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What student takes a movie class? Is he unjaded enough to like older flicks?

By 3.28.04

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One day about four years ago, the classics department chairman came into my office to share an idea he'd been mulling over. Times being what they are, the idea had little to do with teaching Latin or Greek and much to do with avoiding departmental extinction in a mid-sized, budget-cutting university.

"Why don't we offer a movie class?" he suggested.

I looked at him vacantly. The dean's office had been making threatening noises about under-enrolled classes. In our department, most upper-division Latin classes and all Greek classes routinely had fewer than the minimum ten students. To avoid the budget ax, we had to dream up "service courses" of broad appeal and chunky enrollment, thus offsetting the perennially modest number of classics majors.

"A movie class…?" I fumbled, but the chairman was already musing aloud. No department on campus has a corner on film courses -- some classicist down in Arizona had written a book on the ancient world in cinema -- Hollywood has cranked out dozens of sword-and-sandal spectacles -- Media Services has a small theatre on campus with video projection capabilities -- a lower-division film class could ignite interest in classics and draw new majors into the department …

"But … what kind of student takes a movie class?" I ventured. He dodged the question, reminiscing about a film class he had in college, "one of the toughest courses I ever sat through." I didn't need to ask which teacher he had in mind to work up the new course.

Amid regular duties, the course took me over a year to prepare. The outline was easy enough, requiring rudimentary prudence of the sort all experienced teachers achieve the hard way. During the ten active weeks of an academic quarter, there would be time to view ten full-length features on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule: half a feature each class day, allowing time for lecture and discussion. The course would be offered only in the winter quarter, when students are least restless. Because of a stiff writing requirement (nine essays per student), the enrollment would be capped at 30.

The films had to be dramatic entertainments of broad appeal, middling-to-superior in production values: no schlock (Hercules Unchained) and no self-conscious artiness (Fellini's Satyricon). No uproarious comedy either (Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), which most undergraduates cannot analyze without spoiling.

The tricky part was to decide on a bill of fare that would fit these and other competing criteria. As a survey of the classical world, the ten films had to be chronologically spaced to move smoothly from pre-Trojan myth (Jason and the Argonauts) to the incipient dissolution of Rome (Fall of the Roman Empire). As an introduction to film criticism, the movies had to illustrate obvious faults in weaker productions (casting in Jason, narrative coherence in Alexander the Great) and to exhibit the opposite in stronger films (inevitably, Spartacus and Ben-Hur).

As a writing class (fulfilling the university's third writing requirement beyond freshman comp: more students for classics, after an awkward turf skirmish with the English department), the course had to show films of sufficient wit to spark intelligent responses. Which brings me back to the question I asked the chairman: What kind of student takes a movie class? After teaching "Classical World in Cinema" for the second time this past winter quarter, I think I have an answer.

FIRST, THE GOOD NEWS. Of 29 students in the movie class, about half were as good as any student among our upper-division classics majors. The rest were -- or at least became, after getting back their first essays -- tolerably attentive and coherent; no one dropped the course, not even after getting slammed in the first essay.

Put it this way. The first batch of essays took me nineteen hours to grade; the second batch took seven hours. I was able to read the last batch in less than five hours. My worst misgivings about the course drawing students of the "wrong kind" (okay -- I mean self-protective cretins with stiff attitudes and gelatinous brain stems) were obliterated within the first few weeks of the course. I liked the whole class a lot. And I liked them differently as I got to know each of them by name and manner.

All the more reason why their last essays brought what seemed to me bad news. The final assignment was to write a 1,000-word comparison of the last two films on the syllabus: Gladiator (2000) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Both films are set in the same period (late second century A.D.) of Roman history: the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius and the accession to power of his worthless son Commodus.

Both films play fast and loose with history, Hollywood style. Lucilla -- the sister of Commodus whom the historical Commodus murdered early in his 12-year reign -- survives Commodus in both movies. The heroes -- Maximus (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator and Livius (Stephen Boyd) in Fall -- are, historically, fabrications. In each film, Commodus is killed by the hero in personal combat; historically, Commodus was strangled by an anonymous athlete suborned by the emperor's exasperated advisors.

In the final assignment, I alluded to a passing remark of film critic Jon Solomon that any movie is bound to be a prisoner of the era in which it is made. I asked the students to work into their essays some reflection on what Gladiator (2000) and Fall (1964) may suggest about their production eras. Given all the similarities in the two movies, did the students detect any difference in thematic emphasis, in conceptions of character -- of heroism, of villainy?

Most of the students were sophomores or juniors, born in the mid-1980s. I was their age when Fall of the Roman Empire was released in 1964. None of the students had seen Fall before; most had already seen Gladiator at least once. I did not tell them that I much preferred Fall, a box-office flop in the wake of the disastrous Cleopatra (1963) but nonetheless intelligent and carefully crafted -- and, I think, less brittle than Gladiator under multiple viewings. I was eager to read my students' responses.

AS IF TO CONFIRM SOME universal standard of judgment on such matters, there was nearly unanimous agreement spread among the final essays that Fall was, objectively, a better movie than Gladiator. Alec Guinness was deemed much more effective and interesting than Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius. Stephen Boyd as the hero Livius in Fall(he was Messala in Ben-Hur, if you need an image) exhibits a range of compelling emotions, while Russell Crowe as the hero Maximus is just "a lump of brooding, soul-tortured, masochistic, fighting-machine flesh" (not bad for a college sophomore's early venture into film criticism, eh?). It occurred to several students that Crowe's performance (for which he took an Academy Award) was driven more by camera movements than by acting talent, and almost everyone noticed that FALL's story was more coherent and much less dependent on visual effects.

Yet a majority (almost two-thirds of the class) preferred Gladiator. "Perhaps," one of them offered ruefully, "I am just a prisoner of a computer-generated era and expect dazzling special effects from every flick I see." The Gladiatorfans all felt that Joaquin Phoenix hit the right note of villainy in his brooding portrayal of Commodus, whereas Christopher Plummer as Commodus in Fall was not psychologized enough: "Things are not always as clear as good verses [sic] evil," one student opined. (The brighter students believed that Plummer's wicked degenerate is dramatically more interesting than Phoenix's troubled psychopath.)

Most of the Gladiator fans were put off by Sophia Loren's portrayal of Lucilla in Fall. Connie Nielsen's Lucilla, they averred, reflects our more "enlightened" (yes -- two students used that word) era in which women are independent and assertive. This last one was hard to account for -- maybe Nielsen has a tighter set to her jaw? In fact, Sophia Loren's Lucilla has a greater variety of scenes and a more complex entanglement with intrigues against her wicked brother Commodus.

One of the brighter students, in effect speaking for the minority, suggested that, in the current era of film production, "visuals have replaced story-telling; technique has edged out thought." Compared with Fall, another student wrote, "Gladiator appeals to an audience of short attention spans."

And, as if speaking for the majority, one Gladiator fan, in a burst of impatience, waxed stupid: "Values change over time, so the values in the films had to change; it's as simple as that."

Well -- not really. Such responses complicate the hell out of my own misgivings about teaching a film class. I have to fret over how seriously the course attends to the students' education -- to freeing them from what Chesterton called the degrading servitude of being children of their own times.

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About the Author

John R. Dunlap teaches in the Department of Classics at Santa Clara University.