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Class Uses Films to Tell Stories of Political, Social and Economic History
"Film and Politics" course looks to Hollywood for commentary on society.

May 4, 2006

"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." "The Candidate." "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

This semester, students are sitting down in class and learning major aspects of political, social and economic history through the creative vision of Hollywood filmmakers.

Phillip L. Gianos, professor and chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice, is once again teaching "Film and Politics."

"Ever since the early '80s, I wanted to do a class on film and politics," said the political scientist, who offers the class each spring. "It wasn't until videotapes
became widely available that teaching this kind of class became much easier."
Gianos, a member of the campus faculty since 1971, tends to skew his movie selections to the classics, and there's a reason for that.

"These are films that offered significant commentary on what was going on at the time. For instance, if you watch 'Dr. Strangelove,' not only is it very funny, but it was a very gutsy movie to make for its time.

"My goal is to show really good movies that had a broad market appeal," he continued. "There are many small, independent films but what I'm looking for are those movies that reached a significant number of people.

This semester, students in the Film and Politics class have viewed "Lifeboat" (1944), "The Front" (1976), "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951), "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956), "Seven Days in May" (1964), "On the Waterfront" (1954), "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "Nothing But a Man" (1964), "The Candidate" (1972), "Coming Home" (1978), "Being There" (1979), "Election" (1999) and "Twelve Angry Men" (1957).

"I'm also looking for films that have endured. It's interesting to see the students' reactions when they realize that many of the problems and conflicts we face today have been with us for a long time.

"I enjoy seeing the students come to appreciate movies they wouldn't ordinarily see," Gianos said. "I've had many of them come up and tell me that they wouldn't consider watching a black and white film, but they really found the films we saw to be enjoyable and thought-provoking. For them, it's a revelation to see these older films."

Sometimes, Gianos notes, films will be "bumped" off the schedule to make way for others ... but they may come back.

"For awhile, I wasn't showing 'Coming Home,' the movie about the Vietnam War as told through a love story between a paraplegic soldier and a hospital volunteer. Then, a few years ago, I put it back in again. It's been interesting to see how students react now as opposed to 20 years ago. Many of them will come and tell me that they better understand what some of their fathers or uncles went through when they came home from the war.

"I have a limited amount of class sessions, so I obviously can't show all the movies I'd like," Gianos said. "And I want to show a range, so some movies — even very good movies — can be moved from my list. That happened with 'Citizen Kane.' If I had time, I'd include it again. But I want to be able to discuss the film at the beginning of class, watch the movie, and then discuss it afterward. There simply isn't time for more."

Gianos enjoys being able to use film to get students to stretch intellectually.
"Films are a more playful medium. They have the ability, in a relatively short period of time, to connect with students. I enjoy something I call the 'oh wow' factor where you can just see the impact registering on students' faces. They're seeing political and social content in a different context. That's always a kick."

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