A Closer Look at The Film Experience

Actor Buster Keaton, crouched and leaning forward on the cowcatcher of a steam locomotive.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926). (Public domain image.)

Movies are great entertainment, high art, and a cultural force. And at MIT, a bastion of STEM learning, they’re worthy of serious exploration.

As Deborah Fitzgerald, prior Dean of MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences has written, “the challenges of our age are unwaveringly human in nature and scale; and engineering and science issues are always embedded in broader human realities, from deeply-felt cultural traditions to building codes to political tensions.” What more direct way to illuminate human realities than through film?

Professor David Thorburn teaches 21L.011 The Film Experience with that universality in mind. It’s been one of MIT’s, and OCW’s, most popular humanities subjects. On the new OCW site for the course, he explains:

One of the ways that the study of literature and the study of film differs from the study of technical things, and the reason I teach it, is that it belongs to everyone, that it’s valuable for everyone. Not everyone needs to know about quantum mechanics. But I believe everyone should know how to read a good story, enjoy plays, know how to enjoy the movies.

New Video Lectures

Professor speaking, gesturing with hand, and an inset still image from film of a man in suit floating on his back in a river.

David Thorburn explains the aesthetic power of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning. (Film still image © Les Établissements Jacques Haïk.)

The OCW course has just been upgraded with a complete set of 23 video lectures. Topics include the early silent period, classic Hollywood genres including musicals, thrillers and westerns, European and Japanese art cinema, and film through the emergence and cultural dominance of television.

Of course, you’ll learn about different historical eras, essential films, key actors and directors, and technical innovations. But Professor Thorburn approaches film as literature, and also with a keen media scholar’s eye on surrounding cultural forces.  Some of the deeper “thematic spines” of the course include

  • The cultural power of movies to “promulgate, dramatize, rehearse, and in some ways, alter and change” a society’s values and belief systems
  • The role of genre, e.g. the musical or the western, in reflecting important social and historical realities
  • Key artistic qualities of film that distinguish it from mere entertainment, and ways for you to make your own critical judgements.

You know all those great movies you keep telling yourself you’ll see someday? Let these lectures start you on that journey, as Professor Thorburn has done so effectively and enthusiastically for so many hundreds of MIT students.

Insights from 30 Years of Teaching Film

Screenshot of male professor speaking, hands raised in emphasis.

David Thorburn shares his teaching insights in a series of short videos.

Complementing the lectures are a rich collection of instructor insights videos, part of the OCW Educator initiative. Recorded one afternoon in his office, Professor Thorburn speaks directly and honestly about his teaching approaches and the evolution of the course over its three decade history.

For instance, he advocates for the value of the well-crafted lecture:

There’s been a kind of growing negative feeling about lectures as if they’re [giving] students a herd experience, and [not giving] them hands-on experience. I think, intellectually, that’s a foolish perspective…I want [students] to watch the movie as the primary text. And I see myself in the role of a synthesizer [giving] a concise summary of the best that has been said about a particular film, or about the historical processes that lead up to the making of the film…I don’t expect my students to become film scholars or literary scholars. The kind of student I want to reach is that of a literate citizen…I could have the students read five scholarly books and synthesize them, but I do that for them so that they have the time to look at the film and think about it seriously.

In another segment, he explains why film should be seen in context with television and literature:

One of the central arguments of my film course…is that it sees the advent of television as a critical factor in the history of the movies, much more central and critical than most contemporary histories acknowledge. Because what I try to show is that the function that the movies had in American society before the advent of television was the function that the novel had in the 19th Century in Europe, and the function that Shakespeare’s public theater had in Shakespeare’s day, a form of popular narrative that’s articulated a kind of assumed or imagined consensus of values for the whole of the society. That made it a culturally, and anthropologically, and socially much more important medium then a mere artistic medium, even though it’s artistic quality remains very important.

With such heartfelt perspectives, David Thorburn makes his signature course come to life for film buffs and educators alike.

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