Module Information

Module Identifier
Module Title
Aspects of American Film
Academic Year
Semester 2
Other Staff

Course Delivery

Delivery Type Delivery length / details
Seminars / Tutorials 10 x 2 hour seminars
Practical 10 x 2 hr workshops


Assessment Type Assessment length / details Proportion
Semester Assessment 2 x 3000 word essays  100%
Supplementary Assessment Resubmit failed elements and/or make good any missing elements 

Learning Outcomes

On completion of this module, students should typically be able to:

1. demonstrate a detailed knowledge of a range of American film from a variety of genres;

2. relate these films to their broader contexts in twentieth century American cultural history;

3. analyse the ways in which the films contribute to or challenge constructions of American cultural and national identity;

4. explain and engage with recent critical and/or theoretical debates about American film.


The module is taught by weekly seminars and workshops

Unit 1: Hitchcock and the auteur theory
It may be argued that film is essentially a collaborative art, but the issue of authorship remains a vital one. The success and failure of auteur analysis will be examined, together with a series of primary questions about the nature of film as an art form. Hitchcock's films are in many ways about the responsibilities inherent in the act of looking. In this sense, he foregrounds the problematics of the cinematic experience. While insisting that the camera invents rather than reflects reality, Hitchcock also provides a rigorous examination of that act of invention, laying bare its many dangers.

Seminar 1: Rear Window. Reading: Andrew Sarris, 'Notes on the Auteur Theory in American Film', Film Culture No. 27 (Winter 1962-63): 1-8; and Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen Vol.16, No.3 (Autumn 1975): 6-18.
Workshop 1: 'Who was Alfred Hitchcock and what is the auteur theory?' Short lecture followed by illustrated discussion of key themes in Hitchcock's films.

Seminar 2: Psycho. Reading: R. Barton Palmer, 'The Metafictional Hitchcock: The Experience of Viewing and the Viewing of Experience in Rear Window and Psycho', Cinema Journal, Vol.25, No.2 (Winter 1986): 4-19; and Leo Braudy, 'Hitchcock, Truffaut, and the Irresponsible Audience', Film Quarterly, Vol.21, No.4 (Summer 1968): 21-27.
Workshop 2: Student-led discussion of a) issues of authorship in Hitchcock's films, and b) critical approaches to engaging Hitchcock.

Unit 2 - Genre theory: The Western
What is a genre? The Western is often regarded as a hackneyed form which promotes a morally schematic version of American history. This unit of the course seeks to challenge that assumption, replacing it with a sense of the extraordinary flexibility of the Western genre.

Seminar 3: The Seachers. Reading: John G Cawelti, 'Myths of Violence in American Popular Culture', Critical Inquiry, Vol.1, No.3 (March 1975): 521-41; and Robert B Pippin, 'What Is a Western? Politics and Self-Knowledge in John Ford's the Searchers', Critical Inquiry, Vol.35, No.2 (Winter 2009): 223-253.
Workshop 3: 'What is a Western?' Short lecture followed by illustrated discussion of central aspects of the Western genre (including references to Wild West shows, popular literature, art and photography, as well as film).

Seminar 4: True Grit (2012). Reading: Neil Campbell, Susan Kollin, Lee Clark Mitchell, and Stephen Tatum, 'From Blood Simple toTrue Grit: A Conversation about the Coen Brothers' Cinematic West', Western American Literature 48, No.3 (Fall 2013): 312-40; and Jean-Christophe Cloutier, 'A Country for Old Men: Unforgiven, The Shootist, and the Post-Heyday Western', Cinema Journal 51, No.4 (Summer 2012): 110-29.
Workshop 4: 'What is a Western?' Short lecture followed by illustrated discussion of central aspects of the Western genre (including references to Wild West shows, popular literature, art and photography, as well as film).

Unit 3 - American Vietnam Films
To what extent are American Vietnam films really about Vietnam? To what extent are they really about America? How one-sided is the picture they present? These films will be placed alongside filmed documentaries, histories and fictions about Vietnam in an attempt to answer these questions. Similarities with the Western genre will also be discussed, together with a close reading of the differences in approach between the films that have been chosen.

Seminar 5: The Deer Hunter. Reading: Michael Dempsey, 'Hellbent for Mystery", Film Quarterly, Vol.32, No.4 (Summer 1979): 10-13; Marsha Kindner, 'Poliitcal Game', Film Quarterly, Vol.32, No.4 (Summer 1979): 13-17; David Exeen, 'Eastern Wesern', Film Quarterly, Vol.32, No.4
Workshop 5: 'Representing the Vietnam War: A Critical Introduction'. Short lecture followed by illustrated discussion of how the Vietnam War and its legacy have been represented in narrative and documentary.

Seminar 6: Apocalypse Now Redux. Reading: John Hellman 'Vietnam and the Hollywood Genre Film: Inversions of American Mythology in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now', American Quarterly, Vol.34, No.4 (Autumn 1982): 418-39; Marsha Kinder, 'The Power of Adaptation in Apocalypse Now'. Film Quarterly, Vol.33, No.2 (Winter, 16979-1980): 12-20; Saul Steier, 'Making Friends with Horror and Terror: Apolcalypse Now', Social Text, No.3 (Autumn 1980): 114-22.
Workshop 6: Comparing and contrasting The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Student-led discussion.

Seminar 7: Taxi Driver. Reading: Andrew J Swensen, 'The Anguish of God's Lonely Men: Dostoevsky's Underground Man and Scorsese's Travis Bickle', Renascence, Vol.53, No.4 (Summer 2001): 267-86; and Sabine Haenni, 'Geographies of Desire: Postsocial Urban Space and Historical Revision in the Films of Martin Scorsese', Journal of Film and Video, Vol.62, No's 1-2 (Spring-Summer 2010): 67-85.
Workshop 7: 'Making Sense of Travis Bickle - God's Lonely Man'. Student led discussion.

Unit 4 - Versions of the American Family
These films show the American family in ascendancy and in decline and both films relate their picture of the family to the maintenance or collapse of consensus reality. Yet both films require the intrusion of extra-terrestrial forces as agents of hope and progress. The status of these forces is curiously ambivalent; at one level, they are peculiarly earthbound, the angel in Wonderful Life being a projection of the values of his time, and E.T. projecting a close affinity with current notions of green politics. Despite this, both aliens possess superhuman powers which they exercise for the good of the human community. This unit of the course focusses therefore on the functions of fantasy, highlighting the covert, often duplicitous manoeuvres it employs to coerce us into uncritical acceptance of social norms and perspectives.

Seminar 8: It's A Wonderful Life. Reading: Lorraine Mortimer, 'The Grim Enchantment of It's A Wonderful Life', The Massachusetts Review, Vol.36, No.4 (Winter 1995): 656-86.
Workshop 8: Fantasy, science fiction and the American family. Student-led discussion.

Seminar 9: E.T. Reading: Andrew Gordon, 'E.T. as Fairy Tale', Science Fiction Studies, Vol.10, No.3 (1993): 298-305; and Ilsa J. Bick, 'The Look Back in E.T.', Cinema Journal, Vol.31, No.4 (Summer 1992) 25-41.

Seminar 10: Blue Velvet.
Workshop 10: Altrnative visions of the American family. Student-led discussion of Blue Velvet.

An extended bibliography / filmography will be given to you at the start of the course.

Brief description

This module provides a selective introduction to aspects of American film. The component units should be regarded as interconnected rather than as totally separate. For instance, while The Deerhunter (Unit 3) can be studied in the light of Vietnam war films, it can also be studied as an example of its director's oeuvre and related directly to Heaven's Gate (Unit 2). Similarly, Westerns (Unit 2) have much to say about how the American family (Unit 4) is presented in American film. The relationship between history and myth provides a thematic core to at least four of these units. Variety and flexibility of response is thus actively encouraged and students will also be expected to relate the study of film to other cultural products.


This module is at CQFW Level 6