21L.715 Media in Cultural Context: Social Issues in American Films: Then and Now

This seminar will explore the ways American films past and present have confronted fundamental social problems. Three topical areas will be the focus: urban life (in particular, the problems of congestion, poverty and crime); advocacy for and opposition to women’s rights (with side glances at issues of race and gay rights); and conflicts revolving around immigration and citizenship. These issues were all addressed in vital ways within a huge number of films from the medium’s very beginning. Thus, in each unit we begin by studying select examples of many types of film from the silent period. They will include fictional narratives (long, short, tragic, comic), educational films, animation, newsreels, etc. Our principal “text” for this material will be the DVD anthology Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 (2007), in conjunction with some mainstream landmarks (e.g., Stroheim’s Greed and Vidor’s The Crowd). In counterpoint to this material, we will examine various films (and television series) from the past two decades that continue to address the same issues. Readings will provide background for each group of films, including the aims and methods of the people who made them, as well as aspects of critical reception and media theory.
M. Marks