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Question for Discussion: How can American 
movies help us better understand our
history, society, and culture?

Reading:  Mintz and Roberts, pp. 1-16; 
Lewis, “ Reading Films as Cultural Texts” (Web)

Assignment: Come to class with a list of
your ten favorite movies and your ten
worst movies.

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America's Greatest Movies:

American Studies Internet Resources
for Sewall American Studies classes:

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Reading American Movies in the 1990s

How to Set Up and Use a Computer
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Using the Computer to Check Your Schedule
Personal Lookup Services (PLUS):  Enables students to
create e-mail accounts as well as check grades, course
schedules, billing information, and correct addresses on
file with the University.
Personal informationLook at
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1. Why do Americans go to the Movies?

2. What conclusions can we draw about
AFI's survey of the Public's Choice of America's
10 Greatest Movies?

3. What are your choices for America's 10
Greatest Movies?

4. Why do some people go to the same movie
over and over again?

5. What do Americans learn about themselves
and their culture and society by watching
popular movies?

6. What makes a certain film popular? Is there
a formula for popular films?

7. How do American Movies address Politics
and Politicians?

8. Why do you think American films dominate
the global movie box offices?

9. Do you make a personal distinction between
"escapist" movies and "serious" movies?  Can a
serious movie also be escapist?

10. Do you think we can study a film using the
same critical analysis we use to study novels?

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Reading Films as Cultural Texts

1.  What is the larger story the film tells?

2.  How does the film use characters to
develop and reinforce its larger theme

3.  How does the director use critical scenes in
     the film to reinforce his larger message?

4.  How does the film's pacing, camera angles,
     and music reinforce its larger story?

5.  How does the film draw its audience into
the story and keep their attention?

6.  Who is the audience that the film is
      created for?  Is the audience small or


Irony: Irony occurs where there is a disjunction
between what we were trying to do and what
we, in fact, achieve. Irony often involves our
unintended creation of the very event or
situation we were trying not to create,
example, during the Cold War we tried to prevent war by being prepared to "fight and win" the very war we were trying to prevent.

Tragedy: a dramatic or literary work depicting a
protagonist--hero--who struggles for a moral
cause only to face ruin or profound unhappiness
in the end.

Satire: the use of irony, derision, or wit to attack,
challenge, and ridicule a perspective or idea.

In his book, The Irony of American History, Reinhold Niebuhr defined the irony of American history in this way:
"Pure tragedy elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good. Irony however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood. Our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history. Our dreams of a pure virtue are dissolved in a situation in which it is possible to exercise the virtue of responsibility toward a community of nations only by courting the prospective guilt of the atomic bomb.  
(That is, by threatening to blow up to world in order to save the community of nations)"(p.2)

Ironic laughter
: "laughter is truly ironic if it symbolizes mercy as well as judgment. For whenever judgment defines the limits of human striving it creates the possibility of a humble acceptance  of those limits. Within that humility mercy and peace find a lodging place."
( Niebuhr. 64)

Ironic Understanding of History
: involves recognizing the limits of human power, virtue, and wisdom and accepting the ironic and even tragic outcomes of human efforts to exercise their power,  virtue, and wisdom to create a better world. The folly of these  human efforts
often leads to laughter, which, as Niebuhr argued, "is truly ironic if it symbolizes mercy as well as judgment" and humility in the face of human weaknesses.

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© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 16 January, 2006
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/film/intro.htm