Author Archives: Alex L.

About Alex L.

I am a lecturer in English at UNC-Chapel Hill (and also a visiting assistant professor in classical studies at Duke). I am teaching a course on antiquity & revenge in film for Spring 2012 and I am using wordpress for a course blog. I received my Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke in 2010 and work mostly on Homer.

Final exam structure

Here’s the outline of the final. Remember: it is roughly 2/3 or 3/4 on the films from after the midterm, but everything this semester is fair game.

Part 1: Film IDS. There will be between 4 and 6. Give title, country of production (or at least language), and year of production (within a 10-year window). = 20%

Part 2: Multiple choice. Basically like the quizzes. (On plot). Could include some basic terminology.  = 15%

Part 3: Short answer. 1-2 sentences, or less. On important critical/cinematographical terminology and other points of analysis of the films. Will be objective, however. = 15%

Part 4: Essay. basically 3 paragraphs. 2 of the following prompts will appear on the exam. You will have to select one. Prepare you answer in advance!

  1. Using at least 2 films from the course (can be from before or after the midterm) as evidence for your argument, argue whether revenge can ever be right? (Make this an argument. Yes or no. Do not equivocate.)
  2. Select one cinematographical technique (e.g., slow-motion, low-angled shot, extreme close-up) and explain how it’s used differently in 2 or more films (at least one from before and one from after the midterm).
  3. Take 2 different films (one from before the midterm and one from after) and explain the ways that these films interact with the contemporary culture of their time and place of production. Focus especially on the differences between the ways that your selected films do this.

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Final writing assignment

This longer paper is a close analysis of how  a certain technique, film device, theoretical idea, or conceptual scheme is deployed in film in order to present a theme or drive home a point. You need to choose 1 critical technique or scheme, discuss and explain it using secondary literature (appropriately cited). Be sure that you define the term carefully. You may want to say something about how the term came into being, who used it first and in what context, and how and when it was first applied to film criticism. Then you should explore how it is used in one or several films we viewed, finally making an argument about the message of the films you selected.

To find your technique or scheme that you are going to investigate, you can consult the list of key terms, figures, and ideas on the blog. The ones in the top half marked with an asterisk are ones you could use. I’ve also started a list of further terms below a section break on that page. These lists are hardly exhaustive. You are welcome to choose something else, but I suggest if you do you run it past me first.  You need to know that your idea here has to be a kind of concept that can be defined and expressed in theoretical terms. You have to be able to find  some secondary literature on the topic. In other words, it can’t just be “loyalty” or “honor,” without further analysis of what these terms mean. (But if you were able to find an interesting theoretical discussion somewhere on what “loyalty” is, then it might work.)

To investigate your key idea further, I suggest you may want to consult the book Film Art (by Bordwell) for some ideas on film technique (on reserve at the library). Note, you are required to use secondary literature. I suggest consulting the databases Project Muse and JSTOR.

Let me give you an example of how you might go about this paper.  Better, look at the blog post by one of your colleagues, Emily Darst, on Metatheater. Note how she uses some secondary literature on the topic, citing Lionel Abel (but be sure you give an actual citation of where he says this…). She then explores how it is used in Inglourious Basterds.  There is a third step I want you to do on this paper too that Emily doesn’t do here (which is fine, since her post was just a blog entry): what is the bigger point the film is trying to make by engaging with this concept? Emily could have argued something about how Tarantino trying to say something about the role film plays in constructing history and in making moral determinations about the past. Is Tarantino saying something about our penchant to enjoy the violence we see on screen, especially if it is directed at those whom we think deserve it?

BASIC REQUIREMENTS: about 2500 words, double-spaced. You do not have to incorporate image in this one, but can if it is useful for your argument. If you are discussing a particular film technique, it would be very valuable if you incorporated images that illustrated it. If you do use images, cite them the same way you did on the first paper, with time-stamps.

GRADING: See writing assignment 1 post (point 4). I will accept a written prospectus (1 page max) that outlines your argument for extra credit on this paper, provided you meet with me for a few minutes to discuss it.


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An intertext for “In a Better World”

The passage that Christian reads in the funeral for his mother in the beginning of the film is from the story of “The Nightingale” in Hans Christian Andersen’s book of fairy tales. It would make an interesting exercise and and interesting blog post to write on this. Here’s a link to the story. The story is originally in Danish (fittingly). But, since the funeral is set in England, the film uses an English translation by Jean Hersholt, which is the version I linked to.

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Writing assignment 2

Your second paper is a rather different beast than your first.

TOPIC: This paper is more of a philosophical/critical-thinking analysis of a (or two) film(s). The basic question you will be seeking to answer is this: what is revenge?

PROCEDURE: Take 2 different views on revenge as expressed in one film or in two different films and explicate their similarities and differences. This paper is, then, part of the genre a “compare and contrast” papers–but it needs to focus narrowly on revenge. As on your first paper, I am looking for careful attention to detail and a strong argument. Being able to do good writing about film means knowing how to use telling details that you have thought deeply about. Be careful. Write slowly. Think hard about the films. In the end, your paper should seem to make the films speak more clearly and subtly.

DETAILS OF TOPIC: There are 2 things you need to think about while developing your paper.

  1. How do you find a “view” on revenge? The easiest way is to take a character (or group) as representative of a view, which they articulate in their words and demonstrate in their actions. Then find a character that represents an alternative view. Another, more difficult (and more interesting?) of this is to look for points of view expressed through cinematographical technique. In this case, a director, screenwriter, or others might be said to be expressing a view on revenge. Or it might be better just to say that “a film” does (if you think a film has one message it is trying to get across).  You might be able to find more than one view in a single film, or you could place one film against another. A word of caution here. Do not need to assume that a film or a character has a coherent and logically consistent view on revenge. In fact, you might find that a single character can express both the views on revenge you are trying to compare. After all, well-written characters often develop over the course of a story, changing their minds and ethics.
  2. What constitutes a “view” of revenge? You should think broadly about how you might define revenge. Here’s some questions you can consider. This list is neither exhaustive nor should you feel you need to touch on all of these. These questions are only suggestions:
    • How is revenge structured? In other words, what constitutes vengeance? What individual acts must it contain (and must not contain)?
    • Is there any one single thing that makes revenge revenge?
    • What is distinctive about revenge?
    • What makes something revenge-killing and not murder?
    • Is revenge just? Always, never, or sometimes?
    • What is the goal of revenge?
    • Why does someone take revenge?
    • What makes someone take revenge?
    • What problems does it solve? What does it leave unsolved?
    • What problems does it cause?
    • How does revenge function in a community? Does it bring it together or tear it apart?
    • Is revenge realistic?
    • What emotions go into it?
    • Is there anything peculiar to revenge in film, as opposed to life?
    • How do different revenge stories relate to one another?

BASIC REQUIREMENTS: Similar in length to your last paper (1200-1500 words, double-spaced). You do not have to incorporate image in this one, but can if it is useful for your argument. If you do, cite them the same way, with time-stamps.

GRADING: See writing assignment 1 post (point 4)


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Freudian-Lacanian interpretations

Today I gave you some pointers on Freudian-Lacanian interpretations of film with reference to Oldboy. It is also worth looking at the following. This an excerpt is from How to Read Lacan, by Slavoj Zizek.

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Assignments for next week

For next week, recall you need to watch both Alexander Nevsky and Troy.

On Monday we will mostly be working on Nevsky. As you watch it consider the following:

  • The film premiered in 1938 in the totalitarian, Stalinist Soviet Union.
  • What historical were the historical-political conditions of that time?
  • How do these show up on the film?

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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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