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Thorburn, David, 21L.011 The Film Experience, Fall 2007. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 10 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Film Experience

Fall 2007

Still shot of Fred Ott sneezing.
Fred Ott in mid-sneeze. This still comes from the 1894 motion picture Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze: the first copyrighted film in history and the primitive origin from which all of modern film began. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Course Description

This course is an introduction to narrative film, emphasizing the unique properties of the movie house and the motion picture camera, the historical evolution of the film medium, and the intrinsic artistic qualities of individual films. The primary focus is on American cinema, but secondary attention is paid to works drawn from other great national traditions, such as France, Italy, and Japan. The syllabus includes such directors as Griffith, Keaton, Chaplin, Renoir, Ford, Hitchcock, Altman, De Sica, and Fellini.

Special Features

  • Sample video lectures
  • Image gallery

Technical Requirements

Special software is required to use some of the files in this course: .mp4, .rm.


This page includes a course calendar.

Primary Goals

This course is an introductory survey of classic films. Emphasis falls equally on cultural and on artistic matters: on films as anthropological and historical artifacts that articulate the values and assumptions of specific societies and eras and on films as works of art. The course aims to sharpen students' analytic skills, to give them a sense of the history and cultural significance of movies, and to improve their writing.

Writing Requirements

This course satisfies the criteria for communication intensive subjects in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. Students are required to write a short (1-2 page) response to some aspect of the material in the first two weeks, and three essays, 5-7 double-spaced typed pages each, devoted to films studied during the term. Students must write a minimum of 20 pages over the course of the term.

All students must revise and resubmit at least one of their first two essays, and they are encouraged but not required to revise both. Only the grade received on the revised version of the paper will count toward the final grade in the term. Revisions must be submitted within one week of the date on which essays are returned.

Late Papers

Essays submitted within seven days of the due date will be graded without penalty but will be ineligible for revision and may not receive written comments from the instructor. Papers will not be accepted beyond the seven-day grace period.

Paper Topics

A list of suggested topics will be provided for each of the essays. Students may depart from these suggestions, but the alternative must be approved by their recitation instructor.

Oral Expression

A central goal of the recitation hour in the course is to strengthen students' powers of oral expression. Attendance at recitations is mandatory. Students will be expected to participate actively in class discussions. Performance in these discussions will have a measurable influence on the final grade.


There will be one 30-minute quiz, one one-hour test, and one three-hour final exam. The quiz will consist of short identification items. Both tests will include essay questions as well as an identification segment. Material covered in lectures and in the assigned reading will supply most of the identification questions.


I. The silent era



Porter. The Great Train Robbery.

Griffith. A Beast at Bay, The Lonedale Operator.

Keaton. One Week, Cops, The General.

Short response due
2 Chaplin

Chaplin. The Immigrant, Easy Street, Modern Times.

3 Film as a global and cultural form: German film Murnau. The Last Laugh. First paper due
II. Hollywood genres
4 Hollywood in the 1930s: sound comedy Capra. It Happened One Night.  
5 Hitchcock Hitchcock. Shadow of a Doubt.  
6 The musical

Donen/Kelly. Singin' in the Rain.

Fosse. Cabaret.

7 The western Ford. The Searchers. Second paper due
8 Film in the 1970s Altman. McCabe and Mrs. Miller.  
III. International masters
9 Renoir and poetic realism Renoir. Grand Illusion.  
  Hour test    
11 Italian neorealism De Sica. Bicycle Thieves.  
12 Fellini Fellini. 8 1/2.  
13 Summary perspectives: film as art and artifact    
  Final exam   Tell A Friend