All modern day children initially resist watching The Wizard of Oz. Its true. Don’t believe me? Try it out. Pop a copy of the movie on whatever platform you view media through these days and sit a young’un down for a first time viewing. Three….Two…One….watch as the kids face crumples into confusion then rapidly slackens into disinterest when the music swells and the title credits come on. In black and white.
The Wizard of Oz was my first experience with B&W movies. I remember always wanting to skip the “boring” parts and get to the good stuff, so for years I was a little unclear on what exactly was going on with that kook eating hot dogs in the wooden wagon and why that ugly lady wanted to take furry little Toto. Other than Oz, my exposure to “old” movies was limited to my giddy delight in discovering there was not one but THREE Back to the Future movies at age 11, or stumbling upon a rerun of The Breakfast Club on TV at age 13 and then proceeding to devour the films of John Hughes in all their angst addled glory.
Little did I know there was a whole world of cinema out there that I had not yet tapped. Well I knew but I didn’t think any “old” movies held anything of interest for me. Of course, I was wrong.
Enter Coursera. What is Coursera you ask? If you would allow me one moment for a brief PSA that may change your life for the better….ahem…..Coursera. Is. Wonderful. In short, it’s a place online where you can take an unlimited amount of online courses on a bevy of subject matter for FREE. I could go on and on about how this website may, and in ways already is changing the world, but for now I am just going to leave you with a link to a Ted talk addressing the merits of the site, and my effusive praise. Oh, also, you can take courses from your couch. Which is exactly what I did.
After a false start first signing up for a neuroscience course over the summer….and then never even watching one lecture (what was I thinking?) then muddling through approximately half of a World Music course last Spring, I ended up enrolling in a course called The Language of Hollywood. I strongly felt that my love of movies would help ensure my completion of the course.
I was a bit nervous that my old knee jerk reaction of disliking black and white movies would come into play, but as I screened the first required viewing for the class all of my preconceived notions about B&W films quickly fell away. A silent film called Street Angel from 1928 altered my perceptions on what I knew “old” film to be. First off, it introduces the idea that the main character tries to make money hookin’ it on the streets because her mother is dying and they can’t afford her medicine. Whaaaa? Can a theme be considered anachronistic? I had experienced unsettling feelings that themes "did not belong" in certain eras of film before, such as the surprising slap of brutal violence in Hitchcock’s Psycho, or the shock of racy themes such as suicide and extra-marital affairs addressed in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Of course I knew that not everything was sunshine and lollipops when movies were still solely in B&W. But I wasn’t aware that these issues were being expressed so early on in the history of cinema. Of course, the Wizard of Oz being my only B&W experience didn’t prepare me to expect themes of prostitution. It doesn’t even have a pseudo-sexual stabby shower scene.
I became completely absorbed by the movie assignments every week. From the emotional intro to Janet Gaynor’s character in Street Angel to the snappy physical and verbal comedy in the Marx Brother’s Monkey Business, I found myself not even missing the element of color. During the unit that focused on creative uses of sound utilized by directors to help stretch a buck, the professor dropped a fun fact that the obscure film Ghost Ship was the first movie to juxtapose happy, upbeat music with an overtly violent scene. This is certainly something that I think of as a modern convention, as Quentin Tarantino frequently employs the juxtaposition of sound and action in his films to great effect. So as I watched grainy black and white footage of a mute grizzled sailor in a knife fight as a jaunty whistling tune played in the background….**poof** went another one of my preconceived notions.
The course was organized chronologically, and as we segued into the color unit I was pleasantly surprised to learn how sexy movie stars were back in the 30s by watching the dashing Errol Flynn winningly grin and bop through The Adventures of Robin Hood. I also learned volumes about the slow addition of color into cinema, and the particulars of when Technicolor came to light.
In the end, this course has irrevocably changed how I view movies, in addition to bringing my understanding of the history of film into focus. Kudos to the professor, Scott Higgins from Wesleyan, who appeared to be truly passionate about the subject matter and encouraged students to look at things differently. I was motivated to keep learning on my own. I purchased books on the topic and immersed myself in them as the course progressed. I stopped watching reruns of Friends for the 87th time and started watching the assigned films. Now that the course has ended, I find myself craving new viewing experiences instead of getting mired in the old and familiar. I have been working my way through movies that I placed in my Netflix queue months and years ago, and adding B&W films such as Touch of Evil and Fellini’s 8 ½ so I can continue to build an understanding of classic cinema.
I know a film course isn’t rocket science, but I feel invigorated by anything that gets me to ask questions and actively seek out the new and unfamiliar. I’ve challenged myself to complete a second course over the summer, and the list of options offered by Coursera just keeps growing and growing.
Did I mention that you can access all of these options from your couch? For free?!? So no excuses. Why aren’t you on Coursera yet?