Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Subject of Cinema

Shortly after the beginning of the war in Iraq, as the insurgency emerged as a serious threat to the American war effort, U.S. military commanders started screening The Battle of Algiers to troops in hopes of shedding some light on understanding and successfully waging a counter-insurgency campaign. Gillo Pontecorvo's classic and controversial film reads like documentary and remains to this day one of the most vital records of the battle between French Colonialism and the Algerian resistance movement, despite the fact that it is a fictional piece. But there is something about film that reaches us on a level that often times no other media can achieve. The combination of sight, sound, time and character - when executed well - has an almost immediate and often indelible impact on both our emotions and intellects.

The French Education Ministry has announced a plan to make some 200 films available online for secondary school students throughout France. While cinema is taught in some of the wealthier, elite high schools in France, the cine-lycee project will make these films available through the Internet to all students in France. The initiative hopes to provide students with not only exposure to France's own brilliant and varied cinematic tradition, but also with access to global cinema and thus a greater global perspective.

I think we should implement similar programs here in the U.S. Hollywood hosts the largest and most globally successful film industry in the world. And while it is mostly the blockbusters, screwball comedies and happy-ending romances that make their way to the local and global cineplexes, our own American cinematic canon contains numerous artists whose influence and vision has left deep footprints in our culture.

Film simultaneously reflects who we are as a society, as well as shed light on the marginal and hidden aspects of our culture and what it may become. Charlie Chaplin's tramp in "Modern Times" examined the comic/tragic anxiety of the modern industrial age; The films of the Cohen brothers shed light on the American obsession for personal power and its consequences; even recent films like "The Hangover" and "Knocked Up" speak to the suspended state of adolescence of the contemporary American man child. And thematic investigations aside, innumerable writers, directors, cinematographers and actors have filled our imaginations with beautiful and unique images that have influenced our language, our visual culture, and even our often unconscious aesthetic values.

And that is just America. Exposure to world cinema can provide our students with intimate and complex portraits of the human condition from anywhere on the globe. It has been said that Americans learn geography only after the U.S. military starts the air war, and CNN shows maps of the war zone on the nightly news. Perhaps cinema can provide an opportunity for our students to learn about the people who inhabit all of those distant and opaque places, and lend a new sensitivity to our global understanding.

In this time of economic struggle, as schools across the nation slash budgets for arts and music education, the French cine-lycee project provides an affordable example of cultural education. Math, science and reading are certainly vital in assuring our continued prosperity, and ultimately survival. However, without understanding expressions of culture, beauty and creativity, what good is prosperity?


  1. Excellent observations and suggestion. In many ways our current cinema trends reflect the uncertainty and conflicted nature of our cultural aspirations. A former colleague in media studies put up a course on the war film, focusing on the statement war films make regarding the male image. He also focuses on how the sound track amplifies the statement. He seems to get the greatest reaction from "Full Metal Jacket." a film which demonstrates how the meaning of war depends on whose body is on the line.

    Generally, I think if we are going to put film into the curriculum, we ought to take the responsibility of presenting how media mean, e.g. how frame composition na dfocus affect understanding and how the rhythm of editing and sound track influence emotional reponse. Unfortunately, most school systems shy away from purposeful media education (the UK and Australia are way ahead of us in this).

    Special to Bobby: I'd like to cross link with you, but I don't understand how to do it on Blogger. Any suggestions?

  2. NMI, great points. I completely agree with you in regards teaching the corrospondance between aesthetic technique in the audio/visual material of film and meaning. English teachers will appraoch poetry and prose explication in the same manner (i.e. the use of allusion, figures, structures etc. in the generation of meaning) and cinema at its best is our modern "literature."

    I think the best way is to simply add a link to the side bar of our respective sites. Its easy to do, I just didn't want to add yours without talking to you first.