Methods of Film Criticism
Key Concepts in Film & Media Criticism – FMMC 0360, Fall 2021
Professor Jason Mittell (he/him), 208 Axinn Center
Office Hours: drop-in via Zoom or in Axinn 208 on Tues 10:00am – 12:00pm or Wed 10:00 – 11:00am, or by appointment at https://calendly.com/mittell
MW 2:50–4:05pm – Axinn 104
Screening : M 7:30 – 10:30pm – Axinn 232
Reference Librarian: Amy Frazier, http://go.middlebury.edu/amy
Peer Writing Tutor: John McCulloch
This writing-intensive seminar takes a close look at four key theoretical concepts for film & media criticism: textuality, authorship, genre, and narrative. How do we understand the boundaries between any film “text” and its broader intertextual contexts? How does authorship frame our understanding of the style and ethics of any given film? How do genre categories help us make sense of films and media, as well as their cultural contexts? How do films and media tell stories in distinctive and innovative ways? Through theoretical readings and exemplary screenings, we will learn to become sharper critics of films and media.
This is an advanced course, with challenging reading and expectations of high-level thinking. Additionally, it fulfills the College Writing requirement, and thus there is a good deal of writing, revising, and peer editing required of students. Additionally, most writing will be part of a semester-long project, where each student will develop a long-form critical essay designed for a public audience and eventually published on a website of film & media criticism. As a small advanced seminar, we will work to create a learning community guided by mutual respect and engagement.
Required Texts & Readings - Books available through the Middlebury College Bookstore:
Jason Mittell, Narrative Theory and Adaptation. (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Karen Gocsik, Dave Monahan, and Richard Barsam, Writing About Movies, Fifth edition (W. W. Norton, 2018)
Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (New York University Press, 2015)
It is the student’s responsibility to get access to assigned readings. All books are on reserve and available at online bookstores as well as through the College Bookstore. Other required readings will be available via Canvas. Screenings will be required for this course each Monday night; if missed, it is up to each student to screen the required materials on their own before that Wednesday’s class.
Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult the online version for the latest information.
How This Course Works:
This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning roughly termed “ungrading.” You will not receive a “grade” for any single assignment, with only a final course grade registered into Banner. While Professor Mittell will register that grade, he will not assign it—you will. Such self-grading means that students are fully responsible for their own learning, and it is meant to fully sever the link between that learning and the “outcome” of grades. This grade will emerge through ongoing conversations between each student and Professor Mittell; while he reserves the right to alter the grade that a student assigns, it is a sign of mutual trust and shared responsibility for learning that he does not anticipate doing so.
Even though there will not be grades, there will be lots of feedback, evaluation, assessment, and revision—these will all hopefully be channeled toward maximizing learning. Students will write a statement on their learning goals, write self-reflections on their learning, meet with both peers and Professor Mittell to discuss their progress, and undertake revisions based on feedback. Since all students who pass the course will have achieved the goals for College Writing, the expectations for success are quite high. In exchange for students’ hard work, Professor Mittell agrees to take however much time is needed to ensure students understand expectations and practices, and are poised to succeed to their desired goals. His goal is to help each student achieve their learning goals, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.
The course design is based around a series of core learning goals, assembled in a hierarchy of sophistication. Students will highlight their own learning goals from this list, as well as devise their own. These are roughly grouped in tiers that correspond to expected grade levels, with each student expected to reflect their particular goals via written and conversational reflection.
All students who pass the course (C) will demonstrate the ability to:
- Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of film & television genre, narrative, textuality, and authorship
- Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to examine film & television
- Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity, per college CW standards
- Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication, per college CW standards
Students who achieve a higher level of accomplishment (B) will also demonstrate the ability to:
- Analyze film and television with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections to theoretical writings
- Engage in supportive and constructive criticism with peers, and respond to critique with a productive and open-minded ethos
- Actively watch film and television, as well as reading criticism, and communicating their perspectives to peers via online discussions
Students who achieve the highest level of accomplishment (A) will also demonstrate the ability to:
- Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple concepts, appropriate types of evidence, and detailed critical insights
- Write for a public audience with engaging prose that furthers their critical ideas
- Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency
This is a College Writing course, meaning that there will be a significant amount of writing required throughout the semester. If you do not complete the final essay with its component parts to a satisfactory level, you will not pass the course. Assignment details will be on Canvas throughout the semester.
Reading & Screening Responses:
The majority of readings for this course are scholarly articles and chapters, or critical analyses of films or television. To help you develop the skill of being able to identify and engage with scholarly and critical arguments, you will write short responses throughout the semester to both screenings and readings. Each Monday, you have an opportunity to write a response, of at least 350 words, to at least one article in that day’s assigned readings. A response may be on any assigned article or chapter except for those marked in the syllabus with **. Responses must be posted to Canvas by 12pm of the Monday class meeting for which the article is assigned. You will not receive credit for late reading responses unless you have made specific arrangements with Professor Mittell due to excused absences. You may not write more than one response for the readings assigned for any one day, even if there are multiple articles; you may incorporate multiple readings into one response.
Reading responses should accomplish three basic goals: they should briefly summarize the key ideas of the chosen reading, give you a chance to respond intellectually to these ideas, and draw connections between the reading and other ideas and examples explored in class. The first paragraph should clearly summarize and describe the key ideas that strike you from the reading. The second paragraph should connect the reading to your own thoughts, to other examples, to previous readings, to screenings, or other elements related to the course. Responses that simply summarize a reading without exploring any of your own thoughts or connections will be Unsatisfactory. Responses that discuss interesting issues that emerge from the reading are encouraged, but you must tie these thoughts to the readings and your summary of the ideas, not just launch into a tangent.
On Wednesdays, you have an opportunity to write a screening response, of at least 350 words, that connects one or more of the materials screened Monday night with the concepts we have read or discussed. This response should provide your own original response to the material, with critical vocabulary drawn from the course. Additionally, you are encouraged to seek out other critical writing on the specific film or program, responding to those critical perspectives (as well as the criticism that is assigned for that day’s readings). Successful screening responses will convey what you found interesting about the screening, and draw effective connections to course concepts. There is no need to summarize plots of screenings.
You may choose which responses you will write, but a strong performance in this aspect of the course will post an average of once per week, balanced between screening and reading responses (i.e. approximately 6 of each by the end of the semester). These responses are not “thought journals,” but they should provide you an opportunity to present your own reaction to these issues in written form. Writing style and form is important, so be sure to take time to edit and proofread responses, although your writing style may be more informal than the more formal essay assignments – as long as you seriously engage with the relevant issues. It is recommended that you compose your responses in a word processor and paste the text into Canvas, as web browsers can crash as you are writing. Reading responses cannot be revised or submitted late.
The main assignment for the course is a long-form writing project: each student is to complete a piece of online critical writing for a public audience focused on a particular film or TV program of their choosing, totaling at least 4,000 words. The analysis must engage with at least three of the main units in the course (textuality, genre, narrative, authorship), and use the multi-modal possibilities of online writing by incorporating images, clips, and/or digital navigation strategies, as well as links & citations to external resources. While the object of criticism is left for students to decide, all films and television programs should be narrative works that are about films or television—Professor Mittell has compiled an extensive list of examples to choose from.
This project will develop throughout the semester, with specific components due at assigned dates. These components will be assigned throughout the semester, including a proposal, an annotated bibliography, and at least 3 modules of the critical analysis covering the concepts of textuality, genre, narrative, and authorship. Additionally, each student will work in an “editorial team” of 3-4 students who will read, offer feedback, and edit each other’s writing. This development process will be done in Google Docs, composing, editing, and revising in real time. The final version of the piece will be formatted for a new website, with the strongest essays being published in an open access, publicized site for a general readership.
Active Viewing & Reading:
As an upper-level film & media course, it is expected that students are actively viewing new releases (or discovering old examples) of film and television, as well as reading criticism about such works. On the Canvas site, there will be discussion threads for students to share their critical takes on their ongoing viewing, as well as sharing examples of critical writing that students find particularly interesting and exemplary. In particular, students are encouraged to attend the weekly Hirschfield Film Series screenings on Saturdays – this semester, screenings are in-person and/or online, depending on the title.
You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material. Students are expected to actively engage in class discussions, speaking and listening to each other with mutual respect and productive contributions. The course will tackle many challenging issues, so students will be expected to both speak and open their minds, while being mindful of the impact that words and images might have on classmates. Professor Mittell welcomes all feedback on how to best make our classroom a productive space of engaged dialogue.
All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work except as stipulated for a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.
If you are feeling ill, do NOT attend class!
We are living in unprecedented, difficult times, and everyone is facing numerous struggles. Nobody signed up for life during a pandemic, and we do not know what this semester will bring. As such, Professor Mittell commits to try to be as caring and compassionate as possible, foregrounding flexibility, transparency, and an acknowledgment of our shared personhood in challenging times. He asks that each of you do the same toward all of us (including him!). If things become particularly difficult for you, please reach out to your Dean for assistance, and let Professor Mittell know that something is going on—whatever you feel comfortable sharing is fine, but it’s always better to inform faculty immediately that you are facing challenges rather than waiting until things have gotten severe.
Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible, and consult the Disability Resource Center for more assistance. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.
Students are expected to check their Middlebury email accounts daily and monitor the Canvas site for information – please configure Canvas to notify you (via email and/or text) right away about Announcements, as this will be how most communications to the entire course will be distributed. Professor Mittell will check email regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.
Watching audiovisual media can be intense, with skilled artists creating emotionally vivid and often disturbing images and sounds. This course assumes that students are able to watch media that is often challenging and disturbing in its representations without need for protection or warning; in fact, engaging with discomfort and challenges is a significant part of a liberal education and an opportunity for discussion and learning. However, there are some instances where a student may have had personal trauma that creates specific triggers for severe emotional distress. If that applies to you, please take responsibility to research the films and television we will be watching ahead of time, and let Professor Mittell know if you think watching a particular screening would create a significant issue for you—we can then work out alternative arrangements.
As a writing intensive course, students may find it helpful to seek academic support for their writing. The Center for Teaching, Learning & Research has many resources available, including writing, time-management, and study skill assistance. The course has a designated writing tutor, Will O’Neal—he will know the assignments and approach to the course, but you are welcome to work with any peer or staff tutor via CTLR.
Printing & Computer Use Policy:
Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online or pdfs – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings via digital annotation, handwritten notebook, or a word processing file. You should bring assigned readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to be engaging with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, social media, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be held accountable or even asked to leave class in extreme instances. Please do not use phones during course meetings or screenings unless explicitly authorized to be used in a non-disruptive mode.
Conversations and presentations within the space of this class—both in-person and online—are considered private, to be shared only among those of us in the course. Any recording, photographs, and screen-capture of voices, images, and text produced by students and faculty alike cannot be shared without permission of those authors. If you wish to share your own work and ideas beyond the confines of the class, you are encouraged to do so.
Note - this schedule is subject to change, so always check the online version.
Week of September 13 – What Is Criticism?
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Return” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1952) - M1527 .S56 2012B
READ (9/15): Noël Carroll, “The Parts of Criticism (Minus One)”
Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation”
Jane Feuer, "Singin' in the Rain"
Steven Cohan, "Interpreting Singin' in the Rain"
WRITE (9/15): Submit Statement of Learning Intentions via Canvas
Week of September 20 – Textuality / Intertextuality
READ (9/20): Jonathan Gray, “Intertexts & Paratexts”**
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text”
Tony Bennett & Janet Woollacott, “Reading Bond”
John Fiske, “Intertextuality”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Relapse” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
The Player (Robert Altman et al., 1992) – PN1997.P525 A1 1997D
READ (9/22): Michael Chion, “The Player”
Terrence Rafferty, “The Player”
WRITE (9/22): Annotate at least 5 titles on Google Doc
Week of September 27 –Textuality & Paratexts
READ (9/27): Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately, Introduction and Chapters 1-2
Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Orienting Paratexts”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Mother” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
Trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles, 2003)
READ (9/29): Wil Haygood, "Melvin Van Peebles wrote the do-it-yourself playbook for Black Filmmakers" [brief context on Melvin]
Roger Ebert, “Baadasssss!”
Adam Coombs, “Queer Oedipal Drag in Sweet Sweetback and Baadasssss!”
WRITE (9/29): Project Topic & Proposal
Week of October 4 – Genre Theory
READ (10/4): Andrew Tudor, “Genre”
Thomas Schatz, “The Structural Influence: New Directions in Film Genre Study”
Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Wife” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) - PN1997.T7687 A1 1999D
READ (10/6): David Thomson, “A Dark Bright Light”
Ronald Bishop, “The Truman Show as Media Criticism”
Simone Knox, “Reading The Truman Show Inside Out”
WRITE (10/6): Intertextual Analysis draft
Week of October 11 – Genres in Context
Meet with John to discuss drafts sometime this week or next
READ (10/11): Rick Altman, Film/Genre excerpts
Rick Altman, “Reusable Packaging”
Jason Mittell, “Television Genres as Cultural Categories”
Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Truth” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) - PN1997.N3875 A1 2011B
READ (10/13): Pauline Kael, "Hot Air"
Kathleen Fitzpatrick, "Network: The Other Cold War"
Jonathan Kirshner, "Anxious as Hell" (book excerpt)
Kevin Kruse & Julian Zelizer, "It's Network Nation"
Week of October 18 – Fall Break
No class meetings Monday
Class (10/20): Library session with Amy Frazier – meet in Library 220
Week of October 25 – Media Criticism as Genre?
READ (10/25): Robert Stam, "The Process of Production"
Jane Feuer, "The Self-Reflexive Musical"
Jonathan Gray & Derek Johnson, “Television’s Detractors Go to the Movies”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Fly” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000) - PN1997.B25744 A1 2020B
READ (10/27): Jacqueline Stewart, "Bamboozled"
Victoria Piehowski, "Sex, Race, and Work in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled"
Ashley Clark, "Bamboozled: New Millennium, Same Bullshit"
WRITE (10/27): Annotated bibliography
Week of November 1 – Narrative Theory
READ (11/1): Jason Mittell, “Film & Television Narrative”
David Bordwell, “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative”
Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Introduction” & “Complexity in Context”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Savior” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D
One Cut of the Dead (Shin'ichirō Ueda, 2017) - PN1997.2.O5755 A1 2018B
READ (11/3): Wesley Lara, "One Cut of the Dead: How a Low-Budget Zombie Comedy Became the Most Inspiring Film of the Year"
Kristy Puchko, "Savagely Sharp, One Cut Of The Dead Is So Much More Than Its Buzz Suggests"
Michael Frank, "One Cut of the Dead: Under the Hood of Horror"
WRITE (11/3): Genre Analysis Revision
Week of November 8 – Narrative Comprehension
READ (11/8): David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film excerpts: "Viewer's Activity" and "Principles of Narration" (rest of PDF is recommended but not essential)
Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Comprehension"
Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”
SCREENING: On the Air, “The Lester Guy Show” (1992) - PN1992.77 O6545 1992D
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2002) – PN1997.2.M865 A1 2015B
READ (11/10): Dennis Lim, “Lim on Lynch: Mulholland Drive”
Elizabeth Alsop, “'It's No Longer Your Film': Fictions of Authorship in Lynch's Mulholland Drive"
Jason Mittell, “Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive”
Ramsey Ess, "On the Air: David Lynch Makes a Sitcom"
Week of November 15 – Narrative, Medium and Adaptation
READ (11/15): Jason Mittell, Narrative Theory and Adaptation., Introduction and Chapter 1
Seymour Chatman, “What is Description in the Cinema?”
Thomas Leitch, “Twelve Fallacies of Adaptation Theory”
Susan Orlean, “Orchid Fever”**
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Two” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016
Adaptation. (Spike Jonze et al., 2002) – PN1997.2.A36 A1 2012B
READ (11/17): Jason Mittell, Narrative Theory and Adaptation., Chapter 2 and Conclusion
Lucas Hilderbrand, “Adaptation”
Recommended video essay: Jason Mittell, "Adaptation.'s Anomalies"
Week of November 22 – Theories of Authorship
READ (11/22): James Naremore, “Authorship”
Chatman, “In Defense of…”, “Implied Author at Work”
Jonathan Gray, When is Author?
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?”
Mittell, Complex TV, “Authorship”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Princess” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016
Barton Fink (Coen Brothers, 1991)
READ (for responses): Jeffrey Adams, "Cinema of Coen Brothers Introduction" and "Barton Fink: For the Common Man"
Brian Eggert, "Barton Fink"
Week of November 29 – Problematic Authors
READ (11/29): Sarah Kozloff, “The Life of the Author”
Emily Nussbaum, “Confessions of the Human Shield”
Claire Dederer, “What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?”
Wesley Morris, “The Morality Wars”
SCREENING: UnREAL, “Future” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016
Girls (HBO, 2017), “American Bitch”
The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
WRITE (11/29): Narrative/Authorship Analysis Revision
READ (12/1): Sam Girgus, "The Purple Rose of Cairo: Poststructural Anxiety Comes to New Jersey"
William Hutchings, "Some of Us Are Real, Some Are Not: The Purple Rose of Cairo"
D.T. Max, "Confessional" (on UnREAL producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro)
AnTENNA UnREAL - a three-part forum of TV scholars discussing season 1
Week of December 6 – Presentations
SCREENING: "The Faith Diaries" (Lifetime/YouTube, 2016)
After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)
READING: Viet Thanh Nguyen, "After Life: In Memorium"
WRITE: Final Revision of Critical Essay due by December 15 at 5pm
All students must schedule final conferences with Professor Mittell between December 16-21