California English Journal
How Three Films Create the Play's World
Any teacher who uses a filmed version in teaching a Shake-speare play quickly discovers (at least) two pitfalls: one pitfall is that showing the whole film uses two or three hours of class time; a second pitfall is that if you show only one film, or even part of one film, students tend to take the performance as definitive. After experimenting with film for a number of years, I find the best solution is to show multiple versions of scenes or segments of scenes; and to do so only after students have read the entire play and engaged in a preliminary discussion in which we formulate their questions, enumerate confusions, and discover divergences in their initial interpretations of the text. In this essay, I offer an example of how I use film when I teach Macbeth. In what follows, I briefly describe the context of this work; share the handout I use to prompt detailed observations by the students; describe the opening scenes for readers who have not seen the three films; summarize what students have said in our discussions; and suggest what this activity can accomplish.
As is true of Shakespeare's plays generally, Macbeth invites close attention to the opening scenes, which frame all that follows. More specifically, how the opening scenes are staged always functions to create the world of a given production. As we watch these scenes unfold, we are being inducted into both the world within which the dramatis personae must act and the terms by which we must articulate our understanding of that action. At the same time, the design of Macbeth's opening scenes makes it susceptible to widely varied production choices which create equally varied universes. With the advent of film and video, moreover, we can choose from an array of productions which will prompt students to recognize the varied ways in which the potentials of a playtext can be realized.
I currently initiate discussion of the question "What does the beginning of Macbeth do?" by showing three quite different filmed versions. We view the opening segments in films directed by Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski (1971), and Trevor Nunn (1977). In each case, we ask "What type of world, especially in its handling of the three 'Witches' or 'weyward Sisters,' does this version propose?" I use the following handout, which leaves lots of white space for the students to fill in their observations about each production:
I show the films up to the following points (times in parentheses):
In what follows, I offer a description of what we see, and then of how students have interpreted what they have recorded in their notes.
1. The Orson Welles Macbeth.
The Welles version, which was based on his earlier stage version, often known as "the voodoo Macbeth," is one of the more radically reshaped film versions, with extensive resequencing, cutting-and-splicing, omissions and so on. Its opening blends Act 1, scene 1 and 1.3, even as it also includes material from the cauldron scene of 4.1.
The three Sisters sit on a rock that rises above a puddle-filled landscape obscured by drifting fog or the smoke of battle. A boiling cauldron sits on the promontory. The Sisters speak the lines from 1.1., but with material from 4.1 describing some of the contents of the cauldron. After completing their incantation, they plunge their hands into the thick liquid, stirring and kneading. Eventually, they pull out a clay-like substance, which they proceed to mold into a grotesque figure. What they produce is a manikin, to which they add a medal and then a square crown. Then, after the credits, the film moves into 1.3, with Macbeth and Banquo riding across the blasted landscape towards the rocky promontory on which the Sisters perch.
Macbeth spots the Sisters on the promontory. They hail him as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and King hereafter, and then speak to Banquo. A party of nobles arrives, including a priest with a staff and circle-with-cross symbol on its end, who bids the Sisters depart. On foot, Macbeth pursues the Sisters into the mist, then returns. After some more dialogue, Cawdor is dragged in between two horsemen, lying in a crucified position. The lords give Macbeth Cawdor's medal of office. Macbeth takes off his fur hat, tosses it to Banquo (who later tosses it back), and puts on the symbol of his new honor. Macbeth addresses some of the speech that follows, which is usually played as an aside, to the whole company, a potentially provocative move; but they seem to ignore his words. The scene concludes when Macbeth remounts, commands "Come go we to the king!" and leads the company as they wheel around and ride off.
In this production, the Sisters evidently have enormous power. As students note, they seem to create Macbeth and to make him Cawdor -- and, we must assume, they make him king later on. Thus they do not seem to be mere predictors but rather shapers or creators of the future. At the same time, their power does not seem unlimited, since the priestly figure can drive them away--but not far and not for long.
(2) The Roman Polanski Macbeth.
The Polanski Macbeth opens with a long shot of a beach, with a paper-thin sheet of water glistening on sand, and a sunrise sky. (This version has been cogently discussed by Jack Jurgens in chapter 11 of Shakespeare on Film, and what I say here is in part a paraphrase his description.) We hear birds and the creaking sound of what turns out to be the wheels of the wagon the Sisters are pulling. We are startled by an object thrust into the sand in the foreground, which turns out to be the stick used by the very old first sister. The three Sisters scrape a circle, put in a severed arm-and-hand, with a knife in the hand, and a noose. They cover this shallow pit with wet sand, pour what looks to be blood from a clay pot on the circle, spit three times, and move off. This movement proceeds in a long shot that makes it seem as if they might take forever to reach the vanishing point.
Slowly, a white mist or fog fills the screen, and then the sounds of battle emerge, rise to a crescendo, and diminish, while the titles and credits roll. When the mist clears, the battle is done. In the foreground lies an apparently dead soldier, face down in the shimmering sands. One of the victors, carrying a mace, twists the dead man's right leg, preparing to remove the boots; and, when this provokes movement, batters the prone man with the mace, producing a spreading red stain as the body ceases to move. The camera pans to show us a gallows, where nooses are being filled with the necks of the losers. The king enters and gallops along with his retinue. He is middle-aged, in armor, with a harsh, unforgiving face, and his smile, when he hears the good news of victory, is a grim one. When the traitorous Cawdor is brought in strapped to a hurdle in a crucifix position, this Duncan takes his sword and, after a pause in which it seems as if he might personally slit the man's throat, uses the point to pick off the badge of office and flings it to others to take to Macbeth.
The film cuts to the next scene where Macbeth and Banquo, riding off after the battle, encounter a rainstorm and take shelter under a rock. Then, responding to neighing from their horses and to the sound the horses heard, they investigate and discover the Sisters. The oldest sister is washing the naked back of the youngest one, but when Macbeth approaches they start moving away. Macbeth follows them as they "disappear" into the earth, passing through a wooden door into a hillock. Macbeth returns, tells Banquo that the Sisters have vanished "into the air" -- which creates an interesting dissonance for us. And then Macbeth and Banquo ride off laughing. Neither one, it would seem, takes the prophesies seriously, nor is much moved by them.
In this version's world, the students conclude, Macbeth seems much freer than in the world of Welles's Macbeth. The Sisters seem less able to control the future, more as if they are casting a spell or a curse, actions which do not seem symptomatic of the same sort of direct shaping power projected by the Sisters in the first version. The witches, indeed, seem mainly to be poor women who live by scavenging battlefields. Nonetheless, they have some connection to a larger pattern, so that anyone watching the rest of the film will be primed to determine just what that connection, that power might be.
(3) The Trevor Nunn Macbeth.
The opening of this black-and-white film is quite striking but also a bit puzzling, and students note that it takes them a minute to make sense of the opening overhead shot. This shot turns out to be composed of a circle with a white center, and around that circle the standing actors, and their shadows. The actors move sideways, ritually and together, and sit down. This is followed by a 360-degree camera pan, now level with the seated company, which shows each face in turn, starting and ending with the second Sister.
The three women playing the Sisters rise and move to the center of the circle--and thereby implicitly instruct first-time viewers as to the convention about being on- and off-stage that will operate in this production. Their opening is a rapidly-increasing-in-intensity wailing which they abruptly stop when they hear thunder. Meanwhile, King Duncan, an older man clad all in white, supported by members of his court, and moving to the sound of swelling organ music, utters a prayer which concludes with an easily read or indeed almost audible "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!"
We see one old, one middle-aged, and one young Sister. The youngest Sister can move into a trance, a state indicated when she drools. The Sisters proceed to perform Shakespeare's text, but with some subtle variations, one of which is described below. In Nunn's production, 1.2 comes next, as a very unmartial and melancholy Duncan hears news of the battles; decides to confer the title Thane of Cawdor on Macbeth; and dispatches Ross to convey this news. The witches now re-enter the circle to commence 1.3. As they announce "Peace, the charm's wound up," Macbeth and Banquo move into the circle and suddenly encounter the Sisters. Banquo is older, gray-haired, and appears rock-steady, while Macbeth, with blood on his face and slicked-back hair, seems much more mercurial--he draws his dagger and points it at the Sisters, as if he might be able to compel their answers. In the dialogue that follows, he is eager, nervous and suspicious, while Banquo maintains his equanimity and seems almost bemused. When the Sisters disappear from the dagger-wielding Macbeth, he leans on Banquo, bites his thumb, and is obviously perturbed by their predictions.
Students generally find it a bit more difficult to describe to the world this production is creating. For example, it seems that the Sisters are able to summon a storm, with their furious sound being answered sympathetically by at least some element(s) in the natural world -- but it is hard to gauge the range of their power, or how that power might be balanced against the religion invoked by Duncan. Furthermore, alert students will have noted some subtle and striking inflections. For example, as they draw to a close in 1.1, the Sisters speak as follows:
This performance indicates that the two older Sisters are asking the entranced youngest sister genuine questions, and that her answer is news to them. It is a small performance choice that implies something of the particular nature of the universe in this production: that the third Sister, when she is in her trance, is in touch with some element, whether natural or supernatural, which can not only supply storms and thunder but also offer information about the future. There is an ambiguity here, for if they have summoned the thunderstorm, are they, or she, not simply foreseeing but in fact summoning Macbeth? How much actual control do these three creatures have? In this production, what we have, then, are some tantalizing questions, both as to the power the Sisters can wield and the susceptibility of Macbeth.
In addition to demonstrating in the most graphic manner possible how the text and the performance are asymmetrical, and how the performance is always both more and less than the text, even as the text is always both less and more than any single performance, this activity also serves to make sure students do not uncritically accept some of the simpler, and often gender-stereotyped, interpretations, such as the common conception that Macbeth is a helpless pawn in the hands of Lady Macbeth; or that because of the combination of influences offered by the Sisters and Lady Macbeth, his fate is externally controlled. We also focus on the sense of the Sisters as "witches," a label often used to forestall recognition of how problematic their actions are, and how variously they can be performed, in ways that offer a wide spectrum in terms of whether they actively control, merely foresee, or even just guess at a possible future.
This activity, then, serves a number of purposes. It introduces students to an essential question that each production must answer, and offers a glimpse of how various those answers may be. It graphically demonstrates that a playtext offers both mandated and open elements, thereby inviting its interpreters to employ their own creativity in making sense of the play. It prompts them to think much more specifically about how each production may create the relations between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the world in which they make their choices. It may prompt some of students to watch one or more of these videos, since they are now curious to see how each production explores and exploits its premises. It produces vigorous discussion, especially when students discover how differently they may read the same action. And, finally, it enables me to use films in a way that stimulates rather that forecloses students' own imaginative engagement with the play as both text and performance.
Edward L. Rocklin spent the winter quarter in London, doing research and teaching courses on Shakespeare and English literature in the London program of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His essay articulating a framework for performance approaches has just been published in Teaching Shakespeare Through Performance, edited by Milla Riggio (MLA, 1999).
Film From Literature-A Gen X Perspective
Film is the medium by which this generation of students learns, explores, and deals with a succession of controversial topics and time-honored themes. Thus, the very different opinions held by many teachers of the importance of the use of film as a teaching tool is a topic worthy of discussion from many perspectives. As a product of Generation X, in my elementary school years everyone watched Saturday morning cartoons and we knew about Apple 2es, in my teenage years everyone I knew watched MTV, in my twenties, everyone I know has an internet server and email address. We go to the movies every Friday night (and sometimes Saturday), we quote them in our sleep, and we argue the proper placement of props and development of characters. We give films "thumbs up or down." We grew up with "Star Wars," and know movies are the topic around the water cooler.
And as a relatively new teacher, every new teacher I know has a stockpile of videocassettes they reserve for viewing with novels. Films are our generation's answer to "what's going on in the neighborhood?" Viewing certain films allows a student entrance into certain conversations and communities, just as do reading certain books. I use films as more of a reference tool than I have say, the Bible, or any other piece of literature. Do films take the place of the printed word? No. Can they expand the depth and perceptions a book might have? Yes, as would anything that takes the form of two mediums. While some might call this unorthodox, or even unhealthy to students' minds, perhaps, this is the language I use to communicate with a new era of students. I have used film clips, direct translations of literature to film, and alternative films to relate to the literature in my classroom. I have found that in doing so, students gradually become more aware of their power to interpret and redefine what is shown on screen, rather than merely accept what is shown as fact.
While in the beginning of my career I worried that showing a film would be allowing the students to merely see the story without having to read it, I slowly realized that showing film versions of literary texts is helpful in a number of ways: it DOES offer a visualization for many students that are already used to see visualized pieces of art (i.e. music videos, TV shows, comic books, as well as movies), it demonstrates that literature and popular culture relate in terms of their universal themes and finally, showing films allows teachers to teach critical thinking in the visual-spatial intelligence mode (Gardner, 1991).
Howard Gardner, in The Unschooled Mind (1991), believes that "students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways"(11). A text they read may be remembered for its poetic imagery, but can also provide powerful memories in the way that exact imagery is translated on screen. The purpose of using film in classrooms is not to take the place of reading and writing and interpreting, but it is to supplement reading material at a pace that is, as the world is, faster and more quickly digested. I intend to provide three samples of films used to add to the teaching component of a literary text: first, a film clip, second, an alternative film shown in relation to the text, and third, a comparative assignment between two films based on the same text.
First, I often use films as a way of presenting a visual image of the historical time period that is the setting of our current novel. For example, when I began to teach the novel A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, I realized that many students living in the 1990s suburban California beachside community where I teach high school would not be able to identify with the setting of a 1950s East coast preparatory high school and its rigid mentality.
Thus, I began with a film clip of The Dead Poet's Society. Students had to take notes on the clothing, attitude, manner, traditions, and societal rules of those students depicted in the movie, and then write a brief speculation essay about what life might have been like for prep school boys back in the 1950s. Students identified several items that struck them as both usual and yet not so unfamiliar: the religious nature of the school, the parental expectations that weighed on the boys' minds, the fact that the prep school boys all looked alike in terms of racial makeup and wealth (and were ALL boys), that they all wore the same uniforms, and obviously needed to establish other ways to distinguish themselves (for example, one character becomes involved in theater, and another one pursues the girl he has a crush on).
That set the tone for the mood of A Separate Peace, where Gene envies Finny for his athleticism and charisma that set him apart from the other boys. Although students demanded to know why I didn't show the whole film, a statement that shows they still see film viewings in class as "free time movie day," they ultimately seemed satisfied by the lesson conducted on the part they had seen. Many commented that "they could never live that way," which showed me that my enterprise was not a waste of time, as they could then enter the text with a better understanding of the boys' situation. I was also pleased at the fact that I could use a fifteen-minute film clip, one that would not take up three days of teaching time, but one that was still useful in a small segment.
I've also found that showing films on Friday really undermines the seriousness of the assignment and of the students' attention. Indeed, there are teachers who use Fridays as "movie day." Therefore, to signal the importance of the issue within the film or the clip, I usually try to view films in the middle of the week, or even on Mondays. There is a subliminal message that if she is showing this on Monday, we should really pay attention. It might be on Friday's test!
Although I love using film clips because of their brevity, I do show feature-length films as well, and have demanded that students not just sit there (in fact, students do complain that watching movies aren't fun in my class because they're always taking notes and are forced to analyze what they see). Alternative films can be shown with novels when I feel the original film is too dry, or a film version doesn't exist. At the time that I read Pride and Prejudice with a group of seniors, the film version of Jane Austen's novel only existed as a five-volume set off the A&E cable channel. I knew neither the students nor myself had patience for that!
But I had watched Sense and Sensibility (with Emma Thompson) with some degree of amusement, and saw that many of the situations paralleled those in Pride and Prejudice (daughters looking for husbands as security, family members who serve to try to pull them apart, misunderstandings, British societal rules, etc.). I decided to show the film and have students compare the novel to this alternative movie. The film succeeded in showing my students the chaotic nature of British society, and the understated humor as well. Although when we began the film, there was not much interest (especially on the boys' parts), by the conclusion, most students were determined to find out what happened to Elinor and Marianne in the film, and were able to make direct comparisons to Pride and Prejudice.
Finally, a recent unit I completed on Lord of the Flies demonstrates the usefulness of having not just one film version of a piece of literature, but having a modernized version as well. The first film version of The Lord of the Flies was made in 1963, just soon after the book was published. It follows the novel almost word for word, and enables those students who really can't visualize the dense imagery of the novel to begin to understand the setting and conflict of the novel. But it does nothing to excite the students to continue the book.
Frankly, the 1963 movie version requires much patience, and being on black and white film, does not capture the interests of the students. So, I also showed the 1994 version of the film, which was updated to the point of nearly butchering the text. While this version was obviously incorrect in many ways (and I had the students identify these differences and explain the director's motive for changing them), it truly excited many students, and for those who were reluctant to begin the novel, helped them get started.
It was during the showing of these two films as comparison pieces (along with the reading of the novel) that I taught students to listen for background music as an indicator of mood, to listen to the boys' language as an indicator of time period, and to question why the new version would need to be rated "R". I also didn't show the whole film at the time. These were "trailers," designed to intrigue the students into reading further (which many of them did), and I showed the entire film (they were allowed to choose and of course all voted for the 1994 version) at the end of the unit. But I needed them to think critically as to why a novel that was so tamely filmed in 1963 now needs such violence and foul language to attract an audience.
As we discussed these things, I realized how much more effective questioning these items were rather than just assuming them within my lesson. With the proliferation of films in this era, particularly violent, sexually laced films, students need to be taught to question why some films are even made, and they need to be taught to ask, what is the film's intrinsic value? In Darby and Catterall's article "The Arts and Learning" (1994), they believe:
By this statement, it seems all the more important to teach students how to redefine what they see, not only the page of a novel, but in the scene of a film, as something that becomes meaningful for them, and then to questions why it has that meaning?
As with any of my lessons, I have tried to reflect on my practices to determine if I have been successful in my strategy of using films, and have realized, of course, that there are many other ways in which I can incorporate film without just having the students take notes. But in realizing that, I can begin to etch out different means of using an increasingly important teaching tool. I've discovered how showing films in relation to literature can help to supplement difficult issues that are evident to a seasoned reader, but that are not clear to the first-time reader of a novel. From my perspective, films can be smoothly integrated within the class lessons and should be directed with teaching strategies just like any other topic. As with anything else, film viewing is merely one means of achieving the ultimate goal of the English teacher, to interest students in literature and to enable them to become critically thoughtful lifelong readers.
It's Not Noble to
Do you still feel guilty when you show a film in your classroom? Do you believe that you are not "teaching," or taking the day off? You shouldn't internalize these feelings for the following reasons (which are not exhaustive):
1. A good film can be a powerful teaching tool. We all know that students today were raised on TV. (We were too, weren't we?) Students come to us conditioned to watch the monitor, and it is difficult to deny that they retain a great deal of what they see. Literature comes alive for them when they witness it represented on the screen. We need to capitalize on the assets films bring to us.
2. Some of the best literary pieces are further illustrated in films. Most movies (even the worst ones) are based on a written text. Thus, they do not refute or render obsolete the text, but expand it, elaborate on it. The electronic exchange of information (including films) will no more destroy the written text than Plato's works obliterated the oral tradition of Socrates, his teacher. Students can see how relevant writing and reading actually are through viewing films. I always tell my students how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg must have been attentive in their English classes to gain all the raw material which they later expressed in their films.
3. Films help to expand everyone's knowledge of literature. How many of us have actually read all of Tolstoy's War and Peace, perhaps the finest novel ever written? In preparation for this essay, I watched War and Peace (1956) starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda with particular interest. I was amazed how faithful the film is to Tolstoy's text and how many of the author's themes are covered concisely in the movie. There is no way to present all of War and Peace in a high school classroom, unless you are willing to sacrifice all of the other literature you wish to cover. However, you can introduce the work, read appropriate selections to your students, and allow the film to help you tie your presentation together. In this way you can help your students discover a vast, but great, piece of literature that most people know very little about.
4. When films depart from the original text they still form a discourse with the works they are based upon. Hollywood and other film producers do change the story line, sometimes with disastrous results. However, you can ask your students why the changes were made and whether or not the author's original work was expanded thematically or truncated by the alteration. Several unfortunate changes were made to Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles when film makers produced the TV series in 1979. However, the students need to know that Hollywood is concerned with such matters as changing times, budget constraints, audience demand and political correctness. Students apparently really enjoy seeing Woody Allen's Love and Death (1975) at the end of the Tolstoy unit. The film obviously takes great license with War and Peace, but Allen still satirizes the original novel as he pokes fun at Russian literature in general and Bergman films.
5. A good film may encourage students to read the original text on their own. An English instructor told me that he showed his class Cyrano de Bergerac (1950) with Jose Ferrer, and in spite of the fact that he did not have the time to read the entire play in class, five of his students, particularly moved by the theme of independence, read the complete work for extra credit. I know that we wish to work the other way around: reading an inspiring work of literature in its entirety first can move us to see the movie afterwards. However, as adults, how many of us (even if we are in the business of reading literature) have the time to do this consistently? I saw two excellent films first, The Witches of Eastwick (1987) and The English Patient (1996), before I was motivated to read the original works by John Updike and Michael Ondaatje. I was surprised and excited by the differences existing between the films and the texts. Seeing the film first and then reading the book can be a method that we as adults use (due to time constraints) to expand our knowledge. It is a technique that we should pass on to our students.
6. You can cover so much more in your classroom by using films. Obviously, it takes less time to see a film than read a book. You can read The Pearl and Of Mice and Men (the best film version came out in 1992), and then follow up these works with the films The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Viva Zapata! (1952), Tortilla Flat (1942), East of Eden (1955, 1981), and Cannery Row (1982). This way, in a relatively short period of time, you can expose your students to the breadth of John Steinbeck's concerns.
7. Finally, showing films in your classroom is the patriotic thing to do. I know that this sounds silly, but it's true. Film making is one of the United States' great contributions to world culture. I realize that there are many fine foreign films, especially produced by the British, but without question, our country enjoys the undisputed lead in this industry, an industry which your students should be well acquainted with and proud of. No matter where I have traveled in the world, American films are shown predominantly and almost universally. Since many of our films are based on story lines which are not native to America we help other countries to reinterpret their own literature through the medium of film. In a sense, we hand back their culture to them in a form which is palatable to the mass audience.
In the second half of this essay I wish to show how the use of films helped a high school enrich a curriculum which was in need of attention. Two years ago, Dr. Gabe Petrocelli, the Principal of Ontario High School, Ontario, California came to me with a problem. (Yes, Dr. Petrocelli's brother, Daniel, an attorney, gained much fame in the ongoing O. J. Simpson trials.) Too many noncollege-bound senior students were failing senior English, and this one class was preventing many students from graduating. Dr. Petrocelli wished to enrich the curriculum to make it more interesting for the students. He actually wanted to expand the students' educational experience, to motivate them without watering down the requirements. We both agreed that we could perhaps accomplish these goals by introducing more films into the noncollege-bound senior English curriculum which featured English and Continental literature.
We also agreed that we needed a theme which would tie the literature together. We hit upon the motif of rebellion-political, social, cultural, individual, etc. We felt that this concern would capture the attention of teenagers, and we were right. We hoped that we would be able to bring together the studies of world history and literature to make our students become more informed and responsible citizens of the United States and the world. I know that this is a grand task, but I believe that we developed an approach which got the students started in the right direction.
Our first task was to formulate some questions:
Animal Farm by George Orwell has always been essential to the senior English curriculum, so Dr. Petrocelli and I began there. We would have the students read this work completely. Animal Farm would become the basis for discussing revolution in general and the Russian revolution in particular. This work would become the reference point for the study of rebellion in all the countries covered in the class. Once the students finished the text they would then see the film Animal Farm (1955). (Recently a version of Animal Farm was presented on television; a cassette should appear soon in the video stores.) We agreed that the following films could be shown in the class covering the prerevolutionary and revolutionary periods:
We also recommended that the instructor mention the works of Chekhov, Dostoyevski, Gorky, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Turgenev, and Yevtushenko.
We agreed that we would cover the theme of rebellion in other countries, and we settled on the following films:
FRANCE (Some of the films cover prerevolutionary and postrevolutionary France, and not all of them are based on works written by French authors, e.g. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.)
The students would read The Stranger by Albert Camus entirely. This work can be related to individual rebellion and existentialism. The motion picture The Stranger (1967) starring Marcello Mastroianni is outstanding.
I wish to make the following comments about the films listed above: It is impossible to show all the movies recommended, but the instructor is free to select from the list. There are many movies that the individual teacher can add to the list which are as good or better than the ones mentioned. The countries mentioned are not exhaustive; other countries can be added. The teacher may have to secure parental permission to show some of the films. Many of the motion pictures show rebellion on the individual level rather than national or international upheaval. The course that Dr. Petrocelli and I put together allows much more time to show films than any other English class at Ontario High School, but still the instructor is responsible to read literary selections and complete works in class. The students must comment on their classroom experiences by writing essays on prompts developed by the teacher. The students are to read one book per month outside of class and in a written report show how the book relates to the theme of rebellion. The pupils must also work in pairs to present oral reports (one each semester) on the theme of rebellion in art, history, literature, music, sports, pastimes, etc.
What we have achieved is a course that the students like and is a joy to teach. One instructor who likes to teach "general" senior English exclusively reports that his senior failures have fallen from approximately 25-30 a semester to from five to no more than ten. He loves to teach the new class largely because the students seem to be much more interested, express openly that they like the course, and do their work.
Does a class like this place the teacher "on vacation"? Is he or she allowing a TV monitor to do most of the teaching? My answer is an emphatic, "No!" Covering this much material requires that more thought and time be placed in the role of teacher as "manager" rather than "lecturer." The instructor must spend more time keeping ahead of the students and making the connections (usually via brief lectures) to hold everything together. I have always felt that teachers would be happier in their work if the curriculum could be revised to be more fun for them as well as the students. The course I have described is more than a step in the right direction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The theme of this spring issue of California English is "Film and Literature: To View or Not to View?" Most of the 49 states that have adopted language arts standards have included in their list of standards references to viewing. Along with the familiar reading, writing, listening, and speaking; viewing and visually representing have been added as essential language arts skills. Like the Standards for the English Language Arts written by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, state documents recommend that students go beyond seeing film versions of the texts they read and study visual texts in their own right.
I applaud this expansion of the language arts, particularly in an age when children are bombarded daily with seductive visual images. Every time they gaze into television, computer, or movie screen; children must exercise judgement. Teaching them about the ploys advertising and the power of the visual image to affect a viewer is essential. I also believe that the study of film as genre is an important and lasting outcome of a liberal arts education. I don't, however, believe that instruction in viewing and film should not occur in an English class. Our curriculum is already full.
Every moment in an English class is precious. Elsewhere I have decried reading aloud to students as a waste of classroom minutes that should instead be spent talking and writing about what students have read at home. I feel the same way about showing movies. By the time a teacher has taken attendance, made a few announcements, and tuned in the VCR, only about 40 minutes of the period is left for the movie. This means that the average feature film will take 3 class periods to show. If a teacher shows five movies in a school year - which given the number of excellent film adaptations of novels now available doesn't seem unreasonable - students will have lost 15 days or three weeks of class time to "viewing." I do not believe this is a wise use of students' time.
Too often when the lights go down and the TV monitor lights up, teenagers hit their internal relax button and shut down all critical faculties. Some pull out their calculators and start their math homework. A few put their heads down for a snooze. However the lesson has been framed, most students consider a day watching a movie as a day off.
Teachers unintentionally foster this attitude by scheduling films for days when they must be out of class for professional development or illness. The number of lesson plans that read "Show film" is legion. Substitute teachers don't mind as it doesn't take much effort to press the PLAY button. Kids don't mind because they aren't being asked to do any work. And the day's lesson plan was easy to write. What is lost is one hour in the education of a child.
Fortunately for the sake of lively professional discourse, many of the contributors to this journal disagree with me. Please turn the page to read a range of opinions on whether to view or not to view.
If I try viewing my teaching career as a film, the opening sequence shows a very fresh face first entering a classroom in fall, 1962. Having survived a required teacher education course in audiovisual aids, I had mastered the ubiquitous filmstrip projector, with its complicated transition to 35mm slides, and was familiar with the "newest" technology, the 16 mm movie projector. At that time my school had just 2 movie projectors for the entire English department and might have had access to around 50 "movies." Indeed, the few of us who used film at all were seen as ever-so-innovativeand students seemed grateful for anything different, even the daunting Coronet filmstrips with accompanying vinyl longplay records, marked by a bell that indicated times to advance the frame. The technology, while rudimentary, could be exciting when it was so rare.
Fast forward to 1971-72, where an ominous sequence in my film occurs, a gut-wrenching episode of community challenge to my teacher identity. I spent an evening showing to over fifty hostile parents three films I had just used with their senior students in a thematic exploration of how personality and history influence perception. They seemed to get the message about perception, but still questioned the impact of too-liberal or too-foreign "influences" of a Polish short film "Two Men and a Wardrobe." Their questioning, however, indicated a belief in the real power of film to reach young minds, and students themselves were still vocally insistent that film was exciting, fun, and mentally stimulating. Had that not been the case, or had student results in interpretation of ideas not shown how they had gained, I could have been tempted to avoid criticism. But I still treasured film.
But, jump cut to the 1990's, and we find our now less fresh-faced protagonist deeply committed to keeping films accessible. Having served for over twenty years on a district previewing and evaluation committee closely patterned on the NCTE model for book selection, part of my influence is that our district now has literally thousands of films available for classroom use. Most holdings through the 80's remained in 16 mm film format, but the technological shift in that decade began to make easily possible what earlier was scarcely even conceivable - the taping in the evening of what could then be shown in class the next day, with no previewing or committee consensus (and protection) of value. We all know what that has led to. The paradox now is that we have more material than we can possibly use, and students who react to the sight of the VCR machine with yawns, and who sometimes ignore the film as pointedly as they refuse to read the novel portrayed - seeing both as irrelevant, dated, or too complex. Their been-there, saw-better-last-week attitude dampens the enthusiasm to widen the classroom walls of even the most committed, especially when viewing doesn't affect speaking and writing outcomes in deeply thoughtful ways. But superb films still can touch their souls, witness their emotional involvement at the conclusion of Romeo and Juliet or The Miracle Worker.
So, what does all this add up to? Is the movie of my life not being picked up for international distribution and only showing, at best, in "art houses"? Perhaps, but just like all the newly-minted film school graduates who cobble together the few thousand they can raise from friends and on their credit cards so that they can make that fiercely independent new film, every teacher I know is scratching through every possible source for materials to interest students, to amplify concepts taught, and to visualize for those sometimes literally blinded by limited literacy, the actions, emotions, and thoughts of otherwise inaccessible written characters.
CATE, of course, is one of the aids that are indispensable in this search - and should have been "required," even more than the mechanics of that now nearly outmoded 16 mm projector. It supports me in finding teachable ideas (via such things as this magazine and conferences). It helps resolve conflicts like the parent attack (by articulating policies and procedures for adopting and defending materials). And, most of all, it provides a theatre and audience for each of us to share our personal independent film - by involvement with other concerned, creative minds in local and state conferences.
But just as the megamalls and multi-screen theatres are threatening to engulf the independent bookstores and theatres, so are "high-stakes" tests and overly simplified media/legislative interpretations of how to raise scores threatening us in the classroom. We must join together to keep CATE strong in order to continue to have access to all the "distributors" of ideas and images, whether they be films or other alternative curricular methods. Left to their own devices, lawmakers (and even local district personnel) could easily force us all away from, and prevent newer colleagues from ever trying, approaches from "outside." So, join with your colleagues to serve on the committees; write for and read through the publications that publicize the alternatives. Help formulate the Resolutions to guide future teacher-defined policy in business meetings; engage in the conversations in person or via CATEWeb or CATENet. Resist the juggernaut of simple-mindedness.
Make this first film of the twenty-first century an "epic," with you as one of its featured stars, as YOU become the writer/producer/director/cameraman/composer/best boy/publicist/and distributor of the CATE future.