Winter quarter in RTVF: Never a dull class

February 11, 2011
Jacob Smith
Jacob Smith teaches his cultural history of advertising course.

Would you rather spend the winter quarter with Walt Disney or David Lynch? Why not both?

A series of courses in the School of Communication Department of Radio/Television/Film this winter is illustrating the breadth of media topics available for study. From American film directors of the 1990s to the work of Disney to the films of David Lynch to a course in cultural theory, which touches on everything pop culture from Jersey Shore to hip-hop music to the Kardashians, RTVF students have their work cut out for them making a choice between the options available to them.

Students in Jason Sperb's '90s American Directors course view the films Seven and Fight Club by David Fincher (most recently of The Social Network), Citizen Ruth and Election from Alexander Payne, Virgin Suicides by Sofia Coppola, Three Kings from David O. Russell, and Being John Malkovich by Spike Jonze. Sperb said the class is a variation on the class he taught fall quarter about director Paul Thomas Anderson from the same time period.

As many of the students "grew up with" these directors, they are "pretty well engaged" in the classroom. "They feel they can really relate to the subject matter," Sperb said.

Sperb's freshman seminar Disney class focuses on the history of the Disney studio itself, starting with its beginnings as Laugh-O-Gram Films in Kansas City. The class drew in many students who are self-professed Disney fans. The class looks at Disney's technological innovations through the years; students watch early animation clips, clips from movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Tron, and The Black Hole, and finish the quarter examining the Pixar generation of films, which includes Wall-E.

"The class has been excellent — partly because the students are all Disney fans already," Sperb said, explaining that the seminar setting combined with the students' existing base of Disney knowledge facilitates "more proactive discussion."

Max Dawson leads discussion on cultural theory
Max Dawson leads discussion on cultural theory.

Jacob Smith's class on director David Lynch (of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive fame) examines Lynch's career and "all the various ways we can meet his work or his celebrity persona," Smith said.

The class discussed the "very particular tone or texture or feel" or "Lynchian" quality Lynch's work has, an often-disturbing quality that can, Smith said, "blur the lines between beautiful and horrifying."

The 10-person class is the perfect size, Smith said, to have such in-depth discussions about Lynch.

"He presents us with lots of troubling ideas and images and doesn't give us a simple explanation or reading," Smith said. "That can be challenging and frustrating and troubling. Students like that challenge."

Perhaps challenging in a different way are the topics that arise in Max Dawson's cultural theory course, Understanding Media Contexts. The course attempts to "gain historical understanding in the various ways popular culture has been examined, explored, feared, rhapsodized since 19th century," Dawson said.

Contemporary examples discussed in class to illustrate these perspectives include the outlaw culture of the music group Insane Clown Posse, Snoop Dog, and gangster rap's potential hegemony over society, and post-modern superficiality represented by the reality television shows Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Jersey Shore.

Even in a 150-person lecture, Dawson said the class debate gets quite passionate and lively.

"You never know when the students will bring up something and turn the auditorium in a small salon," he said. "It's an incredible opportunity to work with students who have their chops down so well, who know how films are made, who understand the way in which a television program is put together from the writing stage to its execution. It creates these opportunities to have these discussions that think beyond the nuts and bolts of production and really get them to see what they're doing within a much bigger social context."

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