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Into the Darkness Video Lecture #1: The Heist (Official Discussion Thread)


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Hi #NoirSummer Students: If you want to discuss or add information on the first video lecture for the course, please do so here. Let's try to minimize opening additional threads about the lecture video. Thanks in advance for understanding. Best, Prof. Edwards

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I watched the video and read the notes, but I'm saving Eddie Muller's article for later today, and the podcast for after I rewatch The Maltese Falcon, also probably today.

 

I feel like I've been approaching these movies from a substance standpoint more than a stylistic point of view. Obviously we think of Noir as canted angles, harsh shadows and smoky dive bars, but I've been watching(and in some cases rewatching) these films with an eye towards what it's all in service of. How the substance of the movie fits it under the umbrella of noir, not just it's stylistic signifiers. That said, I love the point made in the lecture about the canted angles give the sense of a world on the brink. At any moment the camera, the world of the movie, is going to topple over the edge. The idea that the film is in fact hurtling towards that edge.

 

To me one of the stylistic tropes of noir that I don't see mentioned often is the use of travel. I've been noticing it a lot in the films I've watched this week. People drive a lot in films noir, there are more scenes set in cars than in most other films I remember from the same period. A lot of the films center around trains(La Bete Humaine) or boats(Journey Into Fear), as well. The theme of transportation represents the dream of escape and the idea of predestination. In a car you can drive away from your problems. In a boat or a plane you can start a new life in a new country. But that constant movement is always taking you to the same place; the end. Noir is all about predestination, the fact that no matter how the characters scheme or struggle they're always heading towards the tragedy waiting for them. Not that all noirs have unhappy endings, of course, but they usually don't turn out all that great for everyone involved.

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A nice introduction to the topics and themes to be addressed in the coming weeks. Not to be too critical from the get go, but it's ironic that the lecture is accompanied by a soundtrack often associated with, but actually rarely used in Film Noir - a lazy, lush saxophone jazz score....

 

Most Films Noir have a very limited score, and if they have one, it's usually a 'classic' orchestral score. If jazz is to be found in Noir, it's usually in a diegetic fashion, like in a nightclub visited by the characters, or from music coming from a record player.

 

I'm sure sound will be discussed in later entries, but it's interesting to ask why and how jazz became so connected to Film Noir.

 

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A nice introduction to the topics and themes to be addressed in the coming weeks. Not to be too critical from the get go, but it's ironic that the lecture is accompanied by a soundtrack often associated with, but actually rarely used in Film Noir - a lazy, lush saxophone jazz score....

 

Most Films Noir have a very limited score, and if they have one, it's usually a 'classic' orchestral score. If jazz is to be found in Noir, it's usually in a diegetic fashion, like in a nightclub visited by the characters, or from music coming from a record player.

 

I'm sure sound will be discussed in later entries, but it's interesting to ask why and how jazz became so connected to Film Noir.

That's a great point you brought up. It is funny how often the,moody jazzy saxophone is used,for film noir adds,

segments,marathons ect..when it really wasn't in the films themselves or the era. But it does fit in perfectly,and sums up better how we feel in viewing them. I'm sure Orson Welles would have had a conversation over dinner with someone about this..."Why do they always have,some guy playing a saxophone on a loney wet street? And he's wearing sunglasses! Who wears sunglasses at night? What's that all about?" I could just see him going on about that...loooool

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A nice introduction to the topics and themes to be addressed in the coming weeks. Not to be too critical from the get go, but it's ironic that the lecture is accompanied by a soundtrack often associated with, but actually rarely used in Film Noir - a lazy, lush saxophone jazz score....

 

Most Films Noir have a very limited score, and if they have one, it's usually a 'classic' orchestral score. If jazz is to be found in Noir, it's usually in a diegetic fashion, like in a nightclub visited by the characters, or from music coming from a record player.

 

I'm sure sound will be discussed in later entries, but it's interesting to ask why and how jazz became so connected to Film Noir.

 

Jazz is used in film noir but mostly bebop jazz (verse more mellow big-band or swing) and as stated typically NOT as the score of the film but in select scenes. 

 

Bebop jazz was used to create a frenzy or chaotic state or vibe.   e.g.  The Blue Dahlia where the 'monkey music' is fast and loud and intense therefore setting off Buzz (a suspect in the killing).  

 

D.O.A.  where jazz music is used in the night club scene with close ups of sweating musicians caught in the fury of their music combines with images of patrons lost in the pounding jazz rhythms and approaches a chaotic climax.

 

The Strip is another film were jazz music is at the core of the film and used to great affect.    

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Jazz is used in film noir but mostly bebop jazz (verse more mellow big-band or swing) and as stated typically NOT as the score of the film but in select scenes. 

 

Bebop jazz was used to create a frenzy or chaotic state or vibe.   e.g.  The Blue Dahlia where the 'monkey music' is fast and loud and intense therefore setting off Buzz (a suspect in the killing).  

 

D.O.A.  where jazz music is used in the night club scene with close ups of sweating musicians caught in the fury of their music combines with images of patrons lost in the pounding jazz rhythms and approaches a chaotic climax.

 

The Strip is another film were jazz music is at the core of the film and used to great affect.    

The jazz scene in Phantom Lady would be a really good example for the music being used in the way you mention but yes generally even the diegetic music in Noir is generally classical or latin

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I watched the video and read the notes, but I'm saving Eddie Muller's article for later today, and the podcast for after I rewatch The Maltese Falcon, also probably today.

 

I feel like I've been approaching these movies from a substance standpoint more than a stylistic point of view. Obviously we think of Noir as canted angles, harsh shadows and smoky dive bars, but I've been watching(and in some cases rewatching) these films with an eye towards what it's all in service of. How the substance of the movie fits it under the umbrella of noir, not just it's stylistic signifiers. That said, I love the point made in the lecture about the canted angles give the sense of a world on the brink. At any moment the camera, the world of the movie, is going to topple over the edge. The idea that the film is in fact hurtling towards that edge.

 

To me one of the stylistic tropes of noir that I don't see mentioned often is the use of travel. I've been noticing it a lot in the films I've watched this week. People drive a lot in films noir, there are more scenes set in cars than in most other films I remember from the same period. A lot of the films center around trains(La Bete Humaine) or boats(Journey Into Fear), as well. The theme of transportation represents the dream of escape and the idea of predestination. In a car you can drive away from your problems. In a boat or a plane you can start a new life in a new country. But that constant movement is always taking you to the same place; the end. Noir is all about predestination, the fact that no matter how the characters scheme or struggle they're always heading towards the tragedy waiting for them. Not that all noirs have unhappy endings, of course, but they usually don't turn out all that great for everyone involved.

I like your observation about travel in noir. I agree with that. That is one of the reasons I started Module 1 with the idea that we are "entering noir country" (a traveling metaphor). In my podcast series, Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, Shannon and I often discussed the importance of travel in films noir in films like Detour, The Killers, The Hitch-hiker, or the ending of Strange Love of Martha Ivers. 

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A nice introduction to the topics and themes to be addressed in the coming weeks. Not to be too critical from the get go, but it's ironic that the lecture is accompanied by a soundtrack often associated with, but actually rarely used in Film Noir - a lazy, lush saxophone jazz score....

 

Most Films Noir have a very limited score, and if they have one, it's usually a 'classic' orchestral score. If jazz is to be found in Noir, it's usually in a diegetic fashion, like in a nightclub visited by the characters, or from music coming from a record player.

 

I'm sure sound will be discussed in later entries, but it's interesting to ask why and how jazz became so connected to Film Noir

 

Boy, this is a tough and knowledgeable crowd :-) Point taken. FYI, I address the topic of jazz and its use and contributions to film noir in Video Lecture 2. 

 

But let's not focus too much on the music we selected for the video lectures. I am hoping we focus more on the main points of Lecture 1 (he says, as the saxophone fades in the background....)

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Just finished my module. What I found interesting is the question is film noir a style, genre or movement? The angle you are giving the course as an investigation is appropriate and very interesting. What stuck out to me is that the french noticed a shift in style from the light hearted movies in the 30s to the more darker themed movies in the 40s. As a classic movie lover, this is how I classify if a movie is a film noir or not. Not to say movies were not dark, but there was a lot of escapism in the 30s, very rich and glamorous characters. Even the pre-codes, though not escapist had a different feel. For me, the restrictions of the code is what makes the noirs in the 40s and 50s and more appealing. It made film makers be more creative and focus on story telling, dialog, camera shots. I also liked the point that conditions were ripe from film noir. I agree with that. That is the enduring quality of the films.

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Just finished my module. What I found interesting is the question is film noir a style, genre or movement? The angle you are giving the course as an investigation is appropriate and very interesting. What stuck out to me is that the french noticed a shift in style from the light hearted movies in the 30s to the more darker themed movies in the 40s. As a classic movie lover, this is how I classify if a movie is a film noir or not. Not to say movies were not dark, but there was a lot of escapism in the 30s, very rich and glamorous characters. Even the pre-codes, though not escapist had a different feel. For me, the restrictions of the code is what makes the noirs in the 40s and 50s and more appealing. It made film makers be more creative and focus on story telling, dialog, camera shots. I also liked the point that conditions were ripe from film noir. I agree with that. That is the enduring quality of the films.

 

That's an interesting tangent.. Contrasting the lighthearted fare of the 30s, the rise of the farce and screwball comedy during the years of the Depression, with the rise of nihilistic noir films in the 40s and 50s, when America was entering a period of great prosperity. Clearly it was a reaction to the postwar era. People coming back from the front, or loved ones not coming back, led to a questioning of values. And apparently the public felt safe enough to really embrace this change.

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I just finished watching Detour. Every decision Al made was a bad one from the beginning, and just seemed to make things worse. Even when he seemingly doing innocent things, they had dire repercussions - like when he was trying to break the phone cord. It reminded me of watching an episode of The Twilight Zone (except that it didn't have a sci-fi ending, just a dire one). In fact, thinking about it I can now see a lot of Noir influences in that TV series.

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 I like the question of why these films came out when they did, in the 1940's. I'm going to make a couple of inferences:

 

#1. War: This films maybe shadowed or reflected the violence and darkness of war, but not in an explicit way by creating a war film. In a unique way, in the crime film genre.

 

#2 The influence of the 1930's. Two that I can think of that may have had an impact.

 

a. The desperation of the 1930's and the great depression. The characters in these movies seem to have been through a lot and possibly losing some sense of right & wrong in the process. Could these movies be a reaction in a way to the desperation and toughness one had to endure in the 1930's?

 

b. Crime/gangsters & crime/gangster movies in the 1930's. It is in these movies that we see a seedier and darker side of the 1930's and the effects of prohibition & depression. How invested were audiences in stories of crime when film noir came along? I would argue that many of them probably were and enjoyed seeing a fresh, edgy take on dark stories when noir came along   

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I suppose you really can't understand a class of films from a certain time period, without understanding the period they came from. America had just come through a great depression, and whereas in the period from the 90s to the 20s the country reveled in the giddy highs of excess, virtually everyone in the country in the 1940s had gone through desperation and hopelessness, and now were being plunged into a global war and facing fear like they had never known as well. (And later, in the Cold War era, that fear would be replaced with paranoia.) The polish had been knocked off America's innocence, and the films of the time were reflecting it. Yet we were still a country in love with people of style and class, and also (somewhat paradoxically) with rugged individuals who had quick wits and smart mouths. All of those influences, as well as the expressionism of the 20's films, poured into the film noir mold.

 

I can buy the ideas of film noir as a genre and noir as a style, and as a combination of the two. Certainly, stylistically one can point out numerous tropes that are common across most of film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting, the anti-hero, the femme fatale, the voice-over narration - often from an unreliable narrator - and a bleak view of the world are all hallmarks of the genre, and that helps identify films noir from other standard gangster and detective fare of the period. I'm not entirely sold on it being a particular movement or film cycle, though certainly it was influenced, as I mentioned above, by the setting of the day that it sprang from and became less popular as tensions in society eased. (Also, one could argue that it became less popular as it became "old hat". When a style is around long enough that it becomes easily parody-able, it tends to lose favor with the general public, who usually want something new and original.)

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I agree with that when a style is around long enough it loses its zest. My Favorite Brunette was filmed in 1947 and I see it as a noir parody and good one at that. It even had Peter Lorre as the villian and the

Alan Ladd cameo and the dark mysterious dame. When movies get parodied, it;s getting pretty well known there's a trend

 

 

 

I suppose you really can't understand a class of films from a certain time period, without understanding the period they came from. America had just come through a great depression, and whereas in the period from the 90s to the 20s the country reveled in the giddy highs of excess, virtually everyone in the country in the 1940s had gone through desperation and hopelessness, and now were being plunged into a global war and facing fear like they had never known as well. (And later, in the Cold War era, that fear would be replaced with paranoia.) The polish had been knocked off America's innocence, and the films of the time were reflecting it. Yet we were still a country in love with people of style and class, and also (somewhat paradoxically) with rugged individuals who had quick wits and smart mouths. All of those influences, as well as the expressionism of the 20's films, poured into the film noir mold.

 

I can buy the ideas of film noir as a genre and noir as a style, and as a combination of the two. Certainly, stylistically one can point out numerous tropes that are common across most of film noir. Chiaroscuro lighting, the anti-hero, the femme fatale, the voice-over narration - often from an unreliable narrator - and a bleak view of the world are all hallmarks of the genre, and that helps identify films noir from other standard gangster and detective fare of the period. I'm not entirely sold on it being a particular movement or film cycle, though certainly it was influenced, as I mentioned above, by the setting of the day that it sprang from and became less popular as tensions in society eased. (Also, one could argue that it became less popular as it became "old hat". When a style is around long enough that it becomes easily parody-able, it tends to lose favor with the general public, who usually want something new and original.)

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While I agree that major events during the 1930s (Depression Era) and 1940s (WWII) certainly had its influence of film noir, I believe it is too broad to apply it to film noir as a whole. I do believe that disillusionment is reflected the downtrodden and cynical characters of noir. But when it comes to the plot of the film, I think the influences are more complex. As a 4th generation Californian, it is hard to relate to a very east coast centric history as it is not really "our" history on the west coast. Within certain U.S. regions there are major events specific to those regions, and I think it has more of a profound influence on films noir more than the Depression and WWII events. 

 

To elaborate: I consider noir films set in California and how vastly different they are if the setting is in the Bay Area or in Los Angeles. Bay Area settings focus more on the individual while Los Angeles focuses more on a group. I guess that is why we here more voice-over in films like Mildred Pierce, DOA, Dark Passage and less of it in L.A. set films where the perspective seems to be more about law enforcement and its proceedings. Why? The LAPD was known for its corrupt police force. San Francisco tends to have a large distrust of authorities (due to internment, labor strikes, displacement which is why you see more private detectives and less SFPD. In New York, you see more of the gangster/heist films because of its mob history.

 

That being said, I've always heard Noir as being define more as a "mood" and not a genre. I'm surprised this term wasn't used in the video lecture. I guess it closely aligns with style. Because plots do vary, I would consider it more an element of style and less a defined genre.

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While I agree that major events during the 1930s (Depression Era) and 1940s (WWII) certainly had its influence of film noir, I believe it is too broad to apply it to film noir as a whole. I do believe that disillusionment is reflected the downtrodden and cynical characters of noir. But when it comes to the plot of the film, I think the influences are more complex. As a 4th generation Californian, it is hard to relate to a very east coast centric history as it is not really "our" history on the west coast. Within certain U.S. regions there are major events specific to those regions, and I think it has more of a profound influence on films noir more than the Depression and WWII events. 

 

To elaborate: I consider noir films set in California and how vastly different they are if the setting is in the Bay Area or in Los Angeles. Bay Area settings focus more on the individual while Los Angeles focuses more on a group. I guess that is why we here more voice-over in films like Mildred Pierce, DOA, Dark Passage and less of it in L.A. set films where the perspective seems to be more about law enforcement and its proceedings. Why? The LAPD was known for its corrupt police force. San Francisco tends to have a large distrust of authorities (due to internment, labor strikes, displacement which is why you see more private detectives and less SFPD. In New York, you see more of the gangster/heist films because of its mob history.

 

That being said, I've always heard Noir as being define more as a "mood" and not a genre. I'm surprised this term wasn't used in the video lecture. I guess it closely aligns with style. Because plots do vary, I would consider it more an element of style and less a defined genre.

 

You're ideas are intriguing to me, and I'd like to subscribe to your newsletter.

 

Having thought a bit about this, but without the knowledge to back things up, I'd say I notice a lot more 'object oriented' noir coming from the west coast. A lot of property deals and missing treasures and mysterious suitcases. 

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I just finished watching Detour. Every decision Al made was a bad one from the beginning, and just seemed to make things worse. Even when he seemingly doing innocent things, they had dire repercussions - like when he was trying to break the phone cord. It reminded me of watching an episode of The Twilight Zone (except that it didn't have a sci-fi ending, just a dire one). In fact, thinking about it I can now see a lot of Noir influences in that TV series.

I was also reminded of The Twilight Zone while watching Detour. Most film noir protagonists tend to be morally ambiguous from the get-go, but Al was a normal guy thrown into a world of darkness by an unfortunate twist of fate (compounded by his poor decision making).

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Besides Genre, Style, and Movement, Film Noir could maybe also considered to be a (cinematic) Philosophy.

Noir often delves deep into the human psyche, testing the demarcation lines between good and evil, between premeditation and impulse, and between free will and determinism. If existentialism was ever really present in American movies, it's probably most notable in Film Noir.

 

Regarding the external and historic influences leading to Film Noir, I think we have to be careful to uniquely relate them to Film Noir.

Noir was 'just' one type of film among many in the forties and fifties. There was (melo)drama, Western, historical drama, musicals, comedy etc. Maybe all the influences mentioned are valid for these types of movies as well?

 

And one more thing is the popularity of Noir at the time. Are there any truly reliable box office figures for Film Noir? As far as I can tell hardly any Noir, if any at all, made it to annual best box office lists during the time.  

 

Was Noir popular with a certain type of audience? Maybe regional? 

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I was also reminded of The Twilight Zone while watching Detour. Most film noir protagonists tend to be morally ambiguous from the get-go, but Al was a normal guy thrown into a world of darkness by an unfortunate twist of fate (compounded by his poor decision making).

if you buy his voice over he is anyway. it's been a while since I saw it but it felt like a very unreliable narration to me

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Why did they come out when they did not 10 years earlier or later?

 

I'd argue something combining the production code and the war/depression.

 

People elsewhere on here have mentioned the 30s as the period of screwball comedies, the 40s of Noirs.  To me as a big fan of pre-code films both comic and gritty I'd argue that the screwball comedies of the second half of the 30s, particularly the so-called comedies of remarriage, as being directors and writers attempt to continue romantic comedies under the restrictions of the code, especially the restrictions to any depictions of sex outside marriage, so you get lots of beautiful actors playing separated spouses to allow the acknowledgement of a sexual bond and experiences between them that could not be shown for any unmarried protagonists. When protagonists were unmarried and new to each other zaniness replaced sexual attraction almost as the writers absurd protest of the new rules. Along the way, quite by accident you get movies that actually have something to say decades on about female desire and sexuality in the period like 'Unfinished Business' or Theodora Goes Wild' because the constraints of the code and it's desire to punish anyone who exhibited sexual feeling  mirrored the constraints of society for women at the time. 

 

To me some of the dramatic weight of the Noirs, the fatalism, the unhappy ends, the unreliable narrators. Are the studios or at least specific writers and directors figuring out how to tell a crime story or a gritty melodrama under the draconian restrictions of the code. The code specified crime and lust must be punished to clamp down on early 30s movies that had seemingly glamourised both. They presumably hoped that the studios would be pushed towards movies that either avoided the topics all together or would take a hard line on it.   And of course the studios did make the films that lived in that crime and lust free fairyland, any look at the top grossing films and stars of the peak noir years shows that actually the antithesis of noir was well served during that time.

 

What they didn't do all that succesfully were movies that featured crime and lust but spoke out against it sincerely because despite the efforts of the code that wasn't actually what people wanted, the ammoral films that had sparked the code in 34 had been popular with urban audiences who wanted to see their real lives reflected. Crime doesn't pay movies didnt cut it.  By the Noir cycle directors had figured out a way to obey the word of the code but not the spirit, to actually make the inevitable punishment of wrongdoing ADD to the weight of the message. Not in a tacked on 'tell the kids not to be like me' Cagney ending way after a lot of fun crime but in an all pervasive 'the world will catch up with you, there's no escape' philosophical way. 

 

Throw in an audience that had survived the depression and the war and knew just how fake the fake stuff was and just how hard it was to catch a break and you have a climate for Noir. The experiences and bitterness of emigre directors not buying into the happy ever after consumer paradise view of America plays a part too.

 

You didn't need one ten years earlier, you had stuff like 'Employees Entrance' or 'Heroes for Sale' that were darker and realer than Noir and no need for the philosophising. And ten years later would have been too late, people needed stories that had some relation to the world around them if cinema was to retain it's currency. 

 

 

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It seems to me that the debate over film noir’s status as a genre or a style is fueled in part by the fact that some of noir’s distinctive stylistic elements (cinematographic techniques and lighting setups, especially) can quite easily be ported across genre lines.  Thus a western or even (as Prof. Edwards points out) a Christmas film could have a bit of a "noirish" look and feel.  So perhaps we need to pay very strict attention to the iconography, conventions, and mythologies of those films that are most readily agreed upon to be films noir in order to better define the genre, per se, and to distinguish those films that are films noir and those that are noirish films.  Or perhaps we should simply spend less time worrying about pigeon holes.

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Both the lecture and the notes accompanying it were a great introduction to film noir and its definition, I enjoyed it a lot.

 

I personally think that when you're watching a film noir you can't exactly tell why this film is a film noir; nevertheless you somehow know it. Everything in the film contributes in it: the characters, the narrative, the lighting, the orchestral music, even the black-and-white format. In my opinion, in most films noir you can tell it's a noir having watched just 5 or 10 minutes, something that doesn't happen in most film genres, styles or movements, as film noir could be defined to be anything of the three.

 

The most exciting thing about films noir, especially those made in wartime period, is the thing that filmmakers did not know that they were making a film noir, the term did not even exist; yet they had a distinct view of cinematic reality not belonging in any existing genre at the time. 

 

Something I think that should, and I'm sure it will, be analyzed in this course is how Production Code affected film noir. I believe that, trying to push the boundaries of the Code as far as they could without actually breaking it, films noir had to become more stylish and full of subtle meanings and innuendo. Film noir stories had many aspects not accepted by the Code, and that inspired directors develop a specific style which could make them acceptable, so giving film noir a certain set of distinguishing characteristics that helped it flourish. 

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If the rest of the video lectures are anything like the first one, this is going to be a most enjoyable summer. So far, the ride is great and the pace is not overwhelming.  Lots of absolutely great insights.  So much to digest!  Thank You!!!  Looking forward to continuing the journey with my thousands of fellow travelers.

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If I'd known online courses were this interesting, I'd done this before. Excellent introduction, comprehensive yet comprehensible, lots of ideas, looking forward to more. Well-conceived use of multimedia, right down to the evocative music.

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