For the 13 weeks of the class, we've seen films that I've selected, which often highlighted themes that I felt were particularly relevant to explore changing ideas about cities. We've also spent much of our time looking and some pretty old films, representing my idea that we, as scholars (and practitioners!) of urban studies and planning, need to build up our foundations from the historical record; the syllabus brings us up to the cusp of the 21st century, but doesn't include anything from the last 15 years (when most of you have probably formed you own ideas about cities and the issues that define and confront them).
This focus was intentional, but also limiting: "What's past is prologue," as they say, but it is not the end of the story, and I expect that the next 100 years will have a lot of new things to say about both cities and films. Similarly, the films in the course have all been set in an American or European context; I expect that city films from other places might raise different issues—an important point for us to consider, given the rate of urbanization in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Luckily, the final paper will give us a chance to address these shortcomings; now it's your turn to pick the films and decide what themes you want to explore. The assignment—and it is intentionally very open-ended—is to select either one film and explore 2–3 themes through it, or alternatively, to select one theme and discuss it in the context of 2–3 films. Importantly, although you may certainly draw on your knowledge of the films from the syllabus, you are expected to do "outside research," identifying films about cities that we have not yet screened or discussed. (Note: Although I'm offering the chance to include more recent films, you can also decide to use old / classic films if you like—and if you are exploring a change in attitudes over time, you will definitely want to include some older films.)
Hopefully, it's obvious what I mean when I say, "select...one film and explore 2–3 themes through it"—this is what we've been doing all semester. Do remember, however, that you don't need to limit your discussion to just the one film: To strengthen your analysis, you may want to connect the issues and ideas you observe in one film with references to films from other times or periods; all I ask is that if you select this first option, the emphasis of your paper is to unbundle as much as you can from one film that we haven't yet discussed. As for the second option—"select one theme and discuss it in the context of 2–3 films"—some examples might help:
- Urban decay (or even "ruin porn") in films such as 8 Mile (2002) and the new Brick Mansions (2014; itself a remake of the 2004 French film, Banlieue 13);
- Car culture and the city, in films such as American Graffiti (1973), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and Drive (2011);
- Urban existence "After the Apocalypse," in films such as 28 Days Later (2002) or I Am Legend (2007);
- The city in children's films, such as The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment from Fantasia 2000 (2000), and Hugo (2011);
- Life in informal settlements, viewed from films such as City of God (2002) or Slumdog Millionaire (2008);
- A discussion of multiple films set in the same city, perhaps made in different eras (besides the obvious candidates of New York and Los Angeles, good options might be Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, or Boston; but you don't need to limit yourself to American cities…);
- A comparison of three films with the same story (a newcomer finds his / her way in the city; two people from "opposite sides of the tracks" fall in love; a poor person struggles to overcome unemployment; someone gets lost / trapped in the city / a neighborhood and can't get out, etc.) from three different parts of the world, or from three different historical periods.
Don't forget: Whenever possibly, please try to connect your ideas with the films and the readings we discussed in class. Every new thing you discover or learn is made all the more meaningful to the extent that you fit it into the fabric of what you already know, through comparison, contrast, refinement, and other techniques of synthetic knowledge generation.
The total length for the final paper should be 10–12 pages, although it can certainly be broken down into 2–3 shorter sections if that works better for you. Importantly, rather than focusing on the page count, focus on what you want to say, and use the pages you need to say it (and no more).
Other Things to Include
- Be sure you give your paper a title.
- Number your pages and include your name on each one.
- You don't need to include images, but you can if you want; both words and pictures can be useful when observing and describing films (and cities).
- As you write your ideas, you may want to review the Corrigan book, A Short Guide to Writing about Film.
Deadline & Submission
This paper is due at the final class session.
The examples below appear courtesy of MIT students and are used with permission. Examples are published anonymously unless otherwise requested.