HUM 425-01 | Thought and Image
Spring 2018
Room: HUM  121 | M/W 12:35 – 1:50 PM
Office: HUM 416, Office Hour: Monday 1:50 – 2:50 PM
E-mail: theory at sfsu dot edu | Office Phone: 415-338-1154 (no voice mail)
Course Website:
Prerequisite: ENG 114 or equivalent.

This course satisfies the following requirements: GE Segment Three.

Electronic version of course syllabus
Spring 2018 HUM 425

This course will make judicious use of iLearn, however, I do not expect it to be turned on for students until the second week of the semester.



This course comparatively reads the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Todd Haynes, and Ranier Werner Fassbinder alongside the concept of dispositif (apparatus, or concrete social formation) in the social theory of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.

. . . they are all trying desperately to make their thoughts and desires their own … None of the protagonists come to see that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from social reality or are manipulated by it —Ranier Werner Fassbinder

Using Brecht’s revolutionary theater techniques—variously referred to as distanciation, alienation, Verfremdungseffekt (don’t worry, I can’t say it either)—but extending them further in cinematic language through the subversive use melodrama (he referred to his films as experiments in the form), Sirk’s 1950’s films are exquisitely crafted critiques of American society, showing even in their architecture the complex forms of social control surrounding gender, race, and class. Frequently staged on lush sets and filmed in gorgeous technicolor—often completely over the top, a bit too much might be an understatement—Sirk’s films are the very definition of art and distance.

My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It’s a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other —Ranier Werner Fassbinder

Our first melodrama will be Douglas Sirk’s most contained experiment with the form: his critique of patriarchy, class, and American society in All That Heaven Allows (1955). We will then do a close reading of Michel Foucault’s “Means of Correct Training” from his Discipline and Punish in order to make use of these tools throughout our study. After All That Heaven Allows, the first half of the semester will include Todd Haynes’ 2002 homage to the films of Sirk, Far from Heaven, and Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 tribute, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

Students will be introduced to the concept of mise-en-scène as a primary tool for thinking the art of cinema, and to melodrama as a genre classification. In the second half of the semester, we will use these analytical tools to further study films, think melodrama in relation to Guy Debord’s concept of spectacle, and consider Elizabeth Anker’s provocative thesis on melodrama and politics in the post 9/11 era: that our contemporary political world is best read through the lens of the soap opera. At the end of the semester, students will be able to select a melodrama of their own choosing to research and write about as part of their final paper assignment. Students will be consulted about the works we choose to study in the second half of the semester (for approximately three weeks of the schedule) or, alternately, if we choose expand our analysis of other themes from the first part of the semester. We will make these decisions together: this is your class. Everyone is welcome in this class. It is important that we create a shared learning environment where everyone is allowed to have a voice. Given what is happening in the world, it is important that we strive to be supportive and respectful of our differences, our contributions, and our points of view. This is an inclusive class in every sense of the word.

Required Articles (available as PDF’s)

Optional articles


Films (Viewed in Class)

  • Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows (USA/1955)
  • Todd Haynes, Far From Heaven (USA/2002)
  • Ranier Werner Fassinder, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (West Germany/1973)
  • Todd Haynes, Safe (USA, 1995)
  • Todd Haynes, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (USA/1987)
  • Frederic Wiseman, High School (USA/1968)

I want to consult with students on the films we watch and study in the second part of the term. The following is a list of possible films that can be added to this course.

  • Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days (USA, 1995)
  • RW Fassbinder, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (West German, 1972) (mini-series)
  • Todd Haynes, Mildred Pierce (USA, 2011) (mini-series)
  • Wong Kar-Wai, In the Mood for Love (Hong Kong, 2000)
  • Oscar Michaex, God’s Step Children (USA, 1938)
  • Tsai Ming-Liang, The Hole (Taiwan, 1999)
  • Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life (USA, 1959)
  • Douglas Sirk, Written on the Wind (USA/1956)