Medical Visions

INSTITUTION: Brown University

INSTRUCTOR: Chris Amirault (email:

Department of Modern Culture and Media

ENROLLMENT: undergraduate seminar; elective

SEMESTER: Spring 1998

Tu Th 10:30-11:50 am

screenings: Mon and Wed 7 pm


This course explores the relationship between medicine and visual representation by reading medical films with and against the work of theorists in film studies, medical humanities, and cultural studies. Modern medicine, photography, and film developed concurrently in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and several theorists have proposed that correspondences among the three have important implications for our understanding of vision, modernity, and subjectivity. Specifically, the question of what we can know through vision has been posed by film theory, theories of medical culture and history, and several films themselves. This course takes the epistemology of medical vision as its central object, tracing both its promise and its problems.

In the first few weeks, we will establish the historical and theoretical frames for the course, paying special attention to cinematic narrative and space. We will then consider the genre of the medical film and think about its relation to the genres of documentary, horror, melodrama, and the social problem film. These generic considerations will also allow us to explore the place of psychoanalysis in the medical film, which has been important for film theory, film history, and many films themselves. Finally, we will conclude the course by considering the implications of postmodern theory for the medical film, specifically by analyzing the representation of disease, doctors, and patients in four recent films.


You must purchase the following at the Brown Bookstore:

Jean Baudrillard, Simulations

Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic

Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Janet Walker, Couching Resistance

Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body is recommended (we’ll read most of it).

You must also obtain copies of the articles and book excerpts listed in the course outline, either as a copy packet from Jo-Art copy or from the reserve desk at Rockefeller Library. Be sure to bring your copies of the assigned readings to class with you on the appropriate days. Finally, you will be expected to be familiar with the basic terminology of film analysis; if you’re unsure what that means, you should obtain and study a copy of Bordwell and Thompson’s Film Art.


You must attend screenings of the films listed below. Screenings will be held on Monday and Wednesday evenings at 7:00 pm in Solomon 203. You are strongly encouraged to see the films twice, particularly those about which you expect to write your papers. To insure that you are prepared to discuss and write about the films, you must take detailed notes, not only on plot and characterization but also on other cinematic elements such as framing, editing, mise en scene, and sound. If you are unsure how to take good notes on a film, come and see me.


Although this course is meant to explore a certain "content" — here the correspondence between medicine and film — as a sophomore seminar in Modern Culture and Media it is also meant to help you learn to read and write more effectively. As such, the writing for the course emphasizes regular short assignments as well as two longer assignments.

Weeklies: Most Thursdays, you will have to write a formal, 1-2 page paper that presents a close reading of a section from that week’s texts. The primary function of these weekly papers is to give you an opportunity to practice the kind of reading and writing expected in this course, in a format that is shorter and less time-consuming than full-fledged papers. Furthermore, because each weekly is worth a mere 4% of your final grade, and because I will include only the top five in your final grade, there is less at stake in each one. Even if it takes you a few weeks to start writing strong weeklies, you can still do well overall.

These weekly papers consist of two parts, each of which will be graded separately. The longer section should be a close reading of a piece of the text for that week — a sentence, paragraph, page, shot, or scene — in which you analyze the intricacies located there; you can write on any text we’ve read or screened for that week. This section will be graded on the standard letter grade system described below. Because I have come to understand that my particular expectations of close reading and careful writing often establish new and challenging criteria for many students used to different grading standards, I have tried here to explain those criteria as carefully as possible.

When we read a text, we often assume that everyone else sees the same thing that we do, but that is rarely true. Your task is first and foremost to show the reader how you made meaning from the text, and that requires careful attention. Furthermore, when we read, we have a tendency to read quickly, and as a result we often miss subtle things about the text that closer attention reveals. Your reading should be a slow one that focuses on the confusions, tensions, contradictions, difficulties, even silences of the text.

Thus, the paper should demonstrate how the passage you’ve chosen makes meaning, raises certain questions, and challenges other readings. It should not retell a scene or summarize the plot, nor review general "themes," nor evaluate the text; such papers will receive low grades. So that I can follow you, you need to do a few things. Be sure to incorporate the text you’re exploring by inserting each piece of it (a quote, a brief description of a scene or shot) in the appropriate place in your paper. Most weeklies should refer to only a couple of pieces. As you write, continue to refer back to the specific elements — words, phrases, sentences, shots — that support your reading. Take me with you. You may see connections to larger issues raised by the text, and you should feel free to explore their meanings and implications — but only insofar as they are explicitly addressed in the passage you’re reading. In doing so, you’ll have to distinguish between things that you can draw from the text and those that you bring to the text.

The second part, the discussion question, should follow from your reading, and thus it should be explicitly related to the text you’ve been discussing as well. Your task is to expand upon your reading and to suggest a lively discussion topic. Ask yourself: what are the implications of the things you’ve found? in what ways is this passage raising questions that could be asked elsewhere in the text? Avoid yes-or-no questions, which are discussion killers. This question will be graded S/NC and scored separately from the responses in the final grades.

I will accept as many weeklies as you wish to write, up to a possible total of ten. You must write at least two responses on films and two on written texts. At the end of the semester, I’ll drop your lowest grades until you’re left with five responses. Since I will grade your papers with a similar attention to these issues, I urge you to work on these responses and to hand in all ten; after all, they often make great first drafts for ideas you can develop at length later.

Papers: You are required to write two longer papers, due 3/13 and 5/5. Each paper must be at least 8 and no more than 10 pages long. For the first paper you may take a one week late slip and pass in your paper the following week; simply write me a brief note on the day the paper is due.

Paper topics are up to you. You probably will want to stick to the texts we’re reading in class; no outside reading or research is required. "Experimental" formats are only hesitatingly encouraged. No matter what mode of expression you choose, you will still be obliged to make sense to this reader.

Proposals: For each paper you must write a proposal, due 2/27 and 4/17. These proposals should be one full page (no more, no less) and single spaced. In your proposal, propose a paper; don’t feel compelled to write a summary of a paper that you haven’t written yet. Some things to explore in a proposal include:

a detailed explanation of what you think your purpose/thesis/argument will be;

a list of the texts you’ll be reading;

a description of the analytical process you expect to pursue in your reading;

some of the problems you are encountering or you expect to encounter;

a set of central questions you hope to ask and consider;

an explanation of why you’re writing this paper.

On the day a proposal is due, you should bring in four (4) copies of the proposal. I will read one copy, and three of your classmates will read a copy. The following week, everyone will return their responses to the writers. Proposals will be graded S/NC and will be incorporated as part of your "etcetera" grade below.


Papers, proposals, and weeklies must be written on a computer or a typewriter; they must have your name and the date against the top right margin of the first page; papers and weeklies must be double-spaced, with page numbers and reasonable margins. No title pages, please. You are expected to write your papers using the MLA style of citation (or another standard style if you are already proficient in it); papers that do not employ a consistent and adequate manner of citation will be marked down. Papers that are handwritten, late, or too short will receive an NC. You are required to complete all assigned work to receive a final grade. Incompletes are for students confronting emergencies; if you have one, please let me know so that we can figure something out.

Class Time: This class will be conducted as a seminar, and class time will focus primarily on discussion and, less so, on brief lectures. Class will usually follow the same basic structure. If I have any material I wish to present, I will do so at the beginning of class. After that, I will usually ask you to write for five minutes on one or two discussion questions that I’ll provide from my reading and from your responses. The rest of class will be devoted to exploring the implications of the discussion questions for the day’s texts; periodically I may ask you to stop and write about the discussion itself. We will frequently screen clips.

I expect everyone to come prepared for class by having read the texts for the day, written any assignments, and considered topics for discussion. Regular attendance is required. You are allowed a total of four (4) absences. After that, each additional absence will result in your final grade dropping by 1/3 (from a B- to a C+, for example). As a result, I urge you not to be absent unless you absolutely cannot make class.


Papers will be graded on a standard letter grading scale with pluses and minuses:

* An A means that I find that the paper to be essentially understandable and coherent. An A paper negotiates the texts and issues it discusses with clarity and precision, and it develops ideas I find interesting and thoughtful. It has few (if any) errors and exhibits a strong, consistent sense of the reader in terms of structure, transitions, and tone. Its precision of language is outstanding.

* A B means that while overall I understood the paper, in spots I got lost or confused, often because of contradictions in logic or lack of support for statements; this usually makes the paper seem less thoughtful. A B paper demonstrates less clarity and precision than an A paper. It addresses the assignment and has few errors. Finally, it exhibits some sense of the reader in terms of structure, transitions, and tone but may in a few spots be inconsistent or imprecise.

* A C means that I found the paper difficult to understand. It may address the assignment generally but doesn’t seem to have a specific focus, thesis, or purpose. There are usually many inconsistencies of tone, organization, or logic, all of which prevent the reader from being able to make sense of the paper. It can have a few, or many, errors.

* An NC means that I didn’t understand the paper at all. This usually happens because the paper doesn’t address the assignment or the texts in any clear or coherent way.

Although my grading system may not be familiar to you, it is not arbitrary, and I make every effort to be as clear and consistent as I can about grades. If you ever have a question about why you received the grade you did, please come and talk to me.

Final grades will be calculated as follows:

Weeklies: five highest grades at 4% each20%

Two Longer Papers: 60%

Etcetera: Discussion questions, proposals, class participation20%

One last note: We are building a small, fragile community in this class, so I expect everyone to treat everyone else in it with respect.


Part I: Modernity and the Visual Culture of Medicine

Week 1. Introduction to Course.

Jan 23: introduction.

Week 2. From Medical Photography to Film.

screening and viewing: Selections from Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscopes, Hugh Diamond’s Physiognomy of Insanity, Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne’s The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, and others.

Jan 28 reading: Michel Foucault, "Preface," The Lessons of the Hospitals," "Signs and Cases," "Seeing and Knowing" from The Birth of the Clinic.

Jan 30 reading: Lisa Cartwright, "Science and the Cinema," "`Experiments of Destruction’: Cinematic Inscriptions of Physiology," and "An Etiology of the Neurological Gaze" from Screening the Body.

assignment: weekly paper (required).

Week 3. Filmic and Medical Narratives.

screenings: D. W. Griffith, The Country Doctor (1912); Randa Haines, The Doctor (1991).

Feb 4 reading: David Bordwell, "Story Causality and Motivation" and "Classical Narration" from The Classical Hollywood Cinema [CP]; Kathryn Hunter, "A Science of Individuals: Medicine and Uncertainty" from Doctors’ Stories: The Narrative Structure of Medical Knowledge [CP].

Feb 6 reading: Kathryn Hunter, "Knowledge in Medicine: Reading the Signs" from Doctors’ Stories [CP]; Arthur Kleinman, "The Meaning of Symptoms and Disorders" from The Illness Narratives [CP].

assignment: weekly (required).

Week 4. Patient Body, Patient Space.

screening: Neal Jimenez and Michael Steinberg, The Waterdance (1991).

Feb 11 reading: Bordwell, "Space in the Classical Film" from The Classical Hollywood Cinema [CP]; Linda Williams, "Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions" from Rosen, Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology [CP].

Feb 13 reading: Foucault, "Spaces and Classes" from The Birth of the Clinic; Foucault, "Space, Power, and Knowledge" from During, The Cultural Studies Reader [CP]; Foucault, "Truth and Power" from Power/Knowledge [CP].

assignments: weekly (required).

Part II: The Medical Film and Genre

Week 5. Medical Film as Documentary.

screening: Frederick Wiseman, Titicut Follies (1967).

Feb 20 reading: Jonathan Crary, "Modernity and the Problem of the Observer" from Techniques of the Observer [CP]; Michel Foucault, "The Eye of Power" from Power/Knowledge [CP].

assignment: weekly.

Week 6. Medical Film as Melodrama.

screening: Douglas Sirk, Magnificent Obsession (1954).

Feb 25 reading: Richard Meyer, "Rock Hudson’s Body" from Fuss, Inside/Out [CP].

Feb 27 reading: Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama" and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Minnelli and Melodrama" from Gledhill, Home is Where the Heart Is [CP].

assignment: proposal for paper one (bring in four copies).

Week 7. Medical Film as Horror.

screening: Alfred L. Werker, Shock (1946).

Mar 4 reading: Sigmund Freud, "Femininity" from the Standard Edition v.22 [CP]; Mary Ann Doane, "Clinical Eyes: The Medical Discourse" from The Desire to Desire [CP].

Mar 6 reading: Freud, "Prefatory Remarks" and "The Clinical Picture" from Dora: [A Fragment of] An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.

assignment: weekly.

Week 8. Medical Film as Social Problem Film.

screening: Anatole Litvak, The Snake Pit (1948).

Mar 11 reading: Freud, "The First Dream," "The Second Dream," and "Postscript" from Dora: [A Fragment of] An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.

Mar 13 reading: Janet Walker, "The Institutional Edifice" from Couching Resistance; Leslie Fishbein, "The Snake Pit: The Sexist Nature of Sanity" [CP]; Michael Shortland, "Screen Memories: Towards a History of Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis in the Movies" [CP, read through article page 431].

assignment: paper one due.

Week 9. Filming Freud.

screening: John Huston, Freud (1962).

Mar 18 reading: Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, "On The Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena,"Case 1: Fraulein Anna O.," and "Case 2: Frau Emmy von N." from Studies on Hysteria, the Standard Edition v.2 [CP]; Freud, "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through" from the Standard Edition v.12 [CP]; Foucault, "Body/Power" from Power/Knowledge [CP].

Mar 20 reading: Michael Shortland, "Screen Memories" [CP, 431-end]; Janet Walker, "Psychiatrists and Cinema: A Correspondence" from Couching Resistance.

assignment: weekly.

Spring Break.

Part III: Contemporary Medical Film and Postmodernity

Week 10. AIDS Allegorized.

screening: Wolfgang Petersen, Outbreak (1994).

Apr 1 reading: Susan Sontag, Illness As Metaphor.

Apr 3 reading: Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors; Randy Shilts, "Behold, A Pale Horse" from And the Band Played On [CP]; Simon Watney, "Missionary Politics: AIDS, Africa, and Race" [CP].

assignment: weekly.

Week 11. AIDS Documented.

screening: Tom Joslin and Robert Friedman, Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993).

Apr 8 reading: Foucault, "Open Up a Few Corpses" and "The Visible Invisible" from The Birst of the Clinic; Douglas Crimp, "Portraits of People with AIDS" from Grossberg et al, Cultural Studies [CP].

Apr 10 reading: Donna Haraway, "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse" from Simians, Cyborgs, and Women [CP].

assignment: weekly.

Week 12. Postmodern Doctors.
screening: David Cronenberg, Dead Ringers (1988).

Apr 15 reading: Jean Baudrillard, Simulations.

Apr 17 reading: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Axiomatic" from The Epistemology of the Closet [CP].

assignment: proposal for paper two (bring in four copies).

Week 13. Postmodern Patients.

screening: Todd Haynes, Safe (1995).

Apr 22 reading: Foucault, "A Political Consciousness," "The Free Field," "The Old Age of the Clinic," and "Crisis in Fevers" from The Birth of the Clinic.

Apr 24 reading: Claude Levi-Strauss, "The Sorcerer and His Magic" from Structural Anthropology [CP]; Michael Taussig, "Reification and the Consciousness of the Patient" from The Nervous System [CP].

assignments: weekly.

Week 14. Conclusion.

Apr 29: Conclusion.

assignment: weekly.

Final paper due at MCM no later than 5 pm on Monday, May 5.

If you would like me to provide a written evaluation of your final essay, give me a self-addressed stamped envelope, and I will be happy to return your paper with copious marginalia and a substantial end comment.