Lesson 1 Lecture & Discussion
Film as an Art

Movies in Your Life

Watching movies, in a theater or in the comfort of our own home, is more than just entertainment—it's a driving force in our lives.

You’re a movie fan, right? You must be, or else you wouldn’t have signed up for this course. But what does that mean? It means that going to the movies, enjoying a great story, and getting wrapped up in the adventures of well-developed characters is a fascinating experience. It means that we love to find hidden meaning in movies, and we enjoy movies that deeply affect our various emotions. It means that we are drawn to the Hollywood culture and that we love to celebrate the great directors, actors, and all the others who breathe life into the films they create.

We also know that, since we’ve all found our way to this class, that the ability to analyze movies knowledgeably and talk about them articulately with our friends is important to us. The entire goal of this course is to give you a head start in that direction.

To that end, we’ll be watching notorious classics, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), Kubrick’s 2001, and Welles’s Citizen Kane. No matter how many times you’ve seen them before, you’ll now see them from a new perspective, with a new base of knowledge. (And if you haven’t seen them…well, you’re in for quite a treat!)

We’ll also be watching some lesser known―but equally engaging―movies: Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), the musical you’d most want to have with you on the proverbial desert island; Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), a great Hollywood satire and a film course in itself; Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), a mesmerizing and meaningful film-poem; and Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954), America’s only blacklisted feature, now hailed as a classic of both politics and film art.

The Author Reflects:
A Time Before Movies

You probably can’t remember a time in your life without movies or television. Well, I can. I was a war baby, not a boomer. I grew up with radio.

Although we had the first television on our block (a 10-inch Motorola), the magic box didn’t arrive until 1948, when I was six years old and already in school. Believe it or not, I didn’t see a movie in a theater until four years later, when my grandmother took me to see Five Fingers, an adult spy drama written by Michael Wilson, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and starring James Mason.

Think about it: No Sesame Street (I had to learn the alphabet from books), no Mr. Rogers (I had to learn about feelings from people), no Disney children’s classics (until I was a teenager, Snow White and Cinderella were books to me), and no music.

My parents were born before radio, before sound film. Yet they belonged to the "greatest generation," the folks who fought World War II and built the world we know today.

James Monaco

We’ve gone through a huge shift in just two generations, from a world whose only medium was print to a world engulfed in an ocean of moving images and sounds. This is a shift at least as significant as the Gutenberg print revolution 500 years ago―perhaps a lot more significant.

In his book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, cultural critic Raymond Williams put it another way. He noted that 100 years ago, people were exposed to a couple of hours of drama per year. In the age of television, they consume more than that every night. This is a profound cultural shift. Where did it come from, this tremendous, insatiable appetite for fiction, for drama, for artificial images and sounds?

To serve this appetite, Hollywood and Madison Avenue have come up with a prodigious variety of styles and genres, from "talking heads" to action-adventure, from sitcoms to "reality" TV, from documentary to music video. (We’ll investigate this spectrum of style further in Lesson 3.)

But it’s not just varieties of fiction we are concerned with. All the techniques of film are applied to news, as well. At the end of the 19th century, people got their news through newspapers―in text, with very few, simple pictures. They didn’t know what their politicians sounded like unless they heard them speak in person. They had only a vague idea what they looked like. The focus of debate was, by necessity, on the ideas expressed. Now, in the age of the sound bite, the focus is on performance. What does the politician look like? How’s his or her delivery? Can his or her writers and handlers come up with a memorable catchphrase?

As Observers in the triangle, we’d better understand the techniques at work here if we are to make rational decisions.

One thing is clear: Movies aren’t just an entertainment product. They are a way of life. They influence how we view the world outside of film. And as film (in all its various forms) increasingly pervades our lives, that non-film world continues to shrink.

Please spend some time thinking about your own relationship to movies and television (and other media)―especially when you were a child.

What do you think?


On the class message board, please post your responses to the following questions.

  1. Describe your earliest memory of movies (or TV or other media).
  2. Is there a modern medium that you would prefer didn’t exist? (Cell phones? Satellite radio? Personal Video Recorders?)
  3. Is there a modern medium without which you can’t live? (Cell phones? Satellite radio? Personal Video Recorders?)
  4. Which do you think is the most important part of art―the Artist, The Work, or the Observer? Why?
  5. What has been the most influential movie in your life? Why?