The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The films of The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar always seemed to me mere thin skims of the story lines, and I never did see a meager Hollywood caper called Youngblood Hawke, vaguely based on my 800-page novel. So it was that I opted for television, with its much broader time limits, for The Winds of War."...  ...Herman Wouk.

Commentary of the Day - February 9, 2009: Reading Film.  Guest Commentary by Libby Segal.

Last Wednesday was my first day of class.  It was a day for teachers to warn us of the penalties for being tardy or for missing class.  It was a day for teachers to demand that we refrain from plagiarizing.  And last, it was a day for inspiring words.  My teacher noted how lucky we are to have the opportunity to view cinema and study it.  She described it as a "great" subject and so very "interesting."

She is right: how lucky we are to see films that have survived the ages, understand them, observe the cycle of film through time, and become introduced to all the elements that help draw audiences to films all over.

She is right: how lucky we are that we can learn to think critically by watching motion pictures rather than by reading words, because in the end it's just words that have been put into motion pictures.

On January 5, The Irascible Professor published an article by Mr. Henry Marchand entitled, "Books are Things with Pages."  In this piece, Marchand rants about "reading film" as being a cop-out for a class.  He even described a teacher who shows film in classes as an "inferior English teacher."  He goes on to write about how he uses films in his classes, but that he feels as though showing films "devalues books."  And, he insults "reading film" halfway through his essay as he opines that teachers no long rely on the "enjoyment of great books, poems, short stories, plays, and essays."

In my opinion, he is wrong.  Reading film, especially early film, is just as important as the reading of great books, great poems, great short stories, great plays, and great essays.  Reading film challenges us and gives us opportunities to relate to fictional characters, just as books do, with forms of nostalgia, character flaws, and realism.

In fact it might be that it is equally or more difficult to read film than literature at times.  I spent my fair share of time picking apart Shakespeare's Sonnets and Emily Dickinson’s famous poems during my senior year of high school.  I critiqued Hamlet, and I took a deeper look at George Orwell's 1984.  These were all difficult things for me to do. But with film, instead of having pages and pages to read through and make sense of, we have just two-three hours on average to piece together what the directors, producers, and writers have put together for us in our first viewing of a film.  When we view a movie in a theatre for the first time or in a class for the first time, there is no pause, no stop, no rewind, and no fast forward.  What we have is one shot, unless we pay for the film again, take it out of the library, or find a way to illegally watch it online at this point.  With books, and plays, and poetry, you can always page back, forward, skim, put down, or reread.  You have tons of chances.

Film classes give us these opportunities to analyze and understand what has been put together, and film classes also give us opportunities to argue design, genre, acting, plot, climax, lighting, sound, character development, setting, words, and actions.  Reading film allows us to explore the growth of the medium.  Who knew that we would go from silent films like Charlie Chaplin's "Gold Rush" to films with massive amounts of dialogue like David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."  Or that we would revisit realistic aesthetics used in Vittorio DeSica's "The Bicycle Thief" in today's movies like the Coen Brother's "No Country for Old Men."  If we didn't read film, we would be ignorant to how much film has evolved and how much today’s cinema relies on the past cinema.  Reading film has not replaced reading literature, but reading film is no easier than translating Homer's Odyssey into text that a student can understand.  In fact, as technology advances, it is probable that reading film will become an even more difficult and a more valued skill in a student.

My teacher is right.

How lucky we are that, in a world where people fear what our generation will bring, we are challenged so much by one of the largest industries in the entire world: -- cinema.  How lucky we are to have the opportunity to read film and discuss what could be one of the most difficult types of literature to understand.  How lucky we are to have professors who can make sense of all these elements found in film for us.  How lucky we are to have film classes.  How lucky we are.

2009, Libby Segal.
Elizabeth "Libby" Segal is a student at the University of Rhode Island.

The IP comments: Libby raises some interesting points about films, and the IP agrees that there can be value in studying films.  And, without a doubt there are serious college courses that examine film.  However, the IP is more inclined to agree with Marchand's comments on the relative worth of studying literature versus studying films.  Great films have an immediate effect on the emotions (an effect enhanced by visual elements that often exaggerate violence or passion) that may be lacking in great novels, but many great films are based on books, while few great books are based on films.  Perhaps it should be a requirement that before a student "reads" a film based on a book, he or she should read the book.  As an example, Capote's In Cold Blood was made into a truly great film, but the film was not nearly as great as the book.  Likewise, a number of Steinbeck's novels were adapted for the silver screen.  Many of the adaptations were great films, but to the IP the films never seemed quite as great as the books they were based upon.  Libby is lucky to have professors who can help her understand films, but she is even luckier to have access to a university library with all those books.

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