The Craft of Writing – Alternative Realities
R1B - 003 | CCN: 14783
Harry Burson & Lisa Jacobson
In our fractured current political climate, “alternative” versions of reality are a hotly debated topic, from Facebook newsfeed bubbles to talk radio and cable news. The exploration of alternative realities is hardly limited to news media, however: film, television, and other audio-visual media such as virtual reality aim to create immersive worlds that present alternatives to our own.
Since its invention, film has promised to give humans the ability to record and reproduce reality. A founding myth of cinema claims that audience members watching the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1896 were so convinced by the illusion that they flung themselves out of the path of the train moving across the screen. Film, the story implies, can come so close to reality that it might even be confused for reality itself. What happens, then, when film turns its supposed realism toward depicting worlds other than our own, worlds that are unreal and unknown? In this course, we will explore how film, television, and other media can create alternatives realities and how these other worlds reflect back on our own. How might they call into question existing stereotypes, worldviews, and power dynamics – or, possibly at the same time, reinforce them?
We begin the course by examining the claim that film has a unique connection to an objective reality, and how that might differ from other media such as writing or painting. We will explore a variety of films from different eras and genres, each presenting an alternative reality. We will develop observational and analytical skills in class and through short writing assignments to ask questions about how these films present worlds that are expressly not our own. What new perspectives can these films open up for their viewers that supposed realism cannot? Our weekly excursions into other worlds will range from the technological dystopia of The Matrix (1999), to very different visions of space travel in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and the Afrofuturist Space is the Place (1974), to a counterfactual Nazi- and Imperial-Japanese-occupied America in The Man in the High Castle (2015-). We will also consider immersive technologies such as 3D and VR. Alongside our film viewings, we will read articles and scholarship, which will provide us with historical details and theoretical tools to discuss the films within a larger context.
Over the course of the semester, we will practice translating our process of analyzing films into your own analytical writing and research. We will build on frequent short in-class and at-home writing exercises with two longer writing assignments, the Midterm Project and Final Project. By the end of the course, you should be able to identify various cinematic techniques and analyze their roles within a film; draw connections among films and readings; conduct relevant research; create your own original arguments that address the larger questions of the course; and strengthen your writing by incorporating feedback from your classmates and instructors. This will help prepare you not only for writing in Film & Media and across the humanities, but also for critically engaging with the media you encounter every day.