MOOC Review — The Language of Hollywood
Film studies is an unparalleled academic discipline; it involves artistic knowledge, critical thinking and . . . movies. Who wouldn’t like to study and have fun at the same time?
So when I first stumbled across the “The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Color” in the Coursera listing, I was intrigued. It involved the magic wor(l)d of Hollywood! I swiftly decided to join along, expecting huge amounts of popcorn and small talk in the forum. Boy was I in for a surprise!
The course instructor greeted us on January 31, focusing on the course material at hand, which included the movies listed on the syllabus. “The Language of Hollywood” is taught by Professor Scott Higgins of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, U.S.A. You can get some idea of his perspective on cinematography and film studies at his blog.
As he explained, most of the films were available on DVD, either for purchase (e.g. on Amazon) or for rent (via Netflix or a similar service). The first movie though, Street Angel (1928), was extremely rare and difficult to find, or so he alerted us before the inaugural February 4 session. It proved to be somewhat of a challenge to find that and some other movies, yet the community was ready. Social media rallied to the cause, and many students had to rely on torrent file sharing to access the material required to take the class.
In the following weeks we delved into the typical Coursera format, this time without the weekly assessment. Each unit began with a short introductory video to the movie at hand, followed by a longer segment analyzing what we saw, all embed with follow up questions. Overall, we watched two movies a week. A final cumulative quiz of 20 multiple choice questions determined if we got the prized certificate of completion.
In the meantime, Professor Higgins would also address a turning point in Hollywood history. We came to learn when sound and color were first implemented and why. We also discovered fun facts about production companies in their early stages and observed their manipulative tactics for presenting the viewers with a “good” movie. For example, we marveled at director Josef von Sternberg’s shot of an anchor falling through greyish waters, thus creating sound illusion, or more like noise really, within a silent film (Docks of New York, 1928).
What makes a good movie?
What makes a good movie, really? I often wondered about that as discussion in the forums and on social media were raging. Ghost ship (1943) generated mixed reviews from the class while Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood (1938) was highly praised. The original Scarface (1932) proved to be a must-see, despite Al Pacino’s critically acclaimed performance in the 1983 version. In all honesty, women like myself are still — generations later — infatuated with Rock Hudson’s macho performance in All that Heaven Allows (1955).
Finally, for some, the vaudeville shtick of the Marx brothers (Monkey Business, 1931) was unbearable. Those who enjoyed it probably also enjoyed the monkeys used as side shows in movie scenes throughout the syllabus. As Professor Higgins remarked once, “Monkeys make a film better.” That became a shorthand for students in the forums discussing when cuteness as a motif was done effectively.
The point being that the course didn’t present a single “best” movie per se but a careful selection of films indicating what a good movie should be like, with the implemented technology of the time taken into account.
Learning to watch movies
All MOOC students at some point exclaim “I am doing this for the experience.” I am not sure if they always mean it, but in this case it must have been sincere. I cannot begin to describe the pleasure of discovering Hollywood’s past. The vibrations that were felt as we went behind the curtain of these cinematic gems were staggering.
Honestly, the quiz never mattered for me in this MOOC course; the journey was reward enough.
Moreover, it was refreshing to appreciate this discipline from the MOOC perspective. I knew that many undergraduate humanities students opt for a minor in film studies. I can now relate to that preference and see there is more to it than simply “watching movies.” You need to train your eyes to what is seen or isn’t; your ears should be able to pick up sounds looming or the piercing deadly silence. All in all, you will become a better viewer and perhaps learn to appreciate the small details that make a big difference when it comes to the world of mass entertainment.
I highly recommend you enroll for this course’s next session in September. You will find yourself genuinely surprised, moved to tears and eager to discover more movies from long forgotten eras. You WILL remember the name “Frank Borzage”. You will even change the way you watch films nowadays, paying attention to sound and image more critically this time.
And you’ll have fun. To conclude with our class’ motto, do remember: “Monkeys make a film better”.