show’s cocreator, hopes that the series will do for antiquity what HBO’s 2004 “Deadwood” did for the Old West: demythologize it.

“It’s sometimes hard for us to believe that the ancient Romans really existed in the quotidian sense,” Heller said, as we strolled back lots filled with period uniforms and props. “But they were real, visceral, passionate people.” The series attempts to show the Romans without judging them by modern, Christian morality. “Certain things are repressed in our own culture, like the open enjoyment of others’ pain, the desire to make people submit to your will, the guilt-free use of slaves,” Heller added. “This was all quite normal to the Romans.”
Now compare that to what the AIA magazine Archeology has to say about the series' depiction of Roman society:
On the other hand, the writers and directors of this series should have attended more faithfully to the advice of their historical consultant, or perhaps hired more consultants. Centurions on horseback look mighty dapper in their chain mail--several hundred years before such defensive garments are attested in the Roman army. Religion and religious ritual permeated ancient Rome society at all times, but religious affairs are not presented here in any convincing fashion. Some scenes of prayer are done well; other visualizations of ritual are anachronistic or simply bizarre. For example, Atia, as devotee of Magna Mater, undergoes a taurobolium: the sacrifice of a bull with the blood dripping down through a gate onto the worshiper below. No taurobolia are attested in Italy until the first-half of the second century A.D. Mark Antony is invested with tribunicial authority in an incoherent and incomprehensible religious ritual without historical warrant.
From another perspective, some of the Asterix films might serve you, too. Its accuracy is up for debate, but it's important because it's so widely beloved by children and adults alike.

If you google a classicist looks at the classics on film you'll see that you are not the first to explore the subject, and my guess is a look through books exploring the response to the classics on film will help you shape yours.

Finally, there's a brief article here on Greek and Roman influence on America, which might also give you a few ideas. Or if you want to go bigger, you could talk about classical influence on the West generally.

In terms of when and how to show films, I would choose your excerpts (or whole films) strategically: to highlight ideas, trigger a discussion or, if it's short, to introduce or conclude a topic (or a class).

Good luck. This sounds like a fun class.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:10 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm not a film professor but my wife is.
She usually has reading+lecture, then watching a film, or short or parts of a film, then class discussion of how what she was talking about or had them read is evident in the film.
Then, essay or test along the lines of 'analyze these three films/shorts in terms of what these three authors are talking about'.
At the end, another essay or presentation analyzing a specific sub-genre or a director chosen by the students in light of the entire course's contents.
posted by signal at 5:33 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

A book that may provide you with food for thought in lectures - Past Imperfect. It's a collection of essays by 60 or so historians - each one reviewing a different "historical" movie. Most of them take the approach of presenting "here's what actually did happen, here's what the film says happened" and doing a compare-contrast. Sometimes they point to why some of the details of the true events were tweaked a bit for the sake of the story. The even more interesting essays address not just "here's what actually happened and here's what the films says happened", they also address "and here's what was happening when they made the film so that's why they spun things that way".

There are several essays that deal with films set in antiquity, so you may even want to make some late additions to class reading. The essays are all short - just a few pages.

Recommending that since they all may be the kind of mindset you could be approaching this from. None of the historians who review those films necessarily know much about film theory either; but the spin on these essays is more about storytelling than filmmaking; what details are included, which are combined, and which are omitted entirely, and how that impacts the story you're telling and how those details may serve the public narrative of the present when you look at the past. And how that narrative can change - and how sometimes how those stories get told can make for that change.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:52 AM on September 9, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you have a mix of classics students and film students in the class, it could be rewarding for both you and them to have a paper toward the end of the course where they discuss how the course has changed their perspective on either film or the classical world.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:23 AM on September 9, 2020

Hi! I have taught philosophy and film courses many times, and i think you can maybe reimagine how your experience with close reading with students can help you here. A film can be treated as a text, and unpacked in very much the same way, you just need to direct the conversation in that direction.

Further, one of the delights of teaching film + x courses is that students tend to be very film-savvy and have a head start on the film side of things that can give them a toehold on the other things that you want them to get out of the course. (This is true even if they haven't done any formal film studies.) For instance, I've found that they usually have a very good sense of what the film wants from them, wants them to think or feel, and you could use that to get them to think about things like how the characters in the film feel about their world vs. how the film perhaps wants you to think differently about the things the film world takes for granted.

In terms of sheer classroom mechanics, I find it really helpful to give them a few questions to focus on before we watch the movie--attending to a particular scene, asking how the movie shapes our sympathies, keeping an eye out for instances of x thing we had discussed from the reading. I usually try to keep these pretty open ended in terms of the bigger questions we're discussing and pretty focused in terms of what I'm asking them to notice, if that makes sense--it's helpful to be able to point to specific scenes we can all talk about (either ones I know i want to look at or ones I ask them to find themselves) and work back out to bigger questions from unpacking the details.
posted by felix grundy at 9:32 AM on September 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

You might find this article by Roger Ebert helpful.
posted by Charity Garfein at 6:23 PM on September 9, 2020

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