Syllabus | Values in American Life | HUM 225 | SFSU 2016


This course explores genres in American popular culture. What do genre films and literature have to teach us about American life? Since the 1970’s, genre theory has focused on the conventions and tropes of narrative films, including: film production and the studio system, the relation of specific films and genres to social conventions, norms and context, and theories of authorship. In this course, we will study the basics of genre theory and look at how genre films make use of cinematic conventions—those scenes you have seen so many times before, in so many different ways, that you expect to see them again and again depending on the type or genre of film (western, zombie, porn, action, etc.). Genre films reflect, and sometimes critique, social conventions, norms, and values. In its broadest sense, and perhaps taking our lead from film noir, this course will ask how genre films and literature have exposed what it means to live in the historical present (broadly conceived as the period since WW2).


In addition to genre theory, students will be introduced to the concept of mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene is a French term, borrowed from the theater, that literally means “putting into the scene.” It refers to all of the visual elements the director places in the film frame—e.g. setting, costumes and make-up, lighting, staging (movement and acting)—in order to affect the viewer. Studying mise-en-scene will enable students to begin to learn the unique visual language of film, which is completely different from how narrative meaning is made. (The latter is likely the only way you’ve ever learned to think about and read films.) How do films affect us? What is the relation between how they affect us and their unique forms? How have genre film directors used mise-en-scene to critically expose the limits of race, gender, and sex in American culture?

Melodrama, Noir, Women’s film

A large portion of this course is devoted to the study and analysis of what is known as the women’s film. (This has nothing to do with contemporary “chick flicks.”) The concept of melodrama as a genre classification has been expanded in recent years by feminist scholarship, pointing to its connections to noir and the women’s picture. Indeed, melodramas were originally films that consisted of dastardly criminals with bushy mustaches tying women to train tracks: the first action films! We will carefully analyze the films of Douglas Sirk and Todd Haynes, paying particular attention to issues of race, gender, and sex, and compare and think melodrama (and the women’s film) in relation to film noir, literature, and social theory. Students will be introduced to noir and its critical reception, its foundations in other forms, and its influence on other film genres, including zombie films.

The first half of the course provides students with foundations for the critical analysis of film. The second half gives students the opportunity to use that knowledge to analyze (mostly recent) films. Vincenzo Natali’s Splice will be analyzed in relation to gender and social norms, as well as film genres. Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days will be studied in relation to French theorist Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. The course will culminate with a reading of James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce together with Todd Haynes’ multilayered mini-series adaptation.

Cross-cultural comparisons will be made through the use of European interpretations of American culture in the writings of Fassbinder, Borde/Chaumeton, and comparatively with the work of French theorist Guy Debord. Students will be introduced to critical terms such as spectacle, mise-en-scéne, genre studies, and auteur theory placed in the context of literature, philosophy, and social theory.

Please note: this is a Humanities course that brings together philosophy, literature and film. Our study and analysis of these forms of expression is meant to provide examples for thinking complex issues in American life. The focus on genre theory and mise-en-scene–typically taught in film courses—is included to provide the necessary structure for students to learn to think critically about the formal properties of film/media, so that they can more adequately address the larger issues surrounding these works, including the social contexts in which they have been made. I believe passionately that American students need foundations for thinking about the critical language of film. That said, this is not a cinema studies course. It is a Humanities course in its scope, aims, content and context.



  • Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton – A Panorama of American Film Noir
  • Barry Keith Grant – Film Genre: From Iconography to Ideology
  • James M. Cain – Mildred Pierce


FILMS (Shown in Class)

  • Robert Aldrich – Kiss Me Deadly (USA, 1955)
  • Rick Famuyiwa – Dope (USA, 2015)
  • Todd Haynes – Far From Heaven (USA, 2002)
  • Todd Haynes – Mildred Pierce (USA, 2011)
  • Vincenzo Natali – Splice (USA, 2010)
  • Dan O’ Bannon – Return of the Living Dead (USA, 1985)
  • George Romero – Night of the Living Dead (USA, 1968)
  • George Romero – Diary of the Dead (USA, 2007)
  • Douglas Sirk – All That Heaven Allows (USA, 1955)
  • Douglas Sirk – Imitation of Life (USA, 1957)
Electronic Version of Course Syllabus

I was thinking of revisionist genre films of the ’70s, and what it was that made those genres feel relevant again. Films like The Godfather, The Exorcist, Klute, Chinatown, Network and The Parallax View: They were drawn from the genre tradition, but they dressed down the stylistic telling of those traditions and genres. There’s a pulled-back quality to them that I liked. The audience feels like there’s room for them to find things themselves in those films. The locations feel like real places with natural light. There’s a relatability. I felt like, well, this is TV, I want people to feel drawn into the story and still feel respected as viewers.

—Todd Haynes on Mildred Pierce

© Copyright 2013 – 2016 | Rob Thomas, Ph.D.