BACK TO (FILM) SCHOOL

Come on, what student hasn't taken an incomplete or two? 

In January 2013 I launched a naively ambitious project I called "Independent Study in World Cinema." I had come to realize that my knowledge of foreign films was woefully thin, and so I drew up a list of about 40 universally acclaimed classics and set about working my way through it chronologically. The idea was to view, study, and write about one film a week, as a sort of informal, remedial, self-directed film school. 

The project had several modest goals, as I wrote in the first post, on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari:

What am I hoping to get out of this? For one thing—and this is why I'm doing them chronologically—I'm hoping to get a slightly better grasp of film history: to see how Director A influenced Director B, and how Director C said "Screw Directors A & B, I've got some better ideas." I'm hoping to acquire at least a shallow understanding of the historical context and cultural importance of these films, and to better understand what people mean when they reference things like "Italian neorealism" or "the French New Wave." I'm hoping to remove my own cultural blinders and experience the contributions to the history of film that emerged from other countries and traditions. And I'm hoping to be able to confidently refer to a film's multiple points-of-view structure as being like Rashomon, without ever again worrying that someone is going to call my bluff and force me to admit that I've never actually seen Rashomon.

Mostly—and I can't emphasize this enough—I'm just hoping to watch some great movies, discuss them with people who have seen them, and maybe help introduce them to people who haven't.

The project was a lot of fun—and every bit as educational as I had hoped—but it began to slide off the rails almost from the beginning. 

First of all, these things took way longer than I'd estimated: the planned one-week gap between posts swelled closer to two or three, and the articles were so labor- and research-intensive that I didn't have time to write about anything else while I was doing them. 

Even so, I might have stuck with the project if it hadn't been for one additional consideration: no one was reading these things. I was spending all of my available free time writing wonky, 5-10,000 word analyses of ancient foreign films for what turned out to be a very tiny niche audience. 

So, reluctantly, I decided to stop. And, since almost no one seemed to even notice that I'd stopped, I figured that had been the right decision. 

But a funny thing has happened over the past three years. Those five obscure posts—on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkin, Metropolisand The Passion of Joan of Arc—slowly and inexplicably found a larger and wider audience. They gradually went from being among my least-read pieces to a consistent place atop the list of my most read pieces. And several of them have popped up in the oddest of places, finding life beyond my little site. I've seen them referenced in quite a few other articles and web pages, and a few have even turned up on various film school syllabi, which never ceases to amuse me. (The whole reason I wrote these is that I never went to film school, and don't really know what I'm talking about.) 

In other words, it has gradually grown clear to me that abandoning this project might have been a miscalculation. (I'm no web-marketing genius, but I'm pretty sure that not continuing my most popular and widely referenced series could be considered a dumb-ass move.)

Besides, I still want to watch and write about all those movies, for my own education and edification. (If there's actually an audience out there for my ill-informed thoughts on them, then that's just a persuasive bonus.)

So, this is all just a long-winded way to announce that I'm plunging back into my coursework. I've tweaked the syllabus a little bit—I keep finding more and more films I want to add to the list—and I've decided to give myself two weeks between posts, rather than one. My current plan is to post a new entry in my Independent Study in World Cinema on the 15th and 30th of every month, and I'm going to prioritize sticking to the schedule over breadth and scope of analysis. (Meaning, I'd rather post a 5,000-word article on-time than a 10,000-word term paper several weeks late.)

My revised syllabus has about 60 films on it, which should take me well into 2018. I'm not announcing the entire schedule right now—because I want to leave myself room for further tweaking—but I wanted to provide fair warning of the next few films in case anyone wants to play along. (The next movie on the list is Man with a Movie Camera, and it's streaming in a restored version on Amazon Prime; various non-restored versions are also available on YouTube.) The next few months should look like this: 

February 29: Man with a Movie Camera (1929), directed by Dziga Vertov
March 15: Un Chien Andalou (1929), directed by Luis Buñuel
March 30: (1931), directed by Fritz Lang
April 15: No post (I'll be on vacation)
April 30: L'Atalante (1934), directed by Jean Vigo
May 15: Triumph of the Will (1935), directed by Leni Riefenstahl
May 30: Grand Illusion (1937), directed by Jean Renoir
June 15: The Rules of the Game (1939), directed by Jean Renoir
June 30: Rome: Open City (1945), directed by Roberto Rossellini
July 15: Beauty and the Beast (1946), directed by Jean Cocteau
July 30: Bicycle Thieves (1948), directed by Vittorio Di Sica

From there the rough plan is to spend the early '50s in Japan (Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi), take a quick trip to Bengal (Ray), swing up to Sweden for a couple of early Bergman films in the late '50s, and then return to France for the dawn of the '60s and the launch of the French New Wave. I'll nail down those films and dates as we get a little closer. 

So who's up for a study group? Let's watch some films. 

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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