A student parks his skateboard at the door of the lecture hall and looks for a seat. Fifteen minutes before the class is scheduled to begin, some 20 other students are already there, waiting, in the front rows.
“You can imagine how much I love teaching this course,” says English professor Robert Polhemus. “I’m chair of the department, so what do you think I prefer—administration, or watching Woody Allen films? The class keeps me sane.”
Polhemus, a specialist in 19th-century literature, first taught The Films of Woody Allen as a freshman seminar in 2000. He received 80 applications for 15 slots, and had to choose among students whose why-me essays ranged from “I’m a short Jewish guy and I want to know how to get girls” (accepted for the class) to “I’m deeply interested in Woody Allen’s cinematography” (nah).
The 120 undergraduate and graduate students who fill Room 2 of the History Corner include English majors, students from the Graduate School of Business and those who likely are looking for “some sort of easy course,” Polhemus says. “They’re much more varied than when I teach Jane Austen or Dickens.”
As it happens, it was a course about film adaptations of Austen’s books that piqued senior Caroline Okorie’s interest in Polhemus’s class. “I was very familiar with Woody Allen’s name—and scandal—but I knew nothing about his films,” she says. “I’ve found it interesting to look at how Allen can take concepts like love, death and finding one’s purpose, and deal with them in ways that cause audiences to laugh and ponder.”
That’s a pretty typical point of view in the discussion section taught by head TA Stephen Elliott, a Stegner fellow with a master’s degree in film from Northwestern University. “Allen plays with concepts of morality, making us think about our own morality,” sophomore Andrew Nielsen says during a conversation about Hannah and Her Sisters. Adds sophomore Emily Ochoa, “I didn’t really like Hannah, because she was so perfect she was boring.”
In an effort to recapture some of the interchange he enjoyed with freshmen in his seminar course, Polhemus asks students to jot down either a question about or a reaction to every film that’s shown in class. He uses those as a springboard for his opening remarks about each movie. “I love Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Nabokov,” he says in a conspiratorial whisper. “But Woody Allen manages to send them all up.”
Polhemus guesstimates that most of his students have previously seen only one or two Woody Allen films and that many are taking the course because they’ve heard about the director from their parents. “The more knowledgeable students know that there was this great scandal in the ’90s, and I’ve gotten questions like, ‘Why did this guy think it was okay to have incest with his daughter?’ So you have to do some fact checks and say, ‘Well, this may be a reprehensible act—to take up with the adopted daughter of his girlfriend—but it’s not incest.’ ”
With dozens of films to choose from, Polhemus simply teaches his 11 favorites. Is Annie Hall misogynist? he asks students. (Then why did it win the Oscar?) What is the effect of so many grotesque images of people in Stardust Memories? According to Zelig, what is heroism in the modern world? “We begin with Love and Death, which is a wonderfully funny farce, but by the time we get into Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, students’ mouths are hanging open, and they’re asking, ‘Where did this guy come from, and how come we haven’t heard more about him in intellectual circles?’ ”
So what do Polhemus’s colleagues think of his course? “Pop art is always suspect, and some people who don’t know Woody Allen are disdainful,” he says. “But people also know that we need students in the humanities, and that we need to do more with film at Stanford.”
Polhemus has completed a 150-page chapter about Allen and Mia Farrow that is gradually morphing into a new book project. His early fascination with Allen grew with the 13 movies that the director and actress made together. Their work, he says, was “one of the glories of cinema.” And their breakup? “An artistic tragedy.”