on the "The City in Film" Syllabus as taught by Mark S. Herwick with Karry Gillespie, and David Sutherland at Portland State University

Return to the 1995 "The City in Film" Syllabus

Posted to H-Urban Thu, 11 Jul 1996
From: "Alan Mayne, H-Urban Co-Editor"
Subject: Teaching: Herwick, The City in Film

The following syllabus for The City in Film, submitted by Mark Herwick of Portland State University, extends a topic that interests many H-Urban subscribers. Since 1993, the list has hosted two extended discussions about how films can help teach urban studies; Richard Harris's recently posted syllabus on Urban Social Geography, illustrated his use of the film Blade Runner. (Both the discussions and the syllabus are available [on the 1995-96 H-Urban discussion logs].)

Postings in response to The City in Film might include, though need not be limited to, reactions to this course's choices and methods, explanations of how others have used film, and suggestions on how to respond to the misleading but memorable urban portraits that films often create. H-Urban is interested in receiving other urban studies syllabi that can be shared on the list.

Posted by Mark Herwick:
The course offered by myself and two colleagues, The City in Film, presented an excellent opportunity to explore issues and concerns within the field of urban studies through the medium of film. The films viewed were selected to provide "jumping off" points for discussion of issues pertinent to the field.

The visual impact of Metropolis and Blade Runner clearly articulated ideas posed in corresponding reading materials that discussed industrialization, capitalism, the built environment, and the experience of city life. Issues concerning the historical development of cities and the uniqueness of urban communities were illuminated in Barefoot in the Park and Avalon.

The relationship between community vitality and the processes of suburbanization and technological innovation were vividly drawn out in Avalon. Discussions that followed on these topics were passionate. The visceral impact of Do the Right Thing quickened discussions of urban race relations and poverty. The power of celluloid to articulate the essence of theoretical discourse on power and inequality was no more evident than in the climatic scene of Do the Right Thing. Nor were the machinations of urban politics more clearly stated than in City of Hope.

Themes about perceptions of the city as evil or hostile were explored in the Out of Towners and Falling Down, and not from particularly balanced points of view.

Through the films presented students got a thumbnail introduction to the subjects of interest in the field of urban studies, therefore, this course may be most appropriate to newcomers in the field. Followed by discussion of the films in conjunction with assigned readings, the students were able to grasp major approaches and analytic frameworks in urban studies. The seminar format of the class allowed informal interaction and encouraged honest, thorough dialogue. This encouraged immersion into not only the subjects of interest of the field, but also focused thought on the nature of the field as a scholarly endeavor (actually this aspect of the course is most suitable for advanced students interested in exploring the essence of the field).

The medium of film is just one more of the methodological approaches embraced by urban studies that contributes to its uniqueness and vitality as an academic endeavor suitable for discovery, description, explanation and societal contribution.