Monday, May 10, 2010
After teaching American history to 8th graders for a number of years, I learned that my restless middle-schoolers needed a change of pace toward the end of the school year as hormones ran wild and thoughts of summer vacation on Cape Cod caused incurable daydreaming. That’s when I got the idea of introducing American film history, which started with showing clips of 1950s science-fiction movies as background for our studies of the Atomic Age, McCarthyism, and the Cold War. Year after year, the film history unit grew into what it is now – a spring-term-long look at American film history from the silent era through the 1970s, with a focus on presenting iconic images and a full viewing of at least one film released in each decade from the 1920s through the 1960s.
I introduce the unit by telling my students that I hope I have taught them good reading and writing skills, and that now I want to teach them to be good watchers. I want them to develop viewing patience in an era of MTV-style short takes and fast-paced editing.
I start with a watching exercise. I show them the opening minutes of There Will Be Blood (2007). Other than a few muttered words, there is no dialogue, but we learn what kind of man Daniel Plainview is. I tell my students that good films show, so don't take your eyes off the screen. You might miss something. I tell them that when I watch a movie, I never take my eyes off the screen. They find this incomprehensible. “You’ll hurt your eyes," they say. I laugh.
(What kind of man is he?)
My task is daunting. I’m asking teens who text and talk and get up for popcorn during a movie to sit, watch, think about questions and themes I have set up for them, and never interrupt the viewing with a comment. But I am very proud of how they adhere to these rules and how they become very perceptive watchers.
Our first complete viewing is of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Most teens have never seen a silent movie. I tell them it will take patience, but I am always very pleased as they laugh out loud when Big Jim thinks the Lone Prospector is a big chicken, or when our heroes get trapped in the tilting cabin. It’s rewarding that teens still see the humor in Chaplin’s visual gimmicks when present-day comedies rely heavily on raunchy dialogue. Besides examining the comedy in this film, we also look at the juxtaposition of comic scenes with images of isolation and alienation.
Before leaving the silent era, I show key scenes from City Lights (1931) and it impresses me how touched the students are by the film’s climactic reunion. Last year, one girl remarked that she liked City Lights better than the broadly comical The Gold Rush.
(What other images in the film suggest loneliness and alienation?)
After covering background history – the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression – we read about Hollywood’s Golden Era. It amazes the students that in the 30s you could see a program including newsreel, cartoons, and double feature, and then you could sit through the whole program again if you wanted to.
We watch Stagecoach (1939), paying attention to how John Ford presents the division between characters visually and how these characters change toward the end. The students need to work on their patience during the first half of the film. Stagecoach probably has more dialogue, delivered more rapidly, than most movies they see. But they are hooked once the tension rises and the Apaches attack the stagecoach. It’s great to see them riveted by a rousing action scene that does not employ CGI. They are impressed by Yakima Canutt’s stunts. The tension builds again during the darkly atmospheric Lordsburg sequence. There’s the final shootout and the happy ending – and they like that. Every year, as the Ringo Kid and Dallas ride off toward the rising sun, the class applauds enthusiastically.
(Does the Ringo Kid know what Dallas has been doing for a living?)
I taught film history a number of years before I attempted to show Citizen Kane (1941), and when I did, I presented it as an experiment. At the time, it was not one of my favorite movies, but I admitted that many critics considered it the best American movie ever made, and I said our task was to determine where these critics were coming from. The result amazed me. They loved it. They came to it as “Rosebud” innocents, and they loved the mystery and the climactic revelation. The more advanced students love the symbolism and beautiful dissolves. Over the years, I also discovered that I was feeling different about a film that I had first viewed with indifference. Now I am quite passionate about "the best American film ever made." With my three sections of history, I watch Citizen Kane three times a year, one viewing after the other, and I never get tired of it. I was learning too.
(Why are they in the dark?)
(Is Kane as big as he thinks he is?)
(What does this image say about Kane?)
(What does the canted frame suggest?)
(What are the characteristics of film noir?)
(What's going to happen?)
After a look at film noir by viewing key portions of The Third Man (1949), we move on to the 1950s, a major focus in our studies of the 20th century. After a PowerPoint presentation of nuclear bomb tests in the Nevada desert, I show clips from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Then we move on to a full viewing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
That my students find this classic science-fiction thriller scary is a tremendous tribute to the film’s clever use of simple devices such as backlighting, close-ups, images of running, and images of confined spaces. For students who think that movies are all about CGI, students who come into the course believing that early silent films did not employ special effects (because in their minds the only special effects are CGI), this movie is a significant lesson to them.
(What were people afraid of in the 1950s?)
(What simple techniques are used to instill fear in the viewer?)
When I added The Searchers (1956) to the curriculum five years ago, I did so with great trepidation. It’s one of my top five favorite movies, and I was afraid the students wouldn’t like it. But each year I am relieved by how much they love it. They love the color, the action, and they are gripped by the plight of Debbie Edwards. After six or seven weeks of film history, they are turning into sharp, perceptive watchers and they pick up on the suggestions that Ethan stole the gold coins he is carrying, that he left Texas before the war because he and Martha were in love, and that Martha is raped by the Comanches. And as young teens for whom home is still important, they identify with the scenes of family and are happy when Debbie is spared by Ethan and brought to the safety of the Jorgensen ranch.
(What's going through Ethan's mind?)
(Why can't Ethan be part of the family?)
Our last complete viewing is The Graduate (1967), and we look at how the film reflects the disillusionment and alienation of the troubled 1960s. Right away the students realize they are watching a very mature movie, and they love it. They understand montage accompanied by contemporary music, and they readily identify with Benjamin’s portrayal of confused, defiant youth. It was three years ago that one of my students commented on the film’s ending without being led by me. Ben and Elaine get on the bus. They sit in the back. They look straight ahead. The student asked, “Is the ending ambiguous?” Yes, I said, and we linked it back full circle to the ending of The Gold Rush. The Lone Prospector kisses Georgia. It looks like a happy ending, but has Georgia ever done anything to show that she’s in love with the Lone Prospector?
By the time we finish The Graduate, the school year is nearly over. I show the “Dawn of Man” sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) until the cut from the bone to the satellite, as well as the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” chapter. After discussing and interpreting the first chapter, I ask them to write an interpretation of the ending. Some of them just can’t handle the white room, the black monolith, and the fetus floating in space. For some the film takes more patience than they have, and I enjoy some of their humor in connection with it. One year, while starting the final chapter, one student braced herself in her chair, turned to her neighbor, and said, "I can do this." Others love the movie and write brilliant interpretations. Finally, we take a brief look at the 1970s Directors Revolution, mention films that are more familiar to most of them, such as Jaws, and watch clips from Star Wars. I usually ask them to identify the allusion to The Searchers.
(How does Ben feel?)
(What does it mean?)
At the beginning of the unit, I teach the students basic film terminology and ask them to list the elements of filmmaking. Invariably, “CGI” is their first response, and then we go on to learn that a film is made up of more than CGI. Looping back to this beginning, I show my favorite CGI sequences, often ending with a clip that represents the current height of CGI technology. Last year I showed parts of WALL-E. (Strangely, I thought, none of them had seen WALL-E during the previous summer. They had considered it a kid’s movie and stayed away. After showing the opening, they all went out and rented it.) This year I’ll show them clips from Avatar.
Summer vacation, inevitably September, and most of my 8th graders come back as 9th graders. They often stop me in the hallway and ask me if I’ve seen a particular summer movie. They tell me the movies they liked and disliked, often expressing some specific criticism of a summer blockbuster. This past September they expressed criticism of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. They’ve lost their viewing innocence, and I feel sort of guilty. But they’ve learned to look closely and to interpret, and I feel like I’ve done my job, teaching these watchers how to watch.
(What kind of guy is WALL-E?)