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Patrick Halbrook

A Classical Study of Film?

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Does a course in Film Studies belong in a classical curriculum? Last year, one of our students wrote a senior thesis arguing that it does.

I've taught such a course for the past few years and have a few thoughts on this subject, but I'd love to hear others' ideas as well.

What do you think? Specifically...

1) Why should Film Studies be (or not be) part of a classical curriculum?
2) What does a classical approach to Film Studies look like pedagogically?
3) Should this be an ongoing subject of study from year to year, or an add-on, such as a high school elective?
4) (And what other important questions do we need to ask?)

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Historically speaking, film studies isn't classical curriculum. In the classical and medieval periods the closest equivalent would have been "drama" or "plays," which weren't (to my knowledge, though I could be wrong) taught in Greece, Rome, or the Medieval period as part of the primary or secondary studies. I think this is partly due to the fact that classical education has historically sought to mold statement, lawyers, and theologians rather than public entertainers.

That being said, I think extra-curricular film analysis is a wonderful way to use the skills students are gaining from a classical education. We have a classical film program at our school that watches a movie per quarter, chosen by one of the teachers. There is usually some prefatory lecture with things to pay attention to, watching the film, and then discussion of the film.

I'm sure that films have a place in "the Great Conversation," but since film is such a recent historical phenomenon, it doesn't have a solid canon. Perhaps that would be a good debate for classical educators to be having?

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For some reason, this question conjures up in my mind a dark evening long, long ago. Everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, is gathered around a fire, quietly listening to a bard who is telling a tale. As he speaks, sometimes half singing, he uses a small stringed instrument on his lap to add a musical layer to his story--a few merry notes, or a low-keyed strum.

Fast forward to a movie theater in 2018, and it's only a little bit different. A lot of people are gathered in the dark to watch/hear a story.

In theory, I think films should serve the same role as the oral story-telling tradition, but if they are going to do that, it works best if you restore the element of community (instead of a group of strangers) and see the same films again a few times. The family is arguably the best place for this to occur. It's not really so much "school" material as it is enculturation. You have to ask the question about whether the precious few hours the school has are best used in this way. Kids are going to watch films anyway, but perhaps not the films their teachers would choose for them. So, I think there could be a place in the school routine for an occasional film, but as a parent, if I were paying premium tuition to have my child in a classical school, I'd be doing that because I wanted them exposed to something I couldn't easily give them at home.

Another question, though, is whether the way we enjoy films isn't the same way we should approach Beowulf or the Odyssey--if they shouldn't just be read for enjoyment and appreciation first (poetically, let's say) before we make them into something to study. Lots of food for thought here.

 

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14 hours ago, KarenG said:

For some reason, this question conjures up in my mind a dark evening long, long ago. Everyone in the community, or nearly everyone, is gathered around a fire, quietly listening to a bard who is telling a tale. As he speaks, sometimes half singing, he uses a small stringed instrument on his lap to add a musical layer to his story--a few merry notes, or a low-keyed strum.

Fast forward to a movie theater in 2018, and it's only a little bit different. A lot of people are gathered in the dark to watch/hear a story.

In theory, I think films should serve the same role as the oral story-telling tradition, but if they are going to do that, it works best if you restore the element of community (instead of a group of strangers) and see the same films again a few times. The family is arguably the best place for this to occur. It's not really so much "school" material as it is enculturation. You have to ask the question about whether the precious few hours the school has are best used in this way. Kids are going to watch films anyway, but perhaps not the films their teachers would choose for them. So, I think there could be a place in the school routine for an occasional film, but as a parent, if I were paying premium tuition to have my child in a classical school, I'd be doing that because I wanted them exposed to something I couldn't easily give them at home.

Another question, though, is whether the way we enjoy films isn't the same way we should approach Beowulf or the Odyssey--if they shouldn't just be read for enjoyment and appreciation first (poetically, let's say) before we make them into something to study. Lots of food for thought here.

 

I think your answer assumes that the pedagogy of a film course would be identical to what a family or community can and would offer on their own. However, I don't think that assumption is warranted, since book reading can fall into the same category. The element that homes and communities lack is the skilled teacher who instructs, guides, and forms in students the skills necessary for drawing out the meaning and significance of a film. Like good literary analysis, good film analysis requires more than exposure (though exposure is necessary). But I wonder if you sense of "getting what they could get at home" stems in part from a point I was making, which is that there is no canon of film, such that the films worthy of our time and efforts have already been sifted through the history of intellectual and spiritual culture.

I'll raise my hand with those who believe that there are films that will stand the test of time and scrutiny and provide to human beings a powerful and formative impression of what it means to be human in the world that God has made, but it seems that the task at hand now is for those who have been classically trained to begin sifting through the history of film and engaging in debates about what belongs in the canon and why.

Edited by JTB_5

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First, I agree that films will stand the test of time and provide a powerful and formative impression of what it means to be human. Like other stories that have endured. But I would question whether the stories that are canon became canon because trained or skilled people decided they were canon. I think they became canon because the humans gathered in the dark urged "tell this story" or "tell that story"--and they asked for repetition of what they wanted to hear because those stories spoke to them, touched their hearts, and inspired or motivated or comforted them in some way. Scholars can do no more than recognize canon; they don't dictate what it is.

That being the case, it's just too soon to have a canon of films, perhaps, but the best step would be for the adults in the community to share the films that they love with the next generation, so they have a chance to love them, too.

As far as classical pedagogy goes, I'm strongly in favor teaching in the poetic mode for most of the years allotted to K-12. Exposure--a single viewing of a film--is no basis for analysis. I'm old enough to remember when our viewing was limited to what the networks were showing, and we looked forward from year to year to that one opportunity to see a favorite film or show. It's one reason I think that beginning analysis with fairy tales is so wise--kids are fully familiar with Beauty and the Beast or Snow White, so analyzing doesn't interfere with their poetic appreciation.

Assuming that teaching in poetic mode is a classical objective, I can imagine creating a film culture in a school by mimicking my childhood limitations. Showing one film per quarter, it might be a school custom to view the same films each year (I'm just thinking of the upper school here--say, 7-12--and think how carefully you'd have to select your films). The first few years, you'd just enjoy them perhaps. And then maybe in 9th grade, you'd be asked to write about your favorite character--which one would you want to be like and why? In 10th grade, you might be asked to create alternative dialogue for a scene or write a scene that occurs off-camera. And then only in 11th or 12 grade, when you've seen the films enough times to really know them, would an analysis be attempted.

I'm not sure the assumption that literature or films are meant to be analyzed is consistent with classical objectives. I've pretty much absorbed Norms and Nobility as the seminal work on classical education in our time, so my assumptions tend to come from there.

Quote

Yet the monsters in Beowulf, to my knowledge, perplex only the graduate student who ponders their metaphysical significance. What 12-year-old worries about the appearance of monsters in a story of Viking conquests and of the struggle between good and evil? A classic like Beowulf endures because it tells a story more wonderfully and makes an argument more convincingly than any imitator can. Its unaffected simplicity, inimitable beauty, and incisive clarity are precisely what ought to place it at the heart of the curriculum. When fastidious doubts and analytical dredging are not allowed to muddy the waters, the surface of a classic, dancing with light, mirrors the depths of its own accord and reveals its truth at the young reader's own level of maturity and insight. (Norms and Nobility, p. 136)

I tend to think we should apply the same principle to films--to show them to our students and let them have their effect. There is a role for a teacher here, but films--and literature--were made to be enjoyed, not studied. In the poetic tradition, we have to let that level of knowledge happen first.

And I've taken the discussion in a different direction from the original question--sorry about that. Unless "what other questions do we need to ask?" covers it. Because if you were going to do what I suggest--choose a small collection of films to become a part of your school's tradition, what would you choose?

Edited by KarenG
Typos, as usual.

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4 hours ago, KarenG said:

But I would question whether the stories that are canon became canon because trained or skilled people decided they were canon.

I wasn't arguing that classical educators having debates about the canon is what made the existing canon of literature. I am saying that if we want to have a film studies course then the conversation of what should be taught (what meets the "standard") should be happening.

 

4 hours ago, KarenG said:

Exposure--a single viewing of a film--is no basis for analysis.

If the only preparation for the viewing is to come and see, then I agree. However, I don't think that analysis is unwarranted given preparation and preliminary guidance. We judge things all the time based upon our first exposure. It isn't wrong to do so, provided we understand that our conclusions are limited and tenuous.

 

4 hours ago, KarenG said:

Showing one film per quarter, it might be a school custom to view the same films each year (I'm just thinking of the upper school here--say, 7-12--and think how carefully you'd have to select your films).

Our school does this, but limits the ages to 9th - 12th.

 

4 hours ago, KarenG said:

I'm not sure the assumption that literature or films are meant to be analyzed is consistent with classical objectives. I've pretty much absorbed Norms and Nobility as the seminal work on classical education in our time, so my assumptions tend to come from there.

It all depends on what one means by analysis. I don't agree with analysis that attempts to condemn or dismiss any work (prior to understanding it, in the least), but analysis--the discussion of what is happening and what it means and how it can be applied--does not seem antithetical to classical objectives. I also recognize that over-analysis ruins the formative power of stories, as the quote from Hicks exposes, so I have in mind something like a golden mean.

It is a fruitful discussion and reflects well upon the content and methods classical educators are using in other areas.

 

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I love the input here!

My own film class is an optional high school elective for grades 9-12 that meets three times a week for 55 minutes each. The technical name of the course is "The History of Film" (I think because I'm mostly a history teacher? I didn't name it) and we watch about a dozen films in roughly chronological order to give students a sense of the major genres and the direction of film for the past hundred years or so.

I really just have two basic goals: 1) to get students watching, appreciating, and enjoying good-quality films that they would be unlikely to watch on their own, and 2) to teach students to approach film the same way they would analyze a novel in literature class: plumbing the depths of meaning, themes, and character development, rather than simply watching films as mindless entertainment.

My criteria for choosing films is somewhat arbitrary, but most films meet the following criteria: 1) Film critics (i.e. the AFI) consider them significant and/or they are able to prompt discussions on important topics, 2) The students generally like and/or appreciate them, and 3) I don't personally mind watching them over and over again every semester 🙂

Here are films that now make up my list after teaching the class for a few years (we don't usually have time to get to all of them):

  1. A Trip to the Moon (1905)
  2. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  3. Modern Times (1936)
  4. Gone with the Wind (1939)
  5. Citizen Kane (1941)
  6. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  7. The Third Man (1949)
  8. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  9. Rear Window (1954)
  10. Ben Hur (1959)
  11. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  12. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
  13. Star Wars (1977)
  14. Chariots of Fire (1981)
  15. Life is Beautiful (1997)
  16. The Truman Show (1998)
  17. Spirited Away (2001)
  18. Signs (2002)

Other films we have shown over the years include The Seventh Seal, Rashomon, Vertigo, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Village, Gallipoli, Dead Poet's Society, Midnight in Paris, The Ten Commandments, The Searchers, Harvey, A Man for All Seasons, and a few others.

One of my favorite themes, which we come back to over and over again, is the question of how these films define what it means to be a hero. Is George Bailey a hero? If so, how? What about Eric Liddell? In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is the real hero the cynical cowboy played by John Wayne or the gregarious east-coast lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart? Most of them have already seen Star Wars, but it prompts an opportunity to point out how similar the storyline and characters are to all their other favorites (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.) and to introduce them a little to Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces and his paradigm of the hero's journey. Heroism is also a major theme in their 10th grade Medieval Literature class, so it is interesting to see whether and how they are able to make connections between genres and classes.

Finally, I've also come to see my film class as yet another means of fighting against chronological snobbery. I really enjoy watching how surprised students are to find themselves laughing hysterically at black and white silent films, or getting really into Gone with the Wind. Some of them enjoy the films enough to go home and watch them again with their families...which brings us back around to Karen's insight about a family setting being one of the best settings for watching and enjoying a good movie.

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A further topic for discussion in analyzing film, especially from a Christian perspective, is the ways in which non-Christian filmmakers represent reality accurately or inaccurately. Or, to put it another way: to what degree and in which films do filmmakers present a faithful account of the real world, even tapping into Christian themes by accident (as a result of common grace) vs. distorting their picture of reality according to their own rebellious vision of reality (because of the sinful desire to "suppress the truth," cf. Romans 1)?

I suppose this is a question we ask of Homer and Virgil, too.

Christian books on film tend to emphasize one or the other of these two tendencies. For a book emphasizing the "common grace" perspective, see Mike Cosper's The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth. For a book emphasizing the "suppressing the truth" perspective, see Grant Horner's Meaning at the Movies: Becoming a Discerning Viewer. (Horner, incidentally teaches at The Master's University and is involved at Trinity Classical Academy; I've heard him speak at the ACCS conference a number of times).

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I've been reading through CM's volume 5--Formation of Character--and I'm right in the middle of a section about parents (whose children are going to school) developing their child's appreciation for culture. She isn't thinking about films, obviously, but I think some of things she says about books and poetry are applicable.
 

Quote

 

In the first place, to get information is not the object of the family reading, but to make the young people acquainted with the flavour of, to give them a taste for a real "book"--that is, roughly speaking, a work of so much literary merit, that it should be read and valued for the sake of that alone, whatever its subject-matter.

This rule makes a clean sweep of the literature [and films, don't you think?] to be found in nine houses of ten.

 

Quote

It is not important that many books should be read; but it is important that only good books should be read; and read with such ease and pleasant leisure, that they become to the hearers so much mental property for life.

And here's a little guideline for determining the value of more recent books that can be applied just as readily to films:

Quote

...let some of the leisure of youth be spent upon "standard" authors, that have lived through, at least, twenty years of praise and blame.

 

I haven't seen every film on the list, either--but most of them! I do think of this kind of culture as being an adjunct to literature, but it does help to anchor the themes and ideas of the past into our current culture. I think the idea of "classical" education is not universally appealing to young minds until they see its relevance to the world they live in. And they must.

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On 11/21/2018 at 6:26 PM, Patrick Halbrook said:

 

Here are films that now make up my list after teaching the class for a few years (we don't usually have time to get to all of them):

  1. A Trip to the Moon (1905)
  2. Sherlock Jr. (1924)
  3. Modern Times (1936)
  4. Gone with the Wind (1939)
  5. Citizen Kane (1941)
  6. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  7. The Third Man (1949)
  8. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  9. Rear Window (1954)
  10. Ben Hur (1959)
  11. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  12. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
  13. Star Wars (1977)
  14. Chariots of Fire (1981)
  15. Life is Beautiful (1997)
  16. The Truman Show (1998)
  17. Spirited Away (2001)
  18. Signs (2002)

This is a great list. It's helpful to hear that your students enjoy the older films as I'm currently planning to launch a film elective next year. We have a similar schedule of 3 classes/week at 55 minutes, and I'm curious how you structure watching the films. Do you have enough time on the third day to discuss (as I assume it requires two class periods plus some of a third to finish)?

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22 hours ago, Paul Dixon said:

This is a great list. It's helpful to hear that your students enjoy the older films as I'm currently planning to launch a film elective next year. We have a similar schedule of 3 classes/week at 55 minutes, and I'm curious how you structure watching the films. Do you have enough time on the third day to discuss (as I assume it requires two class periods plus some of a third to finish)?

Yes: in a typical week I'll spend a few minutes introducing a film before starting it on Monday, we will spend all/most of class watching it on Wednesday, and we'll finish it Friday with 20-30 minutes to spare for discussion. If I can fit the whole film into Monday and Wednesday, I will. I don't like spreading them out more than necessary, since that's not how films were made to be watched. Sometimes we end up with a different schedule, such as when we're watching all four hours of Gone with the Wind (during which we also stop for discussion every couple of days).

Before we start I'll give students some questions to ponder while we're watching so they have something to pay attention to during the film. Sometimes they'll take notes, other times they'll just watch. Yesterday we finished Chariots of Fire, and each day as we'd start I'd remind them to notice the similarities and differences between Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, especially what motivates each of them to run; we also noted and discussed key quotes from the film that revealed their characters to us. On the more technical side of things they paid special attention to the music, and afterwards we discussed whether it fit well with the story and directing or not.

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