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Class Act: Making Sense of the MoviesC290, Survey of Film History, Preofessor of Comparative Literature James Naremore
By Anne Kibbler
Think of James Dean, and you probably think "rebel" - as in Rebel Without a Cause, the movie that honed Dean's image as a black-leather-jacket renegade.
Think again, says James Naremore. To say that Dean's character, Jim Stark, was rebelling because of the breakdown of the 1950s middle-class family, Naremore tells his class, "is an absurd argument, my friends. It seems to me that what Jim Stark wants is a normal American family life. It seems to me that Jim Stark is an incredibly conservative guy. How did James Dean become a cult figure for teens all over the country who were tired of the 'father-knows-best' family? His style."
Not only was Dean's character not a rebel, Naremore explains, but his jacket wasn't black, and it wasn't even leather. It was a red windbreaker colored black in promotional materials for the movie.
Some students may be surprised at Naremore's rejection of popular interpretations of Rebel Without a Cause, but at this point in the course - about halfway through the semester - they have come to expect and relish the added details, such as the story about Dean's jacket.
Naremore has been fascinated by film since childhood, when he lived just a block from a movie theater and counted Roy Rogers among his favorites. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the film industry. In his scholarly work, he has written about directors Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Vincente Minnelli, among others. But his knowledge extends far beyond those great directors, as students in "Survey of Film History" discover.
The course begins with the very earliest days of film, with Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson's 1889 invention of the kinetograph - a box in which moving images were viewed through a peephole - and the 1895 unveiling in Paris and New York of the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, the industry's first projector.
Through silent movies and "talkies," black and white and color, Naremore leads the class through a chronicle of film history to the high-tech extravaganzas of today. His 75-minute lectures range from narratives that define plots and bring characters into focus, to technical explanations of filming and editing techniques, to extended conversations with students, many of whom are film buffs themselves. Every lecture provides some social, cultural, and sometimes political context of the industry and the times.
Students in Naremore's fall class say they appreciate the "big picture" he provides.
"His topics and the anecdotes and sidebars he relates make the class," says junior Jenny DeArmitt, who is taking Naremore's class on Hitchcock this spring. "He just has an extensive knowledge of film and a down-to-earth perspective on Hollywood."
Junior Joe Phua says the class reinforced his interest in film. "I learned a lot, not only about different film styles, genres, and films from every period in Holly-wood history, but also how to intellectually critique movies in a way I have never done before," he says.
One thing Naremore hopes to pass along to his students is his appreciation for the aesthetics of the movies.