The HBO Max Syllabus, Part 1

The context and resources you need to understand five canonical films

Well, it’s fully back-to-school season now, but hitting the books doesn’t always have to be such a drag! Case in point: getting a veritable film school education courtesy of the same platform that gives you access to FBoy Island. (I would also like to make sure you’re aware that season 2 of The Other Two also dropped on said platform today.)

Yes, thanks to having Turner Classic Movies (TCM) within the WarnerMedia umbrella, HBO Max has a plethora of international and historical titles in their vast cinematic library. Unlike the other platforms, which treat movies like Leonardo DiCaprio treats girlfriends (that is, useless if they’re more than 25 years old), you can get a real education in the classics of cinema with your subscription! Sometimes it’s daunting to approach these titles, though, because we tend to think anything that gets taught in a class is by definition musty and unapproachable.

But with the proper context and resources to appreciate why these movies endure in the cultural imagination, these can be inviting rather than imposing. Below, I’ve curated an initial list of five titles and some additional reading/viewing you can partake in so you can prime your viewing experience. (This was originally going to be a 10-film list … but Substack cut me off about halfway through the draft!)

FYI — this might be a post to bookmark and return to later. If you click the title of the email, you’ll be taken to this as a post on Substack that you can treat like any other URL. Or save the email somewhere you can find it later, you do you!


Black Girl — 1966, dir. Ousmane Sembène

If you’ve seen plenty of films about Africa but few from there, you couldn’t pick a better start than this concentrated hour-long burst of anti-colonialist fury. Ousmane Sembène scalding take on the travails of a Senegalese maid sent to live with a seemingly well-to-do French couple put the continent on the map for filmmaking — and still stuns with its power today.

BEFORE YOU WATCH:

Scholar Charles Signet introduces the film in a Sembène series at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center (3:20-11:30; there’s also a Q&A from after the screening that I haven’t watched but might be worthwhile!)

ADDITIONAL READING:

A.O. Scott reflects on the film at 50 in The New York Times

Another Gaze does a close reading of the film with an eye towards Sembène’s revolutionary tendencies

ADDITIONAL VIEWING/LISTENING:

Background on director Ousmane Sembène, the father of African cinema

Leila Latif gives a topline overview of Sembène’s full filmography

Angela Davis describes her relationship to Sembène as an artist and man

NPR’s John Powers contextualizes the film within the history of African cinema

A video essay breaking down color and contrast in the film


Bonnie & Clyde — 1967, dir. Arthur Penn

I first watched Bonnie & Clyde as a naive high-schooler just trying to knock out canonical classics and did not understand what all the fuss was about. But once I understood how the film functioned as a transitional moment between two versions of Hollywood — one stodgy, stuffy, and stiff and another edgy, daring, and rebellious — watching it again was like seeing it for the first time. There truly is a before and after this film in the history of the medium, but don’t miss out on the raucous joys of that pivot point.

BEFORE YOU WATCH:

TCM intro by Ben Mankiewicz

Director Arthur Penn describes breaking taboos with his approach to violence

ADDITIONAL READING:

How the film crossed paths with legendary French New Wave filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard

Two reviews from across the spectrum of opinion from the 1967 opening: Pauline Kael’s rave for The New Yorker, Bosley Crowther’s pan for The New York Times

A series of 50th-anniversary reflections worth your time — Owen Gleiberman for Variety, Chris Nashawaty for EW, Alissa Wilkinson for Vox

BBC explores how the final scene changed Hollywood

ADDITIONAL VIEWING/LISTENING:

Arthur Penn breaks down how he shot the shocking finale

Now You See It breaks down the opening scene to explore how the film reinvented Hollywood film grammar

The Unspooled podcast debates if the film deserves to be on AFI’s Top 100


In the Mood for Love — 2000, dir. Wong Kar-wai

This is a rare perfect movie — I don’t think there’s a thing I would change or a moment out of place. Wong Kar-wai’s longing-filled tale of two doomed lovers in 1962 Hong Kong is a pitch-perfect evocation of star-crossed romance in all its swooning, tragic beauty. The sound, the color, the camera movement … just let it suffocate you in its tantric pleasures. You have no idea how much emotion can be contained within just a glance or a graze.

BEFORE YOU WATCH:

Barry Jenkins discusses his connection to Wong Kar-wai

ADDITIONAL READING:

An IndieWire interview with Wong Kar-wai from the film’s release in 2001

The estimable Kent Jones explains why Wong Kar-wai is “the Jimi Hendrix of cinema” for Film Comment

A guide to how Wong Kar-wai visualizes emotion on-screen

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle reflects on the film’s 20th anniversary

ADDITIONAL VIEWING/LISTENING:

Video essayist Nerdwriter breaks down the film’s frames within frames

Echoes of In the Mood for Love in Moonlight


Pather Panchali — 1955, dir. Satyajit Ray

I’ll just let Akira Kurosawa describe Pather Panchali, a triumph of social realist drama that paved the way for a more globalized cinema: “I can never forget the excitement in my mind after seeing it. I have had several more opportunities to see the film since then, and each time I feel more overwhelmed. It is the kind of cinema that flows with the serenity and nobility of a big river.”

BEFORE YOU WATCH:

Film critic Derek Malcolm introduces the film and its history

ADDITIONAL READING:

A stylistic analysis of the film from the Oklahoma City Museum of Art

A close reading of Uma Das Gupta’s performance as Durga

The Paris Review gives some inspired dish pairings and recipes to pair with the film

ADDITIONAL VIEWING/LISTENING:

Novelist Salman Rushdie explains why Pather Panchali is his favorite movie of all time

A video essay breaking down the camera angles and movement

How preservationists saved Ray’s The Apu Trilogy for posterity (seriously, this is so cool)


Safety Last! — 1923, dir. Fred C. Newmeyer

There’s something that I find so satisfying about the intentionality and cleverness of silent comedy. If you know performers from this era, it’s probably Charlie Chaplin and maybe a little Buster Keaton. An undersung master from the period is Harold Lloyd, an aloof little guy who actually found the happy endings he sought. Among his films, none is finer or funnier than Safety Last! — which you probably know by its centerpiece stunt.

BEFORE YOU WATCH:

A remembrance of star Harold Lloyd from CBS Sunday Morning

ADDITIONAL READING:

Ed Park’s essay for The Criterion Collection

A live accompanist shares his thoughts on the challenges of scoring the film

How Harold Lloyd performed stunts while only having — get this — HALF OF HIS RIGHT HAND

ADDITIONAL VIEWING/LISTENING:

Bill Irwin and TCM pay tribute to Lloyd and silent-era gags

How and where they filmed that infamous clock sequence

A montage of Harold Lloyd’s best stunts


If you liked what you read here, might I recommend subscribing today? The next edition of the HBO Max syllabus will go exclusively to paid subscribers. Don’t miss out!


WEEKEND WATCHLIST

Well, it’s an odd weekend where I actually haven’t seen any new releases! (Candyman was not made available early for me to see for review.) I also needed/wanted the space here to include more links with the syllabus, so … seriously, watch one of those movies! And if you do while using the resources, please let me know — I’d love to hear from you.


That’s it for today! I’ll be in your inboxes on Monday with a list of 10 great 2021 movies that are already available for you to rent/stream. There have already been some great releases, and I assume many of them have flown under your radar just given *gestures broadly at the state of the world*

Brief programming note: for the next two weeks, I’ll largely be coming at you with some pre-scheduled content as most of my attention will be on covering the Venice Film Festival. Ciao ciao!

Yours in service and cinema,
Marshall