Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Free University Lectures from Coursera

A friend recently told us about Coursera.org, an organization that partners with universities across North America to provide free, online courses on a wide variety of topics including Business, Finance, Education, Computer Science, Mathematics, Law, Medicine, Humanities, Science, Music and Film.  The courses are taught by professors from the sponsoring universities, and can be streamed over the internet or downloaded as video files to play on your computer/audio devices.  They seem to range from 5-12+ weeks and may include homework or reading assignments and optional quizzes to test retention.  At the end of the course, a final quiz is given and a certificate is issued upon successful completion.  However there are no obligations and you can un-enroll from a course at any time.  This seems perfect for retirees looking for interesting activities without spending much money!

We have signed up for a 5 week course called The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color, taught by Scott Higgins, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  It looks at how changes in technology affected film making in terms of plot lines, directing and acting choices. The course focuses mainly on movies from 1928 through 1958, which starts off with silent movies, then investigates the impact of the adding sound, then colour to films.

Each week we watch a video where the professor introduces the major topic that will be explored, and then view two assigned movies that illustrate his points.  Prior to each movie, there is a short clip where he outlines what to look out for.  After watching the movie, there is a longer lecture where he disseminates and provides fascinating analysis on the film and how it reflected the topic in question.

It is up to the participant to find his own copy of the movies to watch, either through purchase, DVD rental or streaming online. Many of the movies on the syllabus are old and rare, but luckily, one of the other students on the course has been posting them on YouTube (many thanks for this!) The course had already started 2 weeks ago when we learned about it, so we have some catching up to do.  The first week was on silent movies. We learned how the lack of sound influenced film making in terms of style, visual imagery, lighting and plot. 

So far, we've watched the first movie called "Street Angel", a 1928 silent film by director Frank Borzagi, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.  This film, set in Italy, featured many concepts of silent films including operatic melodrama and thin plot lines that didn't necessarily make sense and relied much on coincidence.  A poor girl (Angela) tries her hand at solicitation and pickpocketing in an attempt raise money for her dying mother's medicine.  Caught on her clumsy first attempt, she is sentenced to the workhouse.  She escapes to find her mother already dead, runs away to start a new life and finds love with an artist (Gino).  Just as they are about to be married, Angela is recaptured by the law and sent back to jail, leaving Gino desolate and disillusioned.  But in the end, love is transcendent and conquers all.

The story is told visually as much as possible, with emotions magnified through facial expressions, exaggerated gestures, lighting and musical score.  Shadows are used frequently to create an expressionistic style and level of abstraction.  When the prisoners are led into the workhouse by the guard, their shadows precede them by a few seconds.  The professor pointed out motifs that repeated throughout the film, including the use of windows, fog, whistling, and the angelic painting that Gino paints of Angela, which becomes a symbol of their love and leads to their eventual reconciliation.

If this course is any indication, then we have many hours of stimulating learning ahead of us.  I have already signed up for a course on photojournalism called "The Camera Never Lies" that will start in June, and one on Social Psychology in July.

No comments:

Post a Comment