Finding the profound in the profane

Illustration by Trevor Robertson

Hollywood is one of the most prominent and pervasive voices in American culture. Over a century it has evolved from the silent era to the talkies, through musicals, westerns, noirs, to the invention of the summer blockbuster and now to this generation’s obsession with the midnight release.

It’s seen a golden age, a silver age, a renaissance and been regularly assaulted every few decades by directors trying to make 3D films respectable. But, it’s a voice that too often goes unchecked and unanalyzed.

Enter Steve Hall, an adjunct professor who teaches in UVU’s department of Humanities. For the fourth year in a row, he’s offering a class on postmodern Hollywood, which casts a critical eye on America through the films it creates.

“Some of the most profound realities about our culture hide in plain sight,” Hall said. “I think that there’s a lot to be learned from just average Hollywood films. And I think you can actually understand America better by reading the ideology underneath the films that are the most popular.”

Postmodern Hollywood, offered this summer as HUM 320R, is the flagship class of Hall’s project to explore America through its pop culture. A project he started to promote critical thinking and to flex his film analysis muscles that he had developed while studying for his master’s at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“My project is to look for the profound in the profane, and I feel like that’s what I teach students to do,” Hall said. “The students who are ready to do that work, I think they will recognize that the secular space—the pop culture space—is a space that is not nearly as shallow as they thought it was in some ways, and in other ways it’s even more shallow.”

Hall mentioned “Die Hard” and “Blade Runner” as part of his curriculum, but he called on “Back to the Future” as an example of what he teaches.

“It’s a movie that a lot of people love, it’s a movie that a lot of people watch quite often in their movie routine,” Hall said as he went on to explain that a simple analysis of the film shows how it promotes 1950’s gender roles—the idea that men should initiate relationships and when women do, those relationships go sour and the families that they create are diseased.

“[This class] is kind of giving students the chance to slow down when they’re looking at movies they’ve seen their whole lives and realize the kind of messaging they have been raised on.”

By teaching students to respond to their critical resistance instinct—something that Hall thinks modern academia too often stifles or denies—he hopes to promote a generation of mindful viewers who understand their cultural identity and can hold Hollywood accountable.

Students in the class will watch about 15 films from different genres of Hollywood and study them chronologically. The two-hour class is divided into two parts, the first hour devoted to studying cinema history and the second hour being what Hall calls a “deep tissue” analysis of the films the students watch outside of class.

“This is our art,” said Hall. “The movies, the television, this is what we have to contribute to the world as a country. And trying to understand what we’re contributing relates to broader world traditions. I think that’s the story I want them to know about their own country and about their own identity

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