Monday, May 10, 2010

Teaching Watching

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?)


Scott Nye said...

Man, this is encouraging. It's easy for most of us to stay in a certain bubble, confident that those kids today just don't get it. But a post like this reminds me that when I was in 8th grade, I shelled out for Evolution and loved it. Helps to remember that sometimes all it takes is exposure, context, and the right questions.

Simon said...

My ninth grade film teacher showed us Citizen Kane, and the whole class were pretty indifferent (so was the teacher, come to think of it). I wasn't very enthralled, either, mostly because it's a one-viewing thing, and I already had my Rosebud cherry popped.

Excellent write-up, then.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice summary of some of your techniques, Hokahey. I find I don't have the patience to teach a silent film, and I have a bad tendency to cater to students' tastes (Bonnie and Clyde and Psycho always hold up well. Citizen Kane is hit or miss in my class.) You ask good questions, whereas I may jump in too quickly with analysis. I had never thought of showing chunks of 2001 before. I'd like to learn more about how you break down a scene.

Tomorrow, we will discuss The Godfather, and I was thinking of possibly posting about the treatment of women in the film. Is there another classic where they are treated worse?

Ed Howard said...

This is great. I wish I'd had a teacher like this back in middle school. I think I would've gotten heavily into film, and good film, far earlier than I did.

It is heartening to realize, as I've always suspected, that the tastes of modern youth are more malleable than the overwhelming dominance of blockbusters would suggest. It's so easy to just think that Hollywood is giving people what they want, and that tastes have been irrevocably dumbed down. But there's always a hunger for intelligent, sophisticated films, even if most people don't realize they have it.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks very much for the responses.

Scott -

They do get it - they're just so used to the trash that gets flung at them. When presented with something more artful and challenging, most of them love it.

Simon -

A teacher shouldn't have to teach something he or she is not enthusiastic about - though sometimes I have gained enthusiasm for books and movies that I hadn't really been crazy about. Sometimes, when I show Kane, I love to pause on an image just to say - "Now that's a freaking awesome shot." They chuckle - because they're just learning that one can be wildly enthusiastic about a single image - but the enthusiasm means a lot to them.


The Godfather. Good choice for a misogynist film.

As for how I break down a scene - First, if I'm showing an entire film, we will watch for a whole class period without any interruptions other than for me to pause and ask a question to make sure that they understand why something happened or to point out a significant detail. We only break down scenes when we are done watching the whole movie.

We just finished The Searchers and I rewound the final scene to pause to look at the choreography of that final "silent" tableau. We pasued on Debbie and commented on how white captives were often treated as outcasts when they were returned to white society. We paused on Martin and Laurie and talked about their resolved conflict. Then we paused on various shots of Ethan alone. What does this image suggest? Why can't he be part of the family?

For 2001 we watch without pause or question until the bone cuts to the satellite. First I say, "That's freaking awesome!" Then I ask, "How much time has passed?" Then I ask them, "What's the black monolith?" "How are things different after the monolith's appearance?"

I like chances like this for the more advanced students to express some great perceptions.

Does this answer your question?

Ed - Yes, it's very encouraging that teens this age might want more than what's out there for them. They come to me talking about how something like Scary Movie 2 or something like that is their favorite movie. Then they are mostly quite stimulated by what I show them. There are some interesting surprises. Some smarter students are resistant to the underlying meanings. Other students who have not been getting great grades in regular history simply lap it up and articulate great perceptions. Two years ago, a girl I considered just an average student who usually went to see silly teen movies just came out with some amazing comments that bowled me over. She also said, "Any movie with a fetus floating in space is an awesome movie!"

There are sharp young minds here just waiting to be blown away by some bold filmmaker.

The Film Doctor said...

Yes, thanks for your explanation.

"freaking awesome shot" --nice line.

I think the students can tell that I'm enthused about a movie, but I have a hard time having the patience to line up the shot when we can just talk it over in detail. It will probably take us two class periods to exhaust The Godfather one way or another.

At any rate, you are better at coaxing responses from students than I am. I will try to learn from your example. They've been keeping a blog with their written responses composed before class discussion of each movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr. -

I have to admit that I've had really sharp classes a couple of years in a row. But I have had classes of students who are predominantly slower on the uptake. Ah, patience! It's a hard one and I don't always master it, but I keep reminding myself that they're seeing these movies for the first time - so things might not be so readily clear to them.

Joel Bocko said...

I don't have the time right now to compose a full response, but I really loved reading this - a great piece and, as many have noted, very encouraging. We were all kids once and it's important to remember that above all, movies are fun. Your account of their reception to Kane reminds me of my own when I was very young; I didn't know or care much about the techniques I was just completely absorbed in the story and loved it.

Joel Bocko said...

Re: Godfather, I don't think the film itself should be seen as misogynist (that closing door at the end is rich with ambiguity) though the characters within it are obviously sexist.

Richard Bellamy said...

MovieMan -

Thanks for your comments. As for The Godfather - I was thinking more along the lines of the characters' treatment of women. It's a sexist culture and that is presented realistically in the film. Should have been clearer.

The Film Doctor said...

I guess that was what I was brooding about: how can one tell the difference between women portrayed in a sexist culture and a misogynist movie? The Godfather's wife hardly has a role at all. Kay wimpily agrees to marry Michael against her better judgment. The film is full of talk of the importance of the family, but meanwhile "women and children" don't have to worry, but men do. Women and children largely inhabit a false Eden while the men do their business elsewhere. In The Godfather: Part II, Kay divorces Michael, but that doesn't seem like enough. I wonder how a classic film can get away with conveying women in such a limited way. One sees the same problem in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Just Another Film Buff said...

I really don't mind doing my eighth grade all over now. Wonderful, wonderful stuff...

Craig said...

Outstanding and inspiring, Hokahey. Matt Zoller Seitz gave you a big plug for this piece, and deservedly so.

muchogroucho said...

I have a new hero!! I'm so knocked out by this. But how can you leave Casablanca out? C'mon teach!

Damian Arlyn said...


Great article. When I was a substitute teacher many years back, I briefly taught film to high schoolers and showed many of the same films you did (it was really a no-brainer for me as I've always loved movies it was easy to get my hands on the films since I was the assistant manager of a video store at the time). Responses to 2001, Citizen Kane were mixed and they obviously loved Jaws, but what most pleased me was that their warmest reception (emotionally speaking) was to City Lights. I've long wanted to pick that back up again (perhaps at a community level) and this piece is rather inspiring to that end. If I am unable to do that, though, my wife and I still plan to have kids someday and your method of showing children movies (of which a similar one is modeled by my good friend Tucker; he is currently educating his oldest daughter in films) is one I would like to emulate. Keep up the good work.


Tomorrow, we will discuss The Godfather, and I was thinking of possibly posting about the treatment of women in the film. Is there another classic where they are treated worse?

My vote is for the original King Kong. I personally find it to be more misogynist than any one of the Bond movies.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks, Damien. Nice to hear that about City Lights. There's something magical about it. One nice aspect is the clarity of the film itself. In addition, I think Chaplin's musical score is a masterpiece. A great film!

Jason Bellamy said...

Echoing something Ed said, I wish I'd had you for a teacher. I'd have learned how to watch movies much earlier, instead of just watching them.

The images you used in this post are perfect illustrations of the kinds of shots that should mean something to an attentive film fan.

I'm touched to see so many people responding to this post. I think it shows how much we all love movies. It's exciting to think about a new generation of moviegoers who will share our passion.

Great work, Hokahey.

Joel Bocko said...

FilmDr, I disagree with you here. While Cuckoo's Nest DEFINITELY has a misogynist streak, Godfather simply isn't about the women in this society. In this sense the films, particularly Part II, actually go out of their way to give Kay a role (after all, she's the WASPy outsider who doesn't fit the dutiful/abused framework of the other women in the story). Presuming that misogynistic accusations have a perjorative tone (though maybe I'm misreading you here), I just don't see how Godfather would be a "better" film if the women had stronger roles. It's about a society of men and their relationships and rules - to expand this to include the women in their lives would make a different movie altogether, and perhaps a less truthful one (already some of the Kay plot developments in Part II tiptoe on the edge of having an "obligatory" feel but they manage to work - unlike, say, the consistently annoying "nagging housewife" sequences in Donnie Brasco).

Joel Bocko said...

(Sorry to hijack the thread here, but it is an interesting discussion!)

Back to the main topic, I've often considered that the best use of a "teaching film" approach might not be preaching to the converted but rather attempting to win new hearts & minds - adults as well as kids. It would be nice to see free or cheap film "classes"/viewings/discussions pop up here and there. With Netflix and the wide availability of classics on DVD, it's the perfect time to do so (I think these do already occur to a certain extent, but am not sure how widespread they are).

Richard Bellamy said...

MovieMan -

I don't mind the discussion of female characters in The Godfather. It's actually connected to the kinds of things I discuss with my students - that images carry suggestions that might lead to multiple interpretations.

I know colleges and museums offer film courses or discussion groups, and often the people who go bring along a modicum of film literacy. What I find so exciting about doing this for 8th graders (which would not be the case if I taught it as a senior elective or if it were a course for college students) is that it is such a new experience for them. This is the FIRST time they have done any sort of film interpretation, and the newness of the experience is very exciting for them.

Another encouraging element of doing it in school is that they write about every movie I show them. Sometimes it's just answers to a number of questions, but mostly it's essays. They are learning to write about film - and that's an entirely new experience for them too. For some, it's a struggle. Some of them blow me away!

Jason -

Thanks for the appreciation and the links. You're right, this has brought in a lot of people excited about movies. And that's part of the excitement for the students. They see how enthusiastic I am about movies in general and they know I go to the movies every weekend. Every Monday starts with, "What did you see?" or "What did you think of ...?"

Anonymous said...

This is so inspirational. Beautiful, really.

I have a three year old son and I've been wondering how I'm going to introduce him to film. I think your insight into tracing how the collective audience's understanding of the language of cinema--over decades--is a great template for educating individuals is an excellent idea!

Richard Bellamy said...

saltobello - Thank you so much for your appreciative comment. This year I have three very sharp classes and they are coming up with some fine interpretations. We just finished viewing the final sequence in 2001, and some of them cleverly linked the ending with the beginning and came up with some great ideas.

As for your son, wait a couple of years and start with something delightful. The first film my wife and I showed our daughter was Bambi, skipping through the death of Mom, and Jane was enraptured and is 22 now and an avid movie-goer like her dad.