January 23, 2012 | Jeff Febus

Calvin students are looking at historical and cultural changes in American society via "film noir."

Between them history professor Jim Bratt and communication arts and sciences professor Bill Romanowski have a combined five decades of teaching experience at Calvin. Yet both say few courses they have taught top their current interim offering, "Film Noir and American Culture."

In fact, they say the class, which they team-taught in 2012 for the fourth time in the last five years, might be their favorite.

"I learn new things each time I watch a film that we study in the course," said Bratt. "Film noir is a rich art form that borrows from many different literary genres. That's fascinating to me."

Romanowski, who came up with the idea for the course, added: "We work well together. Jim and I have many shared interests of study that go back to the cross-disciplinary programs that we had as graduate students."

Film noir, moral ambiguity and gender

The term "film noir" means "dark film" and was used by the French to describe a genre of American films in the 1940s that focused on dark, cynical themes and were filled with a sense of moral ambiguity.

Many that the class studies were crime dramas, films such as The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart; Double Indemnity, starring Barbara Stanwyck; and Murder, My Sweet, featuring Dick Powell and Anne Shirley. Those movies often feature a male protagonist struggling with good and evil and a beautiful, alluring and dangerous femme fatale. 

The latter role, said Bratt, reflected gender stereotypes that were evolving during and shortly after World War II.

"During the war, females made up a big part of the American work force and they were beginning to take more positions of power," he said. "This theme is reflected in film noir where you see men losing control and the women, particularly the femme fatale holding the power."

Messy themes and production schemes

Another theme reflected in film noir is the psychological mess left at home because of World War II. 

"You had men leaving their families behind for the war and then going through horrific experiences overseas," said Bratt. "They were also often part of an intense male bonding experience, working together in a military unit under extreme duress. Trying to adjust to home life after the war was not easy and often times messy."

Those messy themes, he added, were what made film noir appealing to the America masses as they provided an outlet to the dark realities of wartime and post-war America. 

According to Romanowski, who has a book upcoming on the protestant church’s attempts to control Hollywood entertainment, film noir also provided new production schemes as World War II left a shortage of supplies and materials, forcing producers and directors to make do with less. The result was films that featured simple set design, less lightning and literally a darker look. In addition, filmmakers began to experiment with different camera equipment and different camera angles.

Students in the course watched a film each day and were involved in a group discussion following the viewing. The students also were required to keep a journal detailing their analysis of each film in addition to writing a series of response papers.

Neo-Calvinism in the movies

One of the areas the course takes a close look at is film and neo-Calvinistic thinking, something Romanowski said film noir is well suited to describe.

"Film noir provides the viewer with both a sense of good and evil,” he said, “and a sense that we are not in control. Then the films tie things to historical events in a cinematic style. That's great art." Bratt, who is writing a biography of Dutch Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper, agreed. "When you look down the menu of theological doctrine, film noir is pretty big on original sin and total depravity although it is a little thin on redemption," he said. "It makes us ask questions.”

Both professors said the students in the course, who represent a diverse set of academic majors, keep them excited about teaching the interim.

"We get a wide range of students in the course which is fun," said Romanowski. "We have film (studies) production students, history majors, philosophy and gender studies majors and folks from engineering and the business department. The great thing is that it brings several different viewpoints to our discussions in class."

Both professors also appreciate that the class usually draws students who are simply interested in learning something new.

"So many students nowadays take a class with the idea of 'credentialing' or putting something on their resume,'" said Bratt. "Here, they can take a breath, learn something new and use interim for what it was intended to be."

Changes at Calvin in attitudes to films

Bratt remembers the days when studying film was frowned upon at Calvin College. He also remembers being a part of the first Calvin College course that studied film back in the late 1960s as a student. The class was taught by Calvin art professor Edgar Boevé and focused on European art cinema.

Since then, thanks in large part to Romanowski’s efforts in the early 1990s (soon after he came to Calvin), the college has brought film to the classroom in significant ways, including the development of a film studies major. And next year Romanowski and Bratt will teach an honors course on film and culture in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It used to be that high art was looked at as being more deserving (of study) than mass art," said Bratt. "Those views have changed. I think we now realize that pop culture is what the masses are going to observe and absorb. So it makes sense to study it (pop culture) too."

Recent stories