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Getting More Out of Movies - Part I

Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: January 2001
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For teenagers trying to avoid reading fiction, movies can be used to help teach the elements of literature as well as comprehension, reasoning and composition skills required in high school English. However, all students can benefit from learning how a filmmaker uses visual effects and sounds to accomplish in moments what may require several paragraphs or even pages of prose. This makes movies a useful supplement to any English program.

Movies must tell their stories in a very short time, so they rely on a variety of techniques in order to fully develop setting, tone, character, plot, and theme. Students should be directed to pay attention not only to dialogue and action, but to the use of background music, sound effects, and such visual clues as lighting, close camera shots on objects (which could indicate their importance, foreshadowing later events), and facial expressions and body language used by actors to suggest mood, motive, or attitude.

Just as rereading is necessary in analyzing a story, re-watching is necessary when discussing movies. Students should be instructed to watch with concentration the first time, pausing or rewinding the video if something passes too quickly, but with the expectation of watching again for specific information.

The following can be used for discussion or composition assignments with any movie.*

Identify the type of movie (genre) just as you do with literature: adventure, biography, comedy, drama, fantasy, historical fiction, mystery or suspense, science fiction, western.

Identify the setting. Where and when does the story take place? A specific date is not always available or necessary. As in written stories, "when" could be "long, long ago" or "the present." However, if there are events that place the story within a specific time period, that should be noted.

Identify the mood of various scenes as well as the tone of the story in general. Notice the director's choice of buildings, interiors and exteriors, as well as the lighting and music or other sounds and how these work together to create that mood. For example, the setting could be a poor English village in winter. The viewer may notice a lack of physical comforts and a barren landscape, but if this is shown using the bright sunlight glinting off the snow, or if contented people are shown snuggled around a fireplace with mugs full of steaming tea, the mood might be more cheerful than the apparent poverty might otherwise suggest. In contrast, mysteries often use shadows, dimly lit interiors, and dark or foggy exteriors to create a cautious, suspenseful tone throughout.

In the film The Quiet Man, the audience joins the hero, Sean Thornton, shortly after he arrives in his native Ireland. We travel with him from the train station through rolling hills of brilliant green, crossing a stone bridge over a babbling brook, finally reaching the quaint and picturesque cottage he has not seen since childhood. This setting, cheerful background music, and the sweet voice of his dead mother as Sean remembers her words about their home lead us to believe along with Sean that this is the idyllic place that he has been searching for. While he must face many trials, the musical score maintains an upbeat mood—even during the climatic fistfight—contributing to an overall light-hearted tone.

In contrast, Hitchcock's Rear Window has no countryside and no melodious soundtrack. Set in modern times like The Quiet Man, the audience is, however, immediately drawn into a very real world as the camera shows average people living in a typical apartment building with only the sounds of ordinary life—traffic, a neighbor playing the piano, a dog barking—as a "sound track." The mood begins with identification and then expectation as the director draws us into a mystery.

Lighting plays a supporting role in the western Shane. The pleasant mood created in the film's opening introduction of the homesteading family is interrupted when the cattle ranchers appear. Unconsciously, the audience recognizes the good guys from the bad guys even before any dialogue identifies them. The bright skies become dark and threatening when the villains enter the scene. Throughout the film bright sunny days surround the town folk, while dimly lit interiors and overcast skies indicate the presence of those to be feared.

Identify the motives, attitudes, or personality traits of characters by observing facial expressions and body language, as well as by considering dialogue and action. Without conscious effort audiences realize when someone is lying, nervous, happy, or in grief because we interpret the feelings of others in our lives according to their expressions or tone of voice. It is not the interpretation that is difficult, only the habit of observing these clues. Since only a few seconds of screen time may be used to provide important information, students should be trained to watch a film attentively. Detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon has an angry outburst in the apartment of the villain and storms out. Once out of the villain's sight, however, he straightens, slows his pace, and smiles slightly. These actions only take moments but reveal that his outburst was staged—an important clue in separating his motives from the persona he creates for effect.

Earlier in the same movie, the audience gets a quick but full-length glimpse of Spade's partner on an assignment. The camera jumps to a close up of the gun pointed at him as the fatal shot is fired. Those few seconds give the viewer all the clues necessary to draw the same conclusion as Sam when he looks at the body later. His partner's facial expression had revealed no fear or alarm. In fact, it had suggested pleasure or recognition, followed by confusion. That and the observation of his hands in his coat pockets suggest that he was killed unexpectedly by someone familiar or by someone he didn't recognize as a threat. The scene is brief and easily missed. An inattentive viewer might simply depend on later dialogue to give him the necessary facts in order to summarize the plot, but then he'd miss the fun of being a detective and sharpening his own deductive reasoning skills.

NEXT MONTH: More about understanding characters along with identification of techniques that contribute to the development of plot and theme.

* Movies As Literature is the perfect text for beginning a study of literature through film. Critical Conditioning, contains questions for discussion and composition for literature in general and Guides to History Plus lists movies available on video that can be used during the study of a specific time period. Written by Kathryn Stout, both are available from Design-A-Study.


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