Mock Syllabus: The Body in Film
In my spare time, I have fun brainstorming how I would teach in the collegiate level. I’ve recently designed a few sketches of syllabi, in particular one course about The Body as a subject in film. There’s a huge swath of content available for such a large subject, and I would obviously need to narrow now the subject and content for an effective course. But for now, here are titles and artists I’d love to teach, each a vision on The Body.
Anything by David Cronenberg
I’d love to teach an entire course of Cronenberg. His oeuvre is rich with variety, from sci-fi classics (The Fly, Videodrome) to melodramas (Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly), to crime thrillers (Eastern Promises, A History of Violence). As the progenitor of body horror, it would be remiss of me to exclude such classics as Scanners or the exquisite Naked Lunch. However, If I’d have to pick one, I would select Dead Ringers. It’s masterful special effects combined with terrific acting by Jeremy Irons (playing a set of twin gynaecologists) makes for a fascinating film. The Bodies explored in this film are that of the twins, their relationship, as well as their relationship to women, a different turn from the more violent outbursts of other body horror classics. It’s also a work that’s relatively obscure as far as Cronenberg goes, with the Criterion Collection version sadly out of print. Regardless, you get double your DV of Iron(s) with this film!
Since I’m not picking a Cronenberg horror film, I’d include John Carpenter’s The Thing to the list. Set in the claustrophobic Antarctic American base, the film explores the notion of The Other. It’s production and immaculate detail are also worthy of note, and add to the discussion.
The film explores notions of the female body, pregnancy, rape, and the body’s connection to the spiritual. From this film, students could discuss the prevalence of female sexuality and victimhood in horror films.
Impossible to ignore, this film was truly ahead of its time in its treatment of spectacle and the disabled body. From here, topics such as disability in film, spectacle, constructed notions of ‘normal bodies’ (what I’d call the tyranny of the normal). Comparisons to contemporaneous films such as Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera or James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein could further discussion of pre-code and post-code films. And speaking of Frankenstein…
Frankensteins of all kinds
Bride of Frankenstein would be a must for the syllabus, in its exploration of unnatural creations and queer bodies. But the class could spend some time exploring why filmmakers continually revive the concept of Frankenstein. I have not seen Rocky Horror Picture Show yet, but I suspect its treatment of queer sexuality would be another avenue worth exploring.
Unsurprisingly, the horror genre has dominated this syllabus, but regrettably, so has Hollywood. While Akira animates its own form of body horror, the tensions surrounding Japanese society permeate the screen. Akira brings a distinctly important subject to the class, adolescence. Whether it be the (bodily) fears and desires of these youths, Akira dramatizes them on a larger scale through supernatural powers and larger government plots, all commingling together to form an explosive film.
How can we forget musicals, with their portrayals of the human body at its most agile. Films such as Top Hat illustrate the dynamic expression of emotion of the characters, while the more dour Dancer in the Dark takes this notion and explores what it means of a disabled body to express itself through song and dance. Then there are the Busby Berkeley musicals, which treat women as indistinguishable objects, intricately ornate decoration for his set pieces. Hopefully looking at musicals will cause students to examine them in a new light and give them a break from horror titles.
Bonus Book: BodyWorld by Dash Shaw
This imaginary course would be all film for consistency, but I’d love to teach this book. Perhaps I’d offer it as an extra credit assignment.Regardless, its exploration of the boundaries – and permeation – of our bodies and minds is at once beautiful and harrowing. Plus, the entire book is free to read online. Hopefully easy accessibility and the temptation of extra credit would inspire students to read it.
Possible essay questions:
- One subject we didn’t explore much in class was the trope of the body swap (Freaky Friday, Quantum Leap, etc.) Explore the significance of this trope. What insights do these films display for the viewers?