The Politics of Hollywood, Fall 2007

Course Description

Movies teach us how the world works. Many of our ideas about war and peace, love and hate, male and female, wealth and poverty, freedom and tyranny, and justice and oppression come from the movies – not only from the stories movies explicitly tell, but from their underlying assumptions, values, and unresolved anxieties.

The most audience-pleasing form of moviemaking ever devised is what film scholars call “classical Hollywood cinema.” The representational strategies, character types, and narrative formulae established in California in the early 20th century continue to shape the movies viewers around the globe see today, and thus, the world we all live in.

This class will examine the ideological assumptions behind Hollywood cinema. We’ll begin in the early sound era, and continue through to the 21st century. We’ll complement close analysis of a specific film each week with readings in the history of the American film industry.


The following books are required:

Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980
Mark Wheeler, Hollywood Politics and Society
David Thomson, The Big Sleep
J. Hoberman, The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and Mythology of the Sixties
Toby Miller et al, Global Hollywood 2

In addition, a coursepack will be available at Bestway Copy, on the bottom floor of One Park Place South.


Unit I: Classical Hollywood

8/22    Introduction

8/29    Casablanca
Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency…: Intro, Chapters 1-3
Mark Wheeler,  Hollywood, Politics and Society: Intro, Chapter 1

9/5    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Larry May, excerpts from The Big Tomorrow
Eric Smoodin, excerpts from Regarding Frank Capra
Wheeler Chapter 4

9/12    His Girl Friday
Murray Davis, excerpt from What’s So Funny?
David R. Shumway, “Screwball Comedies: Constructing Romance, Mystifying Marriage”
Wheeler Chapter 3

9/19    Gone With the Wind
Tara McPherson, excerpts from Reconstructing Dixie
Wheeler Chapter 5

Unit II: Postwar Hollywood

9/26    The Big Sleep
David Thomson, The Big Sleep
Ray Chapters 5-6

10/3    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
Gary Wills, excerpts from John Wayne’s America
Ray Chapter 7
Wheeler Chapter 2

10/10    The Manchurian Candidate
J. Hoberman, The Dream Life: Intro, Chapters 1-2
Ray Chapters 8

Unit III: New Hollywood

10/17    Bonnie and Clyde
Hoberman Chapters 3-4
Ray Chapter 9

10/24    Dirty Harry
Hoberman Chapters 5-6, Conclusion

10/31    The Godfather I and II
Ray Chapter 10, Conclusion
Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”

Unit IV: Postmodern Hollywood

11/7    Class Choice from 1980s
Miller et al, Global Hollywood 2: Intro, Chapters 1-2
Wheeler Chapter 6

11/14    Class Choice from 1990s
Miller Chapters 3-5, Conclusion
Wheeler Chapter 7, Conclusion

11/21    No Class – Thanksgiving Break

11/28    Class Choice from 2000s
Jon Powers, excerpts from Sore Winners

12/5    Research Presentations/Party at Ted’s House

Final papers/projects are due December 12


I. Lead discussions of 3 Films – 15% of final grade for each discussion
You will sign up to lead, with a group, discussions of three films. Your group will be responsible for researching the production background, audience response, and critical reception of the film, then leading the class on the film.

Here are the steps involved in preparing to lead a class discussion:

A. Watch the film.

B. Research the film’s contexts and reception.

Examine these questions to put the film in a broader context:

What was the production context of the film? What was the film’s budget? How was the film marketed? What were the reputations of the film’s director, studio and stars? How does the film compare to other films made by the principals?

What was the audience response to the film? How was the film reviewed when it opened? How was its box office? Has the perception of the film changed since the time of its original release?

What have critics and scholars had to say about the film? Who has written about the film? What interpretations have been offered? What kinds of critical approaches have been employed? What debates exist?

Several resources will be helpful for your research:

Internet Movie Database ( continues to be the best one-stop source for facts about films, including cast, crew, budget and box office stats. However, it’s not very useful as a source for reviews or film scholarship.

The Film Literature Index ( indexes articles from all the major film periodicals, searchable by film title. It’s the best one-stop source for film research. However, it’s an index, not a full-text database. To track down an article cited in the FLI, you’ll then need to look it up in the GSU E-Journal Locator (

A9 ( is a search engine that includes access to Amazon’s powerful “Search Inside the Book” feature. Run a search, then click on the “Books” box.

C. Plan the topics for the class to discuss.

Meet with your group to hash out what’s the most important stuff to talk about, and how you want to structure the conversation. Here are a list of some of the topics that might be addressed:

Style. How does the film’s form relate to its content?

Individualism. How does the film connect individual characters to broader social questions?

Class and economic inequality. How does the film present labor? What is the role of money in the film?

Electoral politics and activism. How does the film envision the political world?

Race and ethnicity. How does the film construct racial others? How does it construct whiteness?

Gender. How does the film construct masculinity? Femininity? Heteronormativity?

Nation. How does the film construct America? How does it envision the rest of the world?

In thinking about each of these topics, consider both the film’s surface meanings, and any possible tensions or subtexts underneath. You don’t need to cover every one of these topics if it’s not relevant to your film, and feel free to add additional topics, such as environmentalism, violence, technology, etc. Engage the assigned class readings where relevant. Pick short clips (5 minutes max, preferably shorter) to anchor your discussion of key topics.

D. Prepare and and distribute handouts.

Prepare two handouts for class:

An info sheet on the film. Include key credits, available budget and box office stats, awards, and an annotated bibliography of key scholarship on the film.

An agenda to structure the class discussion. This should be very brief – no more than a page of bullet points. (You can prepare more detailed notes for your group, of course. You just don’t need to hand them out.)

E. Lead the Discussion

After all this preparation, the temptation will be great to spend the entire class time lecturing on everything you’ve learned. However, the best way to lead a class discussion is to concentrate on asking questions. Make sure the whole class is involved – it’s often helpful to start the class by going around the room and having everybody respond to a specific question. I’ll jump in with my own questions, as well.

II. Final Project – 55% of the final grade
Option 1: Write a 15-20 page paper on a subject relating to the politics of Hollywood film. Write this paper with an eye towards eventually presenting it at a conference, expanding it and publishing it. In addition, if you already have a thesis or dissertation topic in mind, consider how this paper might contribute to the larger work.

Option 2: Produce a creative work which engages some of the ideas of the class. The project can be a short film, a screenplay, or a new media work. Along with the project, include a 5-page paper relating your work to ideas from the class.

For either option, the deadlines are the same:

A one-page prospectus is due October 24. I will schedule individual meetings with you to discuss the prospectus.
I will look at drafts of the final project submitted on or before December 3. You’re welcome to submit multiple drafts for feedback.
You will give a short (10 minute) presentation on your research project at the final class on December 5.
The final project is due December 12.

III. Attendance Adjustment
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.


Academic Honesty
The university’s policy on academic honesty is published in On Campus: The Undergraduate Co-Curricular Affairs Handbook, available online at The policy prohibits plagiarism, cheating on examinations, unauthorized collaboration, falsification, and multiple submissions. Violation of the policy will result in failing the class, in addition to possible disciplinary sanctions.

Students withdrawing on or before the midsemester point will receive a W provided they are passing the course. Students who withdraw after the midsemester point will not be eligible for a W except in cases of hardship. If you withdraw after the midsemester point, you will be assigned a WF, except in those cases in which (1) hardship status is determined by the office of the dean of students because of emergency, employment, or health reasons, and (2) you are passing the course.

Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.

Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary.

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