Contemporary American Cinema and Culture


UCR Osher / OLLI
Fall, 2021 (distance)

Devin Orgeron
Emeritus Professor, Film History and Theory
North Carolina State University

Focused on films and filmmakers that have helped to shape the last decade or so of American cinematic production, this course takes a broad, cultural approach in its examination of the trends (aesthetic, thematic, technological) that define the contemporary (mostly pre-COVID) moviegoing experience. What genres prevail in our present moment and why? What kinds of stories are we telling ourselves repeatedly and why? Who are some key mainstream and/or independent cinematic voices and what are their contributions? We might think of this class as a Film History course taking place as that history is unfolding. Enrollees will view several films on their own (available online, details TBA) and our weekly discussions will use those “target” films as a springboard to consider the broader cultural questions they raise, other films they relate to, etc. No film expertise or previous experience required!

Wednesdays, 12:30-1:30 / Feb 17-March 24

Films are also listed on our course website

ALL but our final film are available on Amazon Prime. Our final film, (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) is available on Netflix.

Week 1
Wed., Feb. 17
Revised Superheroes
Black Panther (2018) Ryan Coogler (AMAZON PRIME)

We will begin with a close look at a superhero movie that created quite a stir in 2018. We will explore the history of this genre and of the summer blockbuster more generally to see how recent superhero movies fit into and/or disrupt that category.

Week 2
Wed., Feb. 24
Contemporary Auteurs 1
Isle of Dogs (2018) Wes Anderson (AMAZON PRIME)

A meticulous, detail-oriented visual storyteller, Anderson, since his feature debut (Bottle Rocket, 1996), is also concerned thematically with a set of ideas that would appear to be central to many of his contemporaries (both fiction and non-fiction filmmakers).

Week 3
Wed., March 3
Contemporary Auteurs 2
First Cow (2019) Kelly Reichardt (AMAZON PRIME)

Reichardt, while interested in some of those themes Anderson (and others explore) is a wholly unique cinematic voice. A minimalist to Anderson’s busyness, she is also interested in exploring the contours of realism and its uses in fictional storytelling. This, along with several of her most recent films, is also an historical drama set in the West. You will notice and we will discuss this filmmaker’s particular and quite affecting quietness.

Week 4
Wed., March 10
Interrogating Truth
American Dharma (2018) Errol Morris (AMAZON PRIME)

Since The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris has been this country’s most prolific and celebrated documentary filmmaker. And much of his style is predicated upon the power of conversation. While the style is sometimes derisively called “talking head,” Morris’s variation is more complex. Our examination of this film (a wide-ranging and timely conversation with Steve Bannon) will consider, among other things, the complex way in which Morris works metaphor into his nonfiction worlds.

Week 5
Wed., March 17
A Journey into American Isolation1
Kajillionaire (2020) Miranda July (AMAZON PRIME)

Community is a thematic many of our films (and many other contemporary films outside of this list) are interested in. July’s film tightens the focus a bit to explore the role family plays in contemporary American life, and the results are strange, sometimes funny, and aesthetically surprising.

Week 6
Wed., March 24
Journey into American Isolation 2
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) Charlie Kauffman (NETFLIX)

So. Speaking of aesthetically surprising…. True to form, Kauffman’s film dives into some uncomfortable territory (again, family, community, and a deep sense of isolation). It is, however, the film’s unusual emotional impact on the viewer that requires our attention. This is an unusually told story (if it can even be called a “story”).

And…because I don’t want to end our time together in this class on a down note (Kauffman is rarely accused of being uplifting!), I’d like to try to save a little time at the end to have a kind of free-form discussion about things we’ve all been watching lately (film & television) that have helped us through 2020 and that may or may not work within some of the themes we’ve been discussing in our weeks together. Make a list (I will need to…I’VE SEEN TOO MUCH!!!).

Many thanks!