Writing Cinematic History

The Goonies movie poster

Students in Jon Lewis' honors film class catalogued movies from the 1980s, "The Goonies" being one of them.

Someday, Emily Barton wants to work in the public sector as an economic policy analyst, but right now, she is spending hours watching movies from the 1980s. She’s watching Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin,” Robert DeNiro in “Angel Heart,” feminist melodrama “Old Boyfriends,” and a now-classic comedy filmed in Oregon called “The Goonies.”

Barton isn’t being a slacker, though. She is watching these movies to help create historical records for the legacy of American cinema. And in the process, Barton says, she is learning a great deal about the way gender politics colored the film industry of the early 1980s.

“I grew up watching films on television during my summer breaks,” Barton says. “I remember watching films that we are now studying, like ‘E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ on a drive-in movie screen.”

Barton, a University Honors College senior and economics major, enrolled winter term in a film class taught by Oregon State University film historian and English professor Jon Lewis. The class of 12 students was given the opportunity to catalog 48 films from the 1980s that will be put into the American Film Institute’s online archive. Their work is part of a larger effort on behalf of the AFI to have accurate online records available for every American feature-length film produced from 1893 through 2011.

The AFI Catalog Academic Network recruits what they call “the best and brightest” scholars from around the country to provide plot summary and production note information to help flesh out the basic records of American movies.

Lewis was contacted last year by the AFI catalog’s editor, Bob Birchard, about the project, which already has complete listings for films made through 1975. Birchard was aware of Lewis’ work as a nationally-known scholar of new American cinema, and thought he might enjoy the opportunity to bring OSU students into this work of documenting American film history.

There was only one slight snag – Birchard needed films from the 1980s catalogued and Lewis generally moves quickly through that decade in his film history courses.

“The 1980s mark the transition from auteur to blockbuster Hollywood,” Lewis says. “So I tend to talk about the decade as the beginning of the end of a so-called Hollywood renaissance. Luckily, when the AFI sent me a list of the films they wanted us to work on,  it included mostly movies that are overlooked. This proved to be an interesting learning experience for the students and gave me the opportunity to reconsider my assumptions about Hollywood in the ’80s.”

A typical entry for the archive includes an exhaustive list of details, including the complete cast and crew, as well as a detailed

Private Benjamin movie poster

Senior Emily Barton watched "Private Benjamin" as part of the class project.

plot description, movie reviews, and production notes. The AFI provides some useful industry backstory, some sample reviews and a DVD of the film for the students to view.

Barton, who was assigned four movies, said researching the backstories of each film for the AFI was fascinating. For instance, she said many of the historical accounts of the movies come directly from people who were deeply entrenched in the movie industry and defended the politics of the system. She found descriptions in publicity materials issued by the studio and in the historical documents around the film “shocking.”

“In one article, Goldie Hawn was described as ‘daft,’” Barton says. “Yet, she was an executive producer on the film and largely responsible for getting it into production. It was a box office hit and one of the top earners of all time in the video rental market. There’s nothing daft about that.”

Barton, who has a minor in both English and writing, says that on the surface taking a class on film may not seem like a natural fit for an economics major. But much of the focus of the class is about how large economic forces in the late 1970s and early ’80s shifted the focus of films away from “auteurs” and smaller creative works toward high-concept, big-budget movies that could be sold on the strength of a marketing tagline.

“Movies are fun, but they are serious areas of study,” she said. “For me, the class has been a case study in deregulation and the aftermath on artistic product, a type of innovation.”

Plus, Barton believes education should be about learning about a broad array of topics.

“That’s one of the things I love about the Honors College,” she said. “Every class I have taken has broadened my world view.”

For those students in the class who plan to make filmmaking a career, the opportunity gave them a chance to look critically at movies that many just see as pieces of entertainment. Austin Hodaie, a sophomore majoring in liberal studies with a new media communications emphasis, is an aspiring filmmaker whose short movie “My Lumiere” showed at last year’s campus movie festival.

He watched “Blade Runner,” “Aliens,” “Trouble in Mind” and “Colors” for the class and especially enjoyed “Aliens” and “Blade Runner” for the directorial “innovation.” Hodaie says, however, that he shares Lewis’ low opinion of the 1980s as a decade for filmmaking. So what he gained instead was a deeper understanding of how to engage with and “read” a film similarly to how he might a book.

Aliens movie poster

Sophomore Austin Hodaie, an aspiring filmmaker, says that cataloguing the films for AFI gave him a greater insight into moviemaking.

“I think there is a high demand for film classes and OSU would greatly benefit from more of them,” he said. “Taking critical film studies has allowed me to focus my ideas and learn the most effective way of expressing them.”

OSU is the only university participating in the AFI Catalog of Feature Films project that does not have an established film studies program or major – for now.

OSU’s Department of English is in the process of becoming the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, with an emphasis on transforming programs to create more vibrant and meaningful experiences for students.

New faculty hires in areas such as global/world cinema and creative non-fiction for the upcoming school year will continue these efforts to bolster the scholarly reputation in these core areas of literature, writing and film studies.

Lewis sees opportunities such as this partnership with the American Film Institute as a way to heighten the reputation of the program for future scholars of cinema at OSU and to increase student interest in film studies.

And at the very least, a student might discover a movie that they never would have seen otherwise. Barton says she had never heard of “Old Boyfriends,” a drama starring Talia Shire (of “Rocky” fame) that she loved. “It surprised me because it isn’t sentimental at all.”

Barton says, as well, that Lewis asked the students in the class to take a single “frame grab,” or image from one of their assigned films, and expand on it by discussing how that one image is significant to the movie, what it says about the director’s vision, or how that image is representative of broader themes that the work of art is addressing.

“I was surprised at how deeply familiar I became with the movie. I’m sure that if I was asked to write a typical English paper on one of my films, it would be better because of the depth of my involvement with each shot, each scene.”

 

 

 

 

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