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March 2001, Week 2


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"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 11 Mar 2001 00:04:28 -0500
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I'd like to add a few points to the question of showing _October_ vs.
_Titanic_ as part of an intro film course.

I think both approaches have their uses and their problems.  Often the
decision is a question of how the course fits into the curriculum, rather
than about an abstract ideal.  Thus there are practical pedagogical
questions and questions of one's values.

While it is indeed difficult to get students into the mindset of past worlds
and art forms, that is part of what education is about:  learning that
things were different in the past, and that these past worlds were not
simply ignorant or trivial but as profound and rich as our own, but
different.  And that they are *our* past, and thus tell us about who we are.
This is where the practicalities connect to our educational values.

If we truly love film and what it can do, we owe it to our students not just
to show these clips but to make them vivid and meaningful.  After all, if
these shots are so influential and so often quoted in other films, there
must be some reason why, and getting the students to see why can be a
meaningful and personal experience that is different for each and every

If we show only films that appeal to students already and that they have
probably already seen, we run the risk of not broadening their worlds.  But
if we don't meet the students halfway, we run the risk of simply being
elitist and treasuring cultural masterpieces for no good reason.

I find it wrong-headed, however, to frame a debate about contemporary vs.
canonized masterpieces as an issue of anti-intellectual vs. intellectual.
One can construct a thoughtful context for _Titanic_ OR _American Pie_, or
one can approach _Citizen Kane_ in a shallow, naive and uninformed way.  The
date of the film does not determine whether one's response is intellectual
or anti-intellectual.

Constructing a meaningful context, however, requires knowledge of histories
and traditions--the long take, disaster films, changes in filmmaking
technology, or the conventions of comedy, e.g.--which may not be gleaned
only from looking at recent films, and thus history is constantly calling to
us to be made useful and fresh again.

(If your student listens to the audio commentary of _American Pie_ on the
DVD, he or she may find that the team that made it thought long and hard
about this type of film and the choices and values involved.  It is not a
thoughtless shallow work in the least.  And knowledge of _The Graduate_, at
least, might help.)

The thing that's distressing about the student note that Professor Monti
posted is that it sounds like an unfriendly jab at the professor--it's so
hard to tell out of context.  One could politely point out to the student
that claiming the object to be analyzed is not complex or deep and doesn't
require much analysis is perhaps not a good starting point, since it does
not justify the project of doing the analysis very well.

Also, although looking at _American Pie_, for instance, all by itself,
doesn't sound like a rich nuanced approach, in the context of a larger
course on romantic comedy, it might be a perfectly interesting project.

Thus I think the question comes back to (first) your pedagogical goals and
(second) your values about education itself.  Only sorting out how we feel
about these questions can we get a good sense of how to raise the issues
with our students.

Edward R. O'Neill
Bryn Mawr Colllege

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