Sound and colour in Hollywood, another online course

Today I completed another online course, this time on the development of sound and colour in Hollywood cinema. It was half the duration of my last one, so it seems to have gone by rather fast, particularly as I didn’t exactly follow the prescribed two-films-and-four-lectures-per-week schedule; I started off well, then skipped a week and a half, so the last couple of weeks have had quite a lot of movie-watching crammed into them.

It also didn’t feel as “academic” as the last course (on fantasy and science fiction literature) that I completed. I think the lack of any meaningful coursework to complete didn’t help — last time there was an essay per week to write, but here we were only asked to complete easy, short quizzes — although I certainly subscribe to the notion that the real benefit of adult study is in an enhanced appreciation of the work (and the world) rather than a meaningless certificate. I didn’t really participate in the online community that formed around the course, either, at least not as much as I did last time, so I felt a little disconnected from the process of learning and struggled with motivation to continue at times.

Overall, though, the course was fascinating: from silent film through the dawn of sound; from black-and-white into the age of colour; and from the 1920s right up to almost the present day. The films were not your typical top ten either, but were chosen by the professor to illustrate the points he wanted to make on each topic. I particularly enjoyed Docks of New York (1928), Scarface (1932) and All That Heaven Allows (1955); the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1931) wasn’t as good as I thought it would be; and it was good to gain a detailed insight into my favourite director’s most stylised film, PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002). The lectures were never longer than half-an-hour, but still managed to contain plenty of insight into how filmmakers tackled the challenges of working with new technology — first revelling in the novelty of sound or colour, before its use becomes normalised and they can learn, over time, how to use it to effectively augment storytelling.

As with the previous literature course, I’m now left with a slightly heightened awareness of what I’ve been studying. It’s hard to just watch a film now without noticing how the costumes have been harmonised with the sets, or how lines and colours are used to focus the audience’s attention where the filmmaker wants it. I don’t know how university professors, or film critics, manage to ‘switch off’ if they ever want to watch something purely in the name of entertainment.

The next course on my schedule is an examination of storytelling and narrative in the context of online multiplayer gaming in June.

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