Why Study Film in the Classroom?
Anyone who has ever watched a movie with a classroom full of teenagers knows that students are comfortable with film and understand its power. By high school, they have watched thousands of movies and television shows and unconsciously understand the basic tools and conventions of the medium. Although they may still treat it chiefly as passive entertainment, they can often be sophisticated interpreters of the interplay of sound and image. They know -- often without knowing they know -- that the close-up on an actor's face signifies something different emotionally from a long shot of an actor across a distance. They know that certain kinds of music indicate that a dramatic event is about to happen, and they know that "fuzzy" camerawork can signal a dream sequence or flashback in which we are inside a particular character's mind or point of view.
In fact, students may know how to interpret film better than they know how to interpret literature -- especially the classics. Some teachers feel this is the very reason not to use film in the language arts classroom: isn't showing movies a waste of time when students have such a reading deficit already? Yes -- but only if students watch film passively. Our goal is to encourage English teachers to see film not as a guilty pleasure -- not as just the "reward" at the end of reading a book -- but as a legitimate means to enhance literacy. Contemporary thinkers on media literacy (see Resources) have argued that the same habits that a good reader brings to a written text are those that a critical viewer brings to a visual text; enhancing one effortlessly enhances the other. In both, a critical thinker predicts, makes connections, infers, asks questions, and interprets. In both, meaning is made through the details of character, theme, plot, mood, conflict, and symbolism. For both, we must guide students to be active interpreters.
Over thirty years ago, media education pioneer John Culkin argued that "We live in a total-information culture, which is being increasingly dominated by the image. Intelligent living within such an environment calls for developing habits of perception, analysis, judgment, and selectivity that are capable of processing the relentless input of visual data.... [Because] schools are where the tribe passes on its values to the young, schools are where film study should take place." Three decades later, Culkin's assertion resonates more than ever.
Using Film to Interpret Literature
As written texts, the classics are often inaccessible to students. For many, the settings and historical context are foreign to them, the complex language hinders fluent reading, and the epic scale of the books can seem intimidating. While they might feel a sense of foreboding when they view the filmed shot of the stilled mill in Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, they might miss the same foreshadowing when they read the novel. Where the camerawork between Portia and Shylock in the courtroom scene of The Merchant of Venice makes their mutual animosity clear, students might not register the same emotional intensity in the written dialogue. Even contemporary classics such as The Road from Coorain and Almost a Woman often prove challenging, particularly for reluctant or unenthusiastic readers. And yet, we want them to understand these works because they have something important and enduring to say. Using film is a way to help them do this, whether with the filmed version of the same story, in whole or in part, or a companion text that complements the themes, characters, setting, or conflicts of that story. (For more about companion texts, see the Theme Chart.)
Film teacher John Golden suggests beginning to think critically about film by starting with a personal film inventory of one's own viewing history. First, have students make a list of ten films they have loved. (You might want to make a master list on the board of everyone's "best picks" when the class has finished.) Then have students choose a partner and take turns talking about one film each, telling each other a little about the characters, plots, settings, points of view, themes, and moods that made these films so effective. Compare and contrast the selections students made. What are the most memorable scenes from their films? Why?
Consider these ideas, suggested by teachers, for new and different ways to use film. See also the Wrap Up for concluding activities.
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