Film as text: taking cinema seriously

I would consider myself to be a dedicated cinephile.  As such, I find it disheartening how little respect film receives as a serious topic of study in education circles.  One of my goals as an educator is to equip students to understand and appreciate cinema in a new way, as something far beyond mere entertainment or supplement to more “serious” forms of communication.

To illustrate the problem, I need look no further than my own high school experience.  I remember reading S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders in eighth grade English back in 1983 (the fact that this book is still widely taught thirty years later shows how little innovation there is in contemporary English Language Arts pedagogy).  We studied the book, did the assignments, gave oral presentations, and all that sort of thing.  When it was all over, we “watched the movie.”  It was a treat, you see, after all our hard work of doing the real work of studying the book. The idea that the film itself (a superb movie by Francis Ford Coppola which, in my opinion, far surpasses Hinton’s source material) was worthy of study never occured to any of us, including our teacher.

There are two reasons for this problem.  The first is that film is a relatively young art form, barely one hundred years old.  Compare that with the novel (over 400 years old) or drama (at least two thousand years old) or poetry (probably as old as writing itself).  The other reason is that film is the dominant medium in popular culture.  There was a time when people asked each other if they had read a particular book; now they tend to ask if a person has seen a particular movie.  This is actually a problem for educators who wish to take film seriously in the classroom, however; since film is seen as a medium of entertainment it is often viewed as having dubious educational value, something to do with students as a treat after the “serious” work is completed.

I extensively use film as a medium of study in my classroom, and it has nothing to do with entertainment.

Instead, in my English 11 and 12 classes I deliberately use film as text.  We study great films in the same way that we study great poetry, fiction, or essays.  One example (and there are many, but this one comes to mind because I’m working through it with my grade eleven students at the present time) is the magnificent Stephen Spielberg/Stanley Kubrick collaboration A.I..  A futuristic interpretation of Pinocchio, A.I. is the story of a robot boy who longs to become human.

Visually, the film is a work of art, especially when projected onto an eight-foot screen (the biggest I can fit on one wall of my classroom).  Thematically, it’s fascinating stuff.  The film can be read as philosophical allegory (David’s existential dilemma is our own) or as technological narrative (David personifies the complexity of our naïve belief that the answer to technological problems is more technology).  We talk about story-telling techniques employed in the film, including character development, symbolism, and narrative arc.  We do in-depth scene studies and I give students a thirty-page excerpt from the film’s script and have them do some expository writing on the film’s ideas.  We read “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” by British science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss, the short story that first gave film legend Stanley Kubrick the idea for the film that eventually became A.I.  (The journey from Aldiss’ short story through the hands of Kubrick to a 2001 feature film directed by Stephen Spielberg is a fascinating story in its own right, but one I don’t have time to explore here).  In short, we get a lot of education out of A.I., as is befitting any great work of art, be it poem, or novel, or film.

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