Teaching Movies

I wrote this up five years ago for some friends and decided to add it here, because I wanted to start writing about the importance of movies in teaching. I’ve mentioned my enrichment class before; I teach summer school every year. The first year, I had an whole extra week without a book planned, so I asked the director if I could teach a week of movies. By some miracle, he said yes.
*******

I’ve been heading a summer school film festival this week, which thus far has been a roaring success.
My first plan, offered to assuage any concerns the director might have, included these three movies:

  • White Heat
  • Fort Apache
  • His Girl Friday

I liked all these films, but more importantly they included four quintessentially American film types: gangster and noir, Western, screwball comedy. I was concerned that if I just chose purely fun movies, the director might be worried.

Two things happened to change my plans. First, the director wasn’t even in the building the first day, nor did he have the DVD player and large screen monitor available (he’d forgotten). Second, I only owned White Heat, but had ordered the other films last week and damned if they weren’t late. They’re finally arriving today.

After tearing home and grabbing my 7 year old laptop, which I keep around only to watch DVDs when there’s no TV handy, I became far less concerned about what the director wanted. Fort Apache got booted, Singin in the Rain and Rear Window got added.

Learning objectives:

  • Taking notes in the dark, while someone else is talking. They have to do it in high school and college, so may as well start now.
  • Writing film reviews, writing a synopsys, and the occasional persuasive essay.
  • Reading film reviews.
  • Analyzing characters and motivations.

Day 1: White Heat

Popcorn: None. I wasn’t sure that Asian kids would like popcorn. They assured me they would.

They were interested in White Heat, but it was an academic interest. They certainly enjoyed the great lines, and watching Jimmy Cagney, but the investigation scenes didn’t make up in interest what they added in lack of excitement. I suspect that the film will always be associated with “dramatic irony” though, as most of them heard the term for the first time when I explained it.
Without my planned films, I resorted to my own library. I also hooked up an old monitor to the laptop, creating two viewing areas. Sound remains an issue, dammit–the sound quality is fine, but the volume is a bit low.

Day 2: Singin’ in the Rain

Popcorn: Two full batches. I brought paper bags and salt. They devoured it in 20 minutes.

I selected Singin in the Rain first because I had it, second because it would be a nice change after Heat and finally, glory be, for relevance. As an opening lecture to the festival, I explained the history of movies, going through the impact of The Jazz Singer, the lack of technical expertise, and the problems that some actors had with squeaky voices. As part of the intro to this film, I naturally explained the difference between a Broadway and Hollywood musical, the importance of the Freed unit, and how the screenplay writers had been told that they had to write a story that fit this group of songs.

Big success. They loved every moment (confession: I skipped through the Broadway Melody section). They were riveted by the dance scenes; many of them noted that “they don’t chop it up, like in Chicago.” They laughed in all the right places. In their reviews, they all mentioned “the evil but funny Lina” and the great “dignity” speech. They were duly impressed that Cathy was Princess Leia’s mom, but even more stunned that Jean Hagen was dubbing her own voice, as Debbie lacked gravitas.

Day 3: Rear Window

Popcorn: 3 full batches, likewise devoured in 20 minutes. I am not sure where the bottom lies.
I wasn’t sure if they’d like Rear Window, but I thought it safer than The Third Man, and while I had It Happened One Night, I was still hoping my movies would come in and I didn’t want to preclude His Girl Friday.

Their note taking had gotten spotty, so this time I made them to track all the major characters, track all the “window stories”, and also the usual note good quotes, good scenes, and any questions. This did the trick; all of them had two pages of notes.

Three quarters of Rear Window is, as Roger Ebert notes, elegant foreplay. It then ratchets up the suspense with three exquisite shocks:

  • The Miss Lonelyhearts distraction cut to Thorwald’s return with Lisa still in his apartment.
  • Thorwald’s look from Lisa’s ring to Jeff, looking on.
  • Jeff answering the phone. “Hello, Tom? I think Thorwald’s cleared out. Hello?” and then his look of horror as he realizes who has called.

The students were fascinated throughout, commenting on the various “window plots” and speculating about what Thorwald had done. They gasped as one during the three shock scenes, laughing in horror and telling Lisa to “run!” And when it was over, they asked if they could have another Hitchcock today. I told them no! but you know, he’s at Blockbuster and on Netflix.

I was grinning like a lunatic during the last 25 minutes. As a teacher and a movie buff, I couldn’t have been more pleased by their response.

Day 4: His Girl Friday

I was worried it’d be a bit of a letdown after the huge success of Window and it was, just a bit. But still.

Their three biggest laughs:

  • After Walter has relegated Hitler, the Chinese earthquake, and the Polish corridor to page 6 or the funny pages, he says “No, keep the rooster story. That’s human interest.”
  • The entire scene with Bruce’s mother, from her entrance to her exit over Louie’s shoulders.
  • “Hey, I wonder if Bruce can put us up!”

Before the film, I had given them a good deal of info on Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant (including Grant’s real name), so they got both of those jokes. I also told them what newspapers were like in that era, that big cities had 6 or 7 papers at least, and that newspapers were far more influential then. They absolutely got the message when the reporters gave fifty different versions (“Earl didn’t give up without a fight!” “Earl didn’t struggle!” “Earl tried to shoot, but his gun wasn’t loaded!”), and that for all our complaints about the media, things are a lot better these days.

They also loved the cameraderie of the press corps. One of my favorite moments in HGF occurs after the men have humiliated Molly and she leaves in tears. They know they’ve gone too far, and are sitting in silent embarrassment. It’s one of the only quiet moments in the film. Anna said, “Look, they feel bad” and the rest murmured in agreement. Later, when Molly shows up again, Michael pointed out how nice the reporters were at first, to make up for their rudeness.

So now it’s over. Lordy, I want to do that again. The whole summer was a great deal of fun, but this last week was teaching nirvana for me.

***************

This week was hugely influential in my teaching. To my elation, the kids really responded to “old” movies. Thanks to the ten kids in the class that day, a couple hundred kids have seen movie classics whenever I had a few spare hours.

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2 responses to “Teaching Movies

  • Propaganda Films « educationrealist

    […] before I became a public school teacher, I was showing movies in my enrichment classes, a polite and entirely Asian group of 6-10 kids. I get more leeway and more patience from them, so […]

  • surfer

    My favorite movies:

    *High Noon
    *12 O’clock High
    *Breaking Away
    *The Great Escape
    *It’s a Wonderful Life
    *The Sound of Music

    Have not seen White Heat, will take a look. For the others has been a while and don’t remember them well.

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