Professor Morrison to Teach Film Studies Summer Session Course

Literature professor Jim Morrison, who specializes in film studies, will teach a six-week course on The Language of Film in CMC’s 2011 Summer Session. “Language of Film” fulfills General Education requirements as well as major requirements in Film Studies and Intercollegiate Media Studies.

The course will closely analyze contemporary popular film, in an effort to determine typical conventions of cinematic expression. Students will then study multiple movements and genres in the history of film, from German Expressionism to the French New Wave; from Hollywood to documentary to avant-garde and independent filmmaking.

“A big part of the course is introducing students to kinds of movies they haven’t seen before, in part via the kinds of movies they are familiar with,” Prof. Morrison says. “This course is mostly an introduction to film analysis and technique, but we’ll also offer lots of film history, including a sequence that extends from the 1920s to the present.”


CMC: Do you have a favorite film genre?

Morrison: My students will be surprised to hear it because they often say I show too many grim films but my favorite genre is comedy. Many of my favorite movies are of this genre, from Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Colleen Moore in the silent era, to the screwball comedies of the 30s, to films like “To Be or Not to Be” and “Some Like It Hot” in the 40s and 50s, and on to Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and beyond. Not too far beyond, though I’m not crazy about slob comedy or cringe comedy of recent years. What I loved about comedy through, say, the 70s (pre-“Animal House”) was that it was a pop art form but also had a quality of elegance in its comic construction even at its “lowest” (e.g. Brooks). There isn’t a more beautifully structured film in American movies than “Some Like it Hot.” I’m planning to do a course on American film comedy very soon.

CMC: What directors/actors working today excite you?

Morrison: Terrence Malick is the greatest American filmmaker, in my opinion. His upcoming movie, “The Tree of Life,” is very likely to be a revelation. His last two films, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” are perhaps a bit too much of a piece meditations on modernity and nature in a romantic/lyric mode but I find them very complicated and deeply moving, and I expect his next film to be a departure in new directions. I co-wrote the first book-length study on Malick in 2003 and I’m hoping to update it after the new film.

As for actors they are often what makes it worthwhile to go to the movies. When the art of film seems in decline, the art of acting is often still going strong. A recent movie called “Stone” that almost nobody saw was ambitious but flawed in its structure, but it was a feast of marvelous acting: Robert De Niro (in his best performance since “Heat”), Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich, Frances Conroy, and a host of great character actors.

CMC: Who would you say is a vastly underrated actor or director that never received his or her proper due?

Morrison: It’s too bad that Jill Sprecher isn’t working more. She wrote and directed a fine movie a few years ago called “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing,” that had a very literate script and an interesting structure. It wasn’t great but it was very good, and it should have assured her career. She does have a new movie coming out soon “The Convincer,” but it’s been almost 10 years since the last one. But there’s this thing about women working in Hollywood still Elaine May is another example, or Julie Dash an African-American filmmaker who made “Daughters of the Dust” in 1991, a movie as good as most of Spike Lee’s films, but she’s had to spend a lot of time since then as an assistant to Spike Lee because she hasn’t been able to get another theatrical feature financed.

CMC: Do you find students that take this course generally are clueless about the rich tradition of film particularly silents and early talkies and even classics from the ’30s? Is that an educational hurdle that you must battle?

Morrison: I don’t expect students to bring extensive historical knowledge to the course. Usually students who are excited about film have seen and love some movies of the previous 10 years or so and not much before that. While it’s true that I’m often disappointed by students’ initial responses to many great movies of the past movies they sometimes think of as “old” and “slow” if they have any cinematic imagination at all (and most do) you can work with what they have to get them to see what’s great about these “old” movies in most cases. It’s no more an educational hurdle than trying to get students to respond to “old” books, for instance, by tapping into what they love in current literature. It’s just part of the job.

CMC: If you could “crystal ball” the future for a second, where do you see film going in the next 10-20 years? For example, with the emergence of inexpensive or free Internet marketing venues (YouTube sites, etc.) and the relative ease of being able to produce polished digital movies, more and more “amateurs” can really make their voices heard vis-?-vis low-cost indie productions, etc.

Morrison: The first years of film were very chaotic, with little regulation and lots of piracy (that is, film prints were often stolen and shown without authorization). Fifteen years in, in 1910, Edison formed a patent company in part to reign in the piracy, and this led in complicated ways to the highly regulated Hollywood system that dominated for the next 50 years. We’re now 15 years in to the digital age, and Hollywood is now taking very direct action against digital piracy. In the next 10 years, I expect much more regulation of sites like YouTube, which thrive on pirated material. One effect of this may be that such sites will become real showcases for the kind of “amateur” filmmaking you’re describing, instead of m?langes of pirated material, home movies, and videos of cute babies, farting buffoons, or kittens playing piano. As of now, though, it remains the case that those low-end productions you’re talking about are typically the work of wannabes aiming for the “big time” by badly imitating studio fare instead of artists trying to explore the possibilities of the media they’re working in. If the latter model ever gains ground, then we’ll have lots of exciting work to look at and there’s already a lot, of course. You just have to find it.

CMC: Do you have a favorite movie adapted from a great literary work?

Morrison: Most great literary works resist adaptation, and movies made from them tend to be slavishly literal-minded, paying attention only to the plot and ignoring dimensions of form that are key to what makes a work of art great. Those Merchant/Ivory movies like “A Room with a View” or “The Golden Bowl” are examples. Really great movies made from books are often based on second-rate works because that gives them room for invention of their own, like Murnau’s “Sunrise” or Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” or Jean Renoir’s “The Golden Coach” or Godard’s “Contempt” or Coppola’s “The Godfather” or Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” Raul Ruiz’s “Time Regained,” an adaptation of the last volume of Proust’s masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time,” is very good, because it finds cinematic analogues to Proust’s literary techniques instead of just following the plot with plodding fidelity. Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents” is a great version of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” probably the best adaptation of James. Though faithful to the book, it’s not so much an adaptation as it is an interpretation, which seems to be the most successful approach to filming a great literary work.

CMC: What’s your most favorite “guilty pleasure” movie and why?

Morrison: I don’t tend to feel very guilty about pleasures, but I do love a great many “bad” movies. I am especially fond of schlock horror and sci-fi of the Ed Wood variety, because those movies often have a clear surrealist dimension. If I had to name a favorite, it would be the 50s camp classic “The Bad Seed.” It tells you more about its time than many “good” movies of the same era, and it has one of the great performances in American movies Eileen Heckart as a grieving mother. Her acting is art, and the way it interacts with the rest of the movie the stilted acting, the contrived plotting, the hackneyed devices, the overall stupidity and hysteria produces a very distinctive aesthetic effect. And of course there’s always “Showgirls.”


This is the fifth in a series of stories about CMC faculty teaching during the 2011 Summer Session. For additional information on this course, please visit Professor Morrison’s profile page for contact information and office hours.

CMC’s 2011 Summer Session begins May 23rd and will offer both three- and six-week courses, all taught by CMC faculty. A full listing of course offerings will be available on the Summer Session Website.