U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rachel Carson Docudrama

Do you use film in intellectual history courses?

I hadn’t thought about it before, though I did see a fairly interesting film on Gertrude Stein. However, I just flipped to PBS and there is this stunning docudrama about Rachel Carson on. It is an actress portraying Rachel Carson in the last year of her life, delivering all of her ideas. Might make interesting watching in a class (though it might be slow for undergrads. I love films with careful characterization and interesting dialogue, but not all undergrads do).

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Short Answer: I often use films as primary sources in intellectual history courses (e.g. King Vidor’s The Crowd when thinking about 1920s social thought or World War II films in my course on the Second World War in history and memory). I don’t much use film as a secondary source, though earlier this year I almost showed my history of conservatism class the documentary “Arguing the World” about the neoconservatives in the lefty, CUNY days. But I generally avoid using narrative film as a secondary source.

  2. Good point! I’ve used film as primary sources, as well.

    What is your hesitation to use it as a secondary source? I can remember my profs using it, but come to think, I don’t think I ever have (in my still limited experience).

  3. Force of habit, first and foremost, I guess.

    There are lots of wonderful documentaries out there (and I do use them….just not, as it turns out, in an intellectual history context). There’s a wonderful (if long) film about Heidegger called THE ISTER that I would certainly use if I were ever teaching Heidegger (Dasein help me!).

    But you asked about docudramas, and there I guess I feel that most provide too little bang for the buck. And I do think that teaching fiction as a secondary source raises problems. Not insurmountable ones, perhaps. But it makes things more complicated than I’d want them to be…at least in an undergrad course. The one narrative film that I’ve toyed with using most recently in this way was I’M NOT THERE in the context of teaching a unit on Bob Dylan in a course on the Sixties (not quite intellectual history, I know).

  4. I’m a big fan of well done documentaries (e.g. Fog of War, The Weather Underground, etc.). But I’m also a fan of entertaining, pointed, and slanted documentaries as teaching tools (e.g. Michael Moore stuff). On the latter, however, it’s the criticism and history portions (faulty or no) that are emphasized in discussions. I use the well done documentaries more, but I won’t shy away from a little controversy to shake things up.

    As for docudramas, the closest I would come (sans perhaps this Carson example) are American Experience re-enactments. – TL

  5. Docudrama’s can certainly be of varying levels of excellence. What struck me about the Rachel Carson show was that it was just an actress delivering ideas drawn from Carson’s writings straight into the camera. I found it captivating.

  6. I’m a little late to the conversation here, sorry! I use a lot of film in my classes, but I agree with Ben that using films as secondary sources is problematic, since you then have to talk about issues of historical representation and interpretation. We do this with textual secondary sources too, of course, but students are more likely to receive films as unmediated representations of the past than they are written texts, I’ve found. And so the conversation becomes more difficult.
    In terms of intellectual history, I sometimes use films, or clips from films, to explicate certain theoretical concepts or perspectives. For example, I show a clip from Moulin Rouge to demonstrate postmodernism. Today, we’re discussing Do The Right Thing as a critique of multiculturalism. I wish I could find a film to demonstrate every intellectual movement I discuss – the students love it.

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