What class?

LSTD 4700 – Film Noir

Why is it cool?

Film noir is a kind of very stylized film that emerged in the United States in the early 1940s and lasted, at least in its classic period, until the late 1950s. These films, which often dealt with crime and criminals, focused on characters facing difficult moral choices and who almost always made wrong decisions.

Films noir mirrored the culture of the era in which they were made, but they also reflected philosophical, artistic, sociological and even religious sensibilities. This online class helps students explore the intellectual roots of noir in various artistic movements and as an outgrowth of literary movements, but it also recognizes that film noir is an entertainment medium. Students who enjoy more recent movies see the obvious connections between these old black-and-white films and something like Pulp Fiction or Fargo and TV shows like The X Files and Breaking Bad.

Not only do students read about film noir and study theories that underpin the world of film noir in the class, they also watch some of the best examples of film noir, films like Detour, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Chinatown. These are all fun films to watch. In group discussions, students offer their opinions of the films they have watched and compare them to contemporary films with which they may be more familiar. Their discussions are often quite lively, and they come up with some insightful takes on these older films. Those more interested in technical matters can explore film noir’s sound, lighting or camera work. Those drawn to film as art can consider such elements as themes, story, symbolism, music or acting performances.

We have a tendency to believe our age is unique, that no one before us has ever considered the “great stuff” we think about. But ideas relate and interrelate and recur every day, decade after decade, century after century.

Of course I hope students will come away from the class with an appreciation for film noir. However, more than this, I’d like them to understand how elements of film noir underpin so much of what they watch today and understand, ultimately, that the film noir worldview arises from not simply German Expressionist works of the 20th century but from the ideas of writers and philosophers from centuries before. Also, I’d like them to see the connection between ideas and images. We have a tendency to believe our age is unique, that no one before us has ever considered the “great stuff” we think about. But ideas relate and interrelate and recur every day, decade after decade, century after century. These recurring ideas connect us as human beings to others living long ago.

While there are a few exceptions, I’ve found that most students like movies, though most younger students are not very familiar with film noir. It’s very interesting when the demographic of a particular class ranges from age 22 to age 60. My favorite moment occurred when—as I was first teaching this course face-to-face in 2008—a septuagenarian student talked about living in California in the 1940s and how one time Cary Grant showed up at his parents’ house for a date with the student’s sister. The young students in the class listened in rapt attention, even though not all of them knew who Cary Grant was. But the story provided an important connection between a representative from the silent generation and these millennials. The older student had learned something from a comment made during an earlier discussion, these younger students were learning from his observation and we were all processing from our own individual perspectives.

The discussions reminded me once again that learning is infectious and lifelong and fun. This happens in the online version of the course, too; it’s just that the discussions and the learning are virtual and not face to face. And what better way to learn than using movies as your guide?

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