Monthly Archives: January 2012

Writing Assignment 1

For you first writing assignment, due Friday, Feb. 10th, follow these instructions. (At the end of the post I’ve included some general comments on how I grade papers.)

1. Select one film we’ve watched thus far and find at least 1 image (i.e., the appearance of 1 frame) with which you can argue for an important theme in the film OR an important connection between the film and a topical concern in the culture in which the film was produced. The key to this paper is making a detailed, careful analysis of an image or images. You might approach it this way: what is the director trying to do by staging and shooting a scene the way he does? What associations or connections is he trying to induce his audience to make? Or you might ask: How does the arrangement of the actors, scenery, elements in the foreground/background, lighting, perspective, etc. support an important thematic point the director is trying to get across? This is an argumentative essay. So all your description and analysis should be in support of a thesis.

2. Format: The paper must have 1200-1500 words of text (please double space). You must include at least one screenshot (with a timestamp) of the image you are analyzing. (You are welcome to include more, especially if you are comparing it to other images. Just be sure you use a caption that cites the source of the image.) Please print the page that has the screenshot using a high-quality printer (ideally color, if it is a color film).

3. Example: I’m going to give you an example of the kind of analysis and argument I’m expecting. (Though you’ll need to write at greater length than I do here.)

As I mentioned in class today, the conclusion of Spartacus, with the crucifiction  of its hero by Roman authoritieson the Appian way , induces its audience to compare the story and themes of the film with the biblical account of Jesus’ death by crucifiction. This is especially clear in the shots that have Varinia standing before Spartacus on the cross: compare the two images below:

Image 1: Crucifixion with the Virgin, John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdelene. By Fra Angelico (1419-20).

Image 2: Varinia before Spartacus on the cross. (Time stamp: 3:11::52).

Image 3: Varinia grasps Spartacus' feet on the cross. (Time stamp: 3:13::30).

The traditional image of The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdelene, and St. John gathered around Jesus on the cross is the referent to Kubrick’s staging and shooting of this scene. Notice the color of Varinia’s gown–a light blue that is the traditional color in medieval and Rennaisance painting for Mary’s robes. (It comes from the mineral lapis lazuli, which is refined into the pigment known as ultramarine–very, very expensive in the middle ages, since the only place it was known to come from was Afganistan.) Note the color of the figure on the left in the painting in image 1. It is also worth noting that the gesture of grasping the feet of the crucified figure is a gesture assiociated with Mary Magdelene. (See the figure in the center of image 1.)

Varinia is thus a mixture of the two women. She, like the Virgin, bore a child who will inaugurate a new reign of freedom. Spartacus’ son will be free of the burden of slavery because of his father’s struggle and death on the cross.  Also, like Mary Magdelene, she was a prostitute who was redeemed from that old way of like into the freedom of a new community following the savior. Is there a St. John figure in the film? Can Batiates play that role? Seems like rather a stretch. But traditionally St. John did take care of Mary after Jesus died, as well as spread the story of Jesus.  Batiates is travelling with Varinia to France and protecting her. Perhaps he will end up spreading the story of Spartacus. Varinia does say she’ll keep the story of Spartacus alive…

The biblical passage that tells this scene is John 19:25-27:

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

4. Some directions on writing and grading. You need to know that I grade papers on a rubric as follows:

  • A means outstanding. An A paper has a certain polish, brilliance, focused attention to detail, and felicity of expression that makes it stand out from the rest of the papers. An A paper has a “wow” factor.
  • B means the paper articulates its points well, argues strongly and correctly, and uses evidence to support each point in a logical and thoughtful way.
  • C means the paper fulfills the basic requirements of the assignment without an big problems, but has no “sparks” in it and may have a few problems of argumentation.
  • D means the paper completes the assignment, but has major problems, either in its analysis or its expression.

I do not give out many + or – grades. Mostly you will receive a straight letter grade.

It is important for you to ntoe here that you don’t start at an A and then lose points. I assume you have maybe a B- and you need to prove to me that your work merits a higher grade.

Roughly, my grade breaks down as 80% argumentation and use of evidence, 20% style and grammar.

One last note: the single most important thing in writing your paper is to carefully support each stage of your argument with detailed analysis of the film. Always return to the film for evidence in support of every point you make.  And BE SPECIFIC! Generic summaries will not suffice. I want to  see you thinking and going through the film as with a fine-toothed comb, sifting out telling details in dialogue, scene structure, and the like.


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Example blog post

I’m writing a post here to give you an example of what kind of post I am expecting you to do for your blog assignment.

On Monday, I mentioned the term “camp” in connection with Excalibur.  Though it had been around for a while, term really came into critical consciousness with Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” first publish in The Partisan Review. I called it a “term,” not an “idea,” because Sontag insists it is really a “sensibility” and NOT an “idea.” If any sensibility were rigorously defined, it would become and idea and cease to be a sensibility, she insists. Thus, it is something of a contradiction to analyze “camp.” This is why she constructs her essay as a serious of observations (not meant to be systematic or exhaustive).

At the risk of doing an injustice to her essay, you could read these statements as attempts at a definition:

love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration

love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not

In her 58 notes in the essay, a few key things come up again and again:

  1. Camp privileges style and form over content and meaning.
  2. Camp is sometimes a kind of interpretative mood: the reader or viewer can take an object and find the “camp” in it, even if it may have been intended with utmost sincerity. Camp is “alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” The best examples of camp are not intentionally campy; they are “naive camp.”
  3. Camp is always artificial; never natural; always extravagant, never modest.
  4. There is an association of gay sensibility and camp. Other critics have made much more of this since Sontag.

If we were to view Excalibur with a “camp” sensibility, we might focus on Merlin in particular:

Sontag writes, “The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of “Camp” sensibility.” In this respect, Merlin is a decidedly campy figure: unlike the other characters in the film, he is a de-sexed character. He shows no desire for women. The director, Boorman, wanted to make him completely sexless–but the actor, Nicholas Clay, refused some of his requests, such as shaving all his hair. In the end, they settled on the metal cap:

Time Stamp: 1:30:40

Merlin, as played by Clay (this is an important qualification), is a high-camp figure. Sontag writes:

Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be talen altogether seriously because it is “too much.”

We can see this Clay’s seemingly earnest, yet entirely extravagant performance of the rather outlandish lines given him. [Note: in order to put this video in here, I had to rip the segment using VLC, then upload it to youtube, and then use the link youtube provides for embedding video–I’ll go over this in class Friday]:

Time Stamp: 3:25-3:49

I particularly like his inflection on, “death was but a DREAM.” It is hard to see this performance and not imagine Clay winking all through it.

If we take a camp sensibility to a dated film like this, it provides a new avenue for enjoying something that might see otherwise dreadful.

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VLC media player

Here’s the link to the VLC media player I demonstrated in class. You are not required to use it, but you do need to be able to take screen shots with time stamps.

Also, I highly recommend you print your papers in color!

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Assignment 2

For this week, you will need to watch:

  • Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (yes, all 3.5 hours)
  • Boorman’s Excalibur

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Assignment 1

The first assigned viewing is the following:

  1. Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938)
  2. Snyder’s 300 (2007)

You need to have viewed these in their entirety by Wednesday the 18th. 

For Wednesday the 11th, please read part 1 of “Fascinating Fascism” by Susan Sontag. (See next post also.)  

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Course info

Soon more will follow on this front page of our blog. But for now, consult the page “syllabus” for course information, including the schedule of films.

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