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What Films Should We Teach

March 9, 2024 |  4 min read

Last year we published a roundtable discussion called "What Films Should We Teach: A Conversation About the Canon" in Public Books. For me, the goal was to spur some expert consideration of the Open Syllabus Movie Lab data, which I had assembled the year before, and which showed that the film curriculum in higher ed is still mostly organized around critical canons and principles developed in the 1960s and 70s. I wasn't equipped to unpack this data, but Jane Gaines, Jon Lewis, and Daisuke Miyao have built teaching and research careers around these questions and were generously willing to dig in.

Jane Gaines (JG): ... In the United States, film and media studies grew out of literary studies and, at many schools, remains either within it or closely tied to it. The Open Syllabus rankings strongly suggest the continued relevance of literary approaches to teaching film history, which tend to bring the criteria of personal authorship to bear on film.

Auteur theory received its major formulations by French New Wave directors and critics in the 1950s and 1960s, who argued that directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock “transcended” Hollywood industrial production and impressed a personal “worldview” on their material. The persistence of Hitchcock and Welles at the top of the Open Syllabus director rankings suggests how strongly this tradition is still with us. Teaching these two directors carries on a tradition of exposing college students to “great authors” because of assumptions about the depth of their personal insight and vision. And much of the critical tradition around these directors is still fundamentally tied to frameworks and vocabularies used to evaluate literary works.

One casualty of this focus is the collective and industrial dimension of filmmaking.

Daisuke Miyao: Cinema is a collective industrial and cultural form, but there is very little work that considers films as the product of collaboration beyond the auteur-director’s authority. Much is lost through this narrow focus. The international impact of Rashomon, to take a major example, is inseparable from the contributions of its cinematographer, Kazuo Miyagawa, who experimented with film stock and lighting in ways that profoundly influenced a generation of artists in other countries, such as cinematographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane. What would film history look like if, as a thought experiment, we privileged cinematographers or editors or writers?

Predictably, one of the major factors that maintains the traditional canon is teaching bandwidth.

Jon Lewis (JL): When I arrived at Oregon State in 1983, there were only two movie classes: Film Comedy and Film Tragedy. Both were taught in the English Department. My colleagues were surprised to hear that I found the titles overbroad. But as a practical matter, they had to be. Only a fraction of schools in the United States have film programs: some sources put the number at over 300, depending on the definition; others say around 150 out of nearly 4,000 schools in the United States. This means that in most places the teaching canon is effectively whatever makes it into the Intro to Film class or its equivalent.

Moreover, teaching time is scarce and presents zero-sum choices. In a semester-long class, adding one title to the syllabus often means removing another. The relevant question for me in teaching is: What do students need to know if—as is often the case at Oregon State—their film education consists of one class from me? My answer is almost always “history.” Are there certain films students need to see in order to better understand contemporary cinema? Are there films that allow me to condense the discussion of a period or set of themes into one or two classes? This process of cropping is, for better and for worse, well suited to the auteur framework.

So even as over the years I have been researching and writing about films that challenged the canon or offered new ways of looking at it, the traditional approach has remained useful.

The whole conversation is worth a read.