Archive for July, 2011

Welcome to the Course (plus another note on films) + 2 updates

July 17, 2011

By this time you will have already received an email from me welcoming you to the course. One of the things the email advises you to do is read this blog. The classroom is our primary source of study group goodness – this blog should be a fairly close second.

I wrote recently about films and how to incorporate them and got a thoughtful comment from Jeff Schiffman. I reproduce it below (italics mine):


My experience with showing films that take up the entire class time is that 1. It makes me feel like am taking a film course and not a discussion course. And that 2. it’s hard to bond when there is limited give and take. Your choices seem terrific (no surprise) so I wonder if there might be some way to show only key chunks of the films, with talk in between each segment. I recall you did that in your folk music class, though the songs come already “pre-chunked” due to their length I admit.

Jeff is mostly right – and here’s how I figure to deal with it: I’ll use no more than half of any given class for a film, and carry two of the films over from one class to another. One of the films I’ll need to split up is The Grapes of Wrath; I think many of us know the story and it’s got a good midpoint to use as a break point, so I don’t see that one as a problem. The other is Micheaux’s Within Our Gates. It’s unchunkable, with lots of sometimes cumbersome plot, but it is on YouTube in its entirety, so if people want to refresh their memories they can rewatch the first half hour, which is all we’ll see in the first class. I’ll provide the links and even send popcorn.  That’s maybe a little less satisfactory, but I think addresses Jeff’s concern (does it, Jeff?). I also think these plot-driven films don’t lend themselves to mid-film discussion – until we see how it ends, we’re not sure what to say.

The other two films we’ll see are episodes of a larger TV miniseries – about 45-50 minutes each, so we’ll do one on each of two consecutive weeks.

Jeff’s comment is a perfect example of the kind of exchange that gives you all a chance to have an impact on this course NOW, while it’s so much easier to change. So let me hear from you.

Here’s the NY Times’s film critic A. O. Scott with his take on Grapes of Wrath – please enjoy! There’s 30-second ad before you get to Scott…nothing I can do about it.

UPDATE: The video does not work on iPad – I suspect this is an Adobe Flash issue. Flash is incompatible with the iOS. You can find the original NYT video (without the ad!) here.

UPDATE the 2nd: The Times link does not work on my iPad either. Go to the library.


Welcome to the Course, Part II: Films

July 8, 2011

Next week we find out who’s is what courses. I can’t wait. It’s an exciting time for me as I learn more every day about this great migration, and it’ll be good to find out who’ll be sharing it with me come September.

Right now I’m planning about five and one-half hours of film in class, spread over five class sessions. My first question is how you all feel about that – too much? too little? just right? Just having finished a Harvard Extension film course, and having taken one a while ago at HILR, I’ve come to the possibly counterintuitive view that watching films together can be as powerful a bonding experience for a group as a group discussion. Let me know your views.

The films I currently have in the queue are: the first surviving film from the African-American director Oscar Micheaux, Within Our Gates is, among other things, a story of a Black woman’s struggle to build a new life in the North while coming to terms with her Southern past. We’ll introduce it with a brief, but offensive clip from D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Clan, and inspired the development of an independent Black film industry, reluctantly and often eccentrically led by Micheaux.

Next we’ll see two episodes of a 1995 BBC/Discovery Channel miniseries, The Promised Land, based loosely on Nicholas Lemann’s book. It’s a documentary, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and includes moving interviews with many of the migrants who made the journey from Mississippi to Chicago’s South Side.

Somewhere along the way, we’ll also see John Ford’s classic The Grapes of Wrath. It’s based on John Steinbeck’s novel, of course, but much of Steinbeck’s research for the novel found its way into a series of documentary articles he wrote for the San Francisco News in 1936. We’ll read a few of those articles to prepare us for Ford’s bleak vision of the Joad families journey.

I’ve been trying to stay away from the easy choices for readings and films for this course, and considered The Dollmaker as an alternative to The Grapes of Wrath. I decided against it simply because, at about 2 1/2 hours, it’s too unwieldy to fit into out two-hour class format. It’s based on the Harriette Arnow novel of the same name, a National Book Award finalist in 1955. Both versions of the story are powerful indeed, and neither pulls punches the way Ford’s version of Steinbeck’s novel unfortunately does. Gertie Nevels and her family (Jane Fonda is Gertie in the film) move to Detroit from rural Kentucky in the 1950’s with mostly tragic results.

I’ve posted a filmography (also linked under the “Pages” heading to your right) with info and links on these films and a couple of others. If you’ve got suggestions, I’ll add them, and if you think there’s anything we need to see in class, let me know so that I can take a look before we start.