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IMAGES ARE EVERYTHING

 

THE ABC OF CINEMA

I recently attended a panel discussion under the heading, “Education, Film and Culture – What’s Missing?” It was part of a series of seminars, primarily aimed at educators, dedicated to exploring the relationship between children and film in a world dominated by moving images, and in a country with the highest per capita cinema attendance in Europe. The encouraging thing I took away from the discussion was that most of teachers there seemed genuinely concerned with giving kids an awareness and understanding of how the images they are inundated with every day affect and influence them, and with giving them the skills so that they can learn to analyse and step outside these systems of images, instead of becoming mindlessly indoctrinated by them.

However, there was one discouraging incident which I fear is more representative of the way most people in Ireland view the situation. When the panel’s discussion moved into the area of how teachers should be trained to teach film, one teacher in the audience interjected. She argued that it was patronising to say that teachers required any such training – these are people, after all, who have studied Shakespeare. Why do they need training to talk about a movie? They’ve grown up watching TV and going to the cinema just like everybody else.

To think that it’s patronising to say “teachers need to be taught to teach film,” constitutes an attitude that is completely patronising of cinema itself – and further proof that such training is necessary. It betrays a facile understanding of film to believe that just being familiar with moving images makes one as literate in them as a course in Shakespeare makes one in the Bard. Of course most people can boast a certain level of literacy (though even the use of that term belies a certain bias) in moving media – but only to the extent that most people are perfectly capable of stringing a few sentences together and reading a newspaper.

The very purpose of education is to get people past such a basic stage of literacy, to a level where, more than being able to simply “read” a system of images (that is, a movie, TV show, etc) – they are able look at it critically and understand how it works. It’s mistaken to think that one achieves this by simply existing in a media-saturated society. Another Irish film-and-education related event has proved this year in year out: the Fresh Film Festival, held annually in Limerick, screens a wide selection of short films made by teenagers from around the country. I’ve attended the screenings for the past 4 years, and was on the judging panel that selected the films this year.

While the quality of these films vary widely, what’s always surprising is the extent to which the so-called MTV generation generally fail to live up to their reputation. For kids who are brought up watching TV shows where no shot ever lasts more than a few seconds (seemingly for no other reason than to distract the viewer from ever forming a coherent though), it seems bizarre at first, then, that most of the films made by teenagers have a pacing more akin to an eastern European art film.

The difference, of course, is that it’s not intentional. While the teenagers nearly always mimic familiar genres – horror, crime, etc – they don’t have a clear enough understanding of what made those Hollywood films scary or cool (or even interesting) to be able to do the same in theirs. Consequently, at least on their first film, the kids just point and shoot, with no consideration of pacing or the effect camera angles, editing, etc, have on the viewer. They may watch MTV and Hollywood, and they may want to emulate them, but they don’t really understand how they work well enough to do so.

Of course what’s great about the Fresh is that it helps develop this sort of understanding. Seeing your own film on the big screen, comparing it with others, seeing the reaction of an audience – it all helps you begin to figure these things out. What’s wrong with the education system is that it’s absolutely useless in this respect.

 

FILM IN EDUCATION

If Michael D. Higgins’ was right in his claim that the Irish government “patronize the arts as opposed to being patrons of the arts,” then it’s certainly doubly true for cinema, and nowhere more clear than on the Leaving Cert English course. The films chosen as options for the English Comparative Study module, while not exactly braindead blockbusters, are, as Tony Tracy pointed out in his article ‘Film in Irish Education’, all “produced according to the production values and conventions of mainstream Hollywood cinema and all are narratives in the classic, three-act structure mould, driven by a central male character.” This, along with the fact that the chosen film must be studied in comparison with two literary texts (and studied under headings such as “literary genre”), ensures that the films are looked at from an almost purely narrative point of view. Issues of style or form never enter into the debate because the films chosen are stylistically conventional and recognisable.

When Film Ireland wrote on their Education page about one of the selected films, Strictly Ballroom, they justified it as “an excellent choice for Leaving Cert comparative study” because it is “accessible, fun and fast-paced.” In other words, its style is so transparent and populist that you can immediately bypass it and get straight down to the nitty-gritty of analysing the plot and events – those elements that you’ll be able to compare with whatever book and play you’ve chosen. Such analysis is not entirely useless – no doubt one can develop valuable literary skills in the process – but it’s got fuck all to do with the study of cinema.

The contrast between the selection of films chosen and the selection of literature is also striking. The suggestion of putting any of John Grisham’s novels on the English books curriculum, amongst the works of Shakespeare and Sophocles, would be laughable – yet trashy, inconsequential works such as Cinema Paradiso and Strictly Ballroom are wholeheartedly embraced on the film curriculum. There’s a perverse double standard at work here, with books seemingly chosen on merits such as artistic worth or cultural importance, and films because, like Film Ireland said, they’re “accessible, fun and fast-paced.” Surely these weren’t the values they had in mind when Macbeth and Oedipus were selected?

An argument could be made that, were more important films offered on the course – say the works of Ozu, Bresson, Tarkovsky or a dozen other masters – they would be too advanced and complicated for the average teenager to take in. I’m sure the average teenager would also have an easier time reading Grisham than Shakespeare ­­–– but we don’t take Macbeth out of the curriculum and replace it with The Rainmaker.

Since the inclusion of film on the Art course is even more trivial – one of a dozen options for an Appreciation question, and usually focussing, for some strange reason, on special effects driven films – I think it’s closer to the truth not to say that film has become a significant part of second level education and deserves to be expanded, but that film doesn’t really feature at all in education in any significant way. Its inclusion on the English course, while giving the appearance of an admirable first step towards film studies, merely serves to develop literary analytical skills, and goes no way towards developing any sort of “cineliteracy.” Granted, such education may not be necessarily vital to anyone’s existence, but I think a much more cogent case can be put forth for its value than for that of trigonometry or long division – and it would certainly come into play more on a daily basis.

 

THE ANSWER

I can’t say I’ve got the perfect solution for how film should be taught in the Leaving – but isn’t the first step to admit that there’s a problem? Certainly the possibility of introducing a separate film/media course should be explored. Some say that we’re simply not ready for such a development – but that seems a little like Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s recent claim that China isn’t ready for democracy. A less radical suggestion was made by Tony Tracy in his aforementioned article: why not incorporate film on the Art History course? That way students could get a much-lacking understanding of how cinema has developed over the past century.

The importance of all this goes beyond the ethos “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” (or, probably more prevalently, “knowledge for points’ sake”) on which most second level education is based. The moving image is an immensely powerful tool in today’s world – both politically, and in terms of shaping a society’s values. It was with that in mind that Irish filmmaker Joe Comerford argued we need to “reclaim the forms of storytelling” for ourselves – but we need to understand how they work first.

 

 

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