Friday, June 11, 2010

Teaching Watching, Part II

School's out! Summer vacation! Last month, I shared the term-long film history unit I teach to 8th graders. In this brief follow up, I present passages from spontaneous, uncoached student responses to the ambiguous endings in The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Graduate

This is not a completely happy ending. Elaine will no longer be able to associate with her parents or friends. She has also just run off with a man she barely knows and who has had an affair with her mother. They awkwardly look forward, which implies that it will not work out between them.

The image of Elaine looking at Ben suggests that she is worried about their future.

The ending is not a completely happy one. There are lots of questions unanswered. Elaine can’t see her parents or friends again, she ran away with someone she barely knows, and she has nothing in common with Ben. Her uncertainty is shown when she turns to him and watches him, as if saying, “Who is this? What did I just do? What’s going to happen next?” Some of Elaine’s questions may be the same questions that the viewer has. We are not completely sure if Ben is happy either.

This ending seems ambiguous because the runaway couple has no place to go. They turn their backs on the only family members and community they’ve ever had. Also, their smiles fade, which suggests concern. Elaine looks at Benjamin questioningly and so you can already see doubts in the marriage.

2001: A Space Odyssey

David tries to become wiser and older in order to fully understand the monolith but can’t. So he finally becomes a fetus, so open to anything being possible and accepting that he can finally understand and comprehend the monolith.

The end is trying to show that Homo sapiens are becoming old and obsolete. The black monolith gives birth to a new, more perfect species that is represented by the fetus.

The fetus symbolizes that there’s something more powerful than humans that we will never understand.

It also represents the next step in evolution is beyond our imagining. The meaning of the giant fetus is not literal. It shows that what humans are about to become is too large to conceive.

I believe that the baby symbolizes rebirth on a larger plane of advancement and sentience.

We spent our last few days watching major portions of Avatar and discussing possible subtext. Iraq. Halliburton. Native Americans. The Black Hills. It was also a fitting conclusion to a look at filmmaking technology starting with the use of mattes, stop-motion animation, and dissolves in Chaplin's The Gold Rush and ending with the best example of mocap and the height of CGI in Cameron's visual epic.

Well accustomed to the CGI blockbuster, my students were predictably receptive, but the most touching aspect for me was seeing them so engrossed in the final battle sequence. Students who hadn't seen the movie were on the edge of their seats. "Does he die?" "Does she die?" They moaned when Trudy went down. They cheered when the ikran chomped that guy in the helicopter and flung him away. Though Avatar was nowhere near as challenging as the other films they had watched, and most of them had seen it before, my students seemed to get a lot out of this viewing. They knew what to watch for.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice post. I like to think The Graduate ends as it does because Nichols knew that if Elaine and Ben were to talk, then the movie would have to continue, so their silence is both nicely ambiguous and efficient at getting the movie over with.

As for the end of 2001, I never knew what to think of that. Perhaps Kubrick knew that the less he explained things, the more effective the ending would be. Your teaching posts are helpful. I probably don't allow students in film classes to talk enough, since I tend to pile on my enthusiastic analysis.

Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, the silent ending is perfect for The Graduate. When the student who wrote that Elaine worries about their future read her comments, another student reference the beginning of the film with Ben worrying about his future.

2001 is just the perfect movie to use as an exercise for interpretation. They watch the ending, and then I say, "Write." I also tell them that a good movie gives viewers enough evidence throughout the movie to come to an interpretation of any seemingly inscrutable parts. Very nicely, they used what they knew about the beginning of the movie and applied it to the end.

Craig said...

Very nice.

Interesting tidbit about the ending of "The Graduate": had they shot what was actually in the script, that last screencap would have included guests and members of the wedding chasing the bus down the street until the final fadeout. Which would have been amusing, but might have taken something away from the gravitas.

Richard Bellamy said...

Craig - Thanks for the tidbit. There are a number of stories like this in which some common sense and judicious editing have saved a movie from a ridiculous ending. Not that it's on a par with The Graduate, but for Titanic they had shot a version of the final scene in which old Rose gets ready to toss the necklace and she gets intercepted by Bill Paxton's character and her granddaughter.

Drew McIntosh said...

Excellent stuff, Hokahey!

Two of my favorite film endings ever. The Graduate is just a perfect mixture of subtlety emotionally complexity, and 2001 never fails to give me chills with its staggering vision and brilliant visuals.

What a lucky class!

Richard Bellamy said...

Drew, thanks. When it cuts to the black monolith in the white room, I always remark on what an amazing shot it is. We need more amazing filmmaking today!