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The Arcades Project as a Model for Film Studies

ENGL 291.401
instructor(s):
MW 3-4:30, Screenings M 4:30-6:30

When the Paris-based German intellectual Walter Benjamin committed suicide trying to escape Nazi-occupied France in 1940, he left behind one of the most daring and original uncompleted manuscripts of the twentieth century. Only recently translated into English in 1999, what survives as Benjamin's Arcades Project is an enormous text composed of hundreds of pages of quotations collected by Benjamin, interspersed with his commentary and organized into idiosyncratic categories like "Dream House, Museum, Spa," "Mirrors," "Boredom, Eternal Return," and "The Collector." Using the decaying Paris arcades (urban iron-and-glass precursors to the shopping mall) as his conceptual model, the Arcades Project was meant to be a history of 19th century capitalism, uncovering several decades after the fact "a world of secret affinities" that would be produced from a study of the previous era's "ruins."

Using Benjamin's work as our guide, this class will be organized around an analogous "twilight" moment in film culture: the superceding of downtown Philadelphia's "golden age" movie houses by suburban multiplex theaters. Looking to the Arcades Project as a model, we will construct online our own version "Chestnut Street" version of the project as a way both of coming to terms with the implications of Benjamin's radical philosophy of history, and also of understanding and posing some key questions about film as an institution and as an object of study. In addition to Benjamin's large work, we will read selected works in film studies by writers like AndrĂˆ Bazin and Dudley Andrew, read some fictional texts like Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant, study Philadelphia-based movies like Blow Out and 12 Monkeys, and survey some key concepts of urban studies. Most importantly, this class will introduce a wide array of possibilities for both traditional and non-traditional research, which will be required of all students in both individual and collaborative situations.