Later this week, eighty of our incoming Honors students are coming to campus for summer orientation and registration. We always do some kind of academic presentation for them on the first evening. For the last few years, I've talked about movies -- specifically, about making judgments about the quality of movies.
I ask them: What makes a movie good? They invariably come back with criteria about plot and character. Realistic stories, characters you can relate to, believable dialogue. Then I start hitting 'em with clips from movies that don't fit those criteria -- musicals, mostly. I ask if they're good, and those who think they are have to explain how they can be good despite their lack of realism, outsized characters, and stylized dialogue. Gradually I lead them away from human stories altogether, ending up with animation, art films, and the avant-garde. All the while, we keep asking the question: is this good? And we try to figure out along the way what we would need to know to fully answer that question -- about genre, about the filmmakers' histories, about references or allusions the film makes to other pieces of culture or films, about the intentions behind the movie. The aim is to complicate the notion of quality in popular culture, and to show how deep and wide the field can be, rewarding lifetimes of study and humbling our snap judgments.
I've used a pretty stable rotation of film clips for this interactive presentation: Moulin Rouge (to illustrate high stylization and mashup culture), High School Musical (reexamining the disreputable), Singin' In The Rain (the elements of traditional style), Dancer In The Dark (the effect of untraditional methods), Lagaan (how does the wider culture affect the presentation?), Fantasia 2000 (the "Pines of Rome" sequence -- mingling abstraction with character), Gerry (breaking almost all the rules about story and character, not to mention editing and music), Eye Myth (the Brakhage short -- almost completely abstract).
I might add Sweeney Todd this year, since we have a copy -- right after Singin' In The Rain, to talk about the Broadway pedigree of the film musical form and how changes in that parent genre affect how to understand current film.
But I'm always looking for ways to update this presentation and make it new, fresh, and interesting. So movie nerds (and other gentle readers), I ask you: If it were your job to bust up these teenagers' assumptions about hallmarks of film quality, what movies would you be tempted to show?