Reading Movies: A New Curricular Need for a Post-Literate Culture

Charles Starr discusses reading movies.

How can an evangelical Christian, trained in literature by a champion of classical education, himself a book loving English teacher and C.S. Lewis scholar (nay, fanatic), possibly argue that schools which ground their philosophy in a classical model of education are mistaken if they don’t include the study of film (along with television and other mass media) in their curricula? Four truths lead me to the claim: technology always impacts literacy, mass media is changing the modes in which we think, film literacy is the only way to overcome the dangers of film and television, and film production excites students to work harder and to think more deeply. Now I’d best try to prove my claims.

The Connection Between Literacy and Technology

“Literacy” used to mean the ability to read books. Then came PCs and Macs and the computer revolution made educators talk about “computer literacy.” Even before the eighties, though, we were defining literacy as having the skills one needs to make a living. For most of history, people were farmers and few of them had to learn reading skills to survive. For them, literacy (in the modern sense of the word) was knowing how to plow fields, make tools, and manage resources. The printing press changed all that. Its invention eventually required people to become literate (in the original sense of the word) in order to survive. Before the press, books had to be painstakingly hand copied and so were few in number and very expensive. With the printing press, however, books and news- papers could be cheaply mass-produced, resulting in an age which began to rely more heavily on the printed word till, eventually, every productive person had to be taught to read. If technology so influences what we need to learn, curricular design should include responsiveness to technological change.

The New Way of Thinking

It is not, however, enough to say that technology influences what we need to learn. We should additionally be aware that advances in technology also change the way we think. Consider how much faster movies are today. They cut from image to image, from one angle to another very quickly. This is just one example of how technology is changing the way we process information. Books require a kind of thinking that depends on extended amounts of time. They reveal their information slowly and in a linear fashion. When we read the sentence, “The tomb in which they laid the body of Jesus was empty,” it takes us a second or two to read down the line of the sentence and understand the information. But we would comprehend a picture of the empty tomb almost instantly.

This kind of holistic, immediate communication is what images do. As we turn more and more to film, television, and graphics-heavy computers, we are becoming a people who learn holistically and process more information more quickly. Books and reading will not disappear. But ours has become a post-literate culture, and we need to recognize and respond to the differences in thinking processes.

In the sixties and seventies, Francis Schaeffer described our thought systems as progressing to- ward an “escape from reason.” I am not convinced, however, that he knew what we were escaping to. In part it has been a dive into irrationality, but it has also been a shift toward those imaginative processes we associate with right brained thinking—with non-linear intuition (holistic thinking), analogy, and, especially, story. There is a significant shift toward learning through narrative rather than exposition—through stories rather than propositional explanations. When we learn from or think with stories, we do so differently than when we think about abstract concepts, ideas, and theories. It’s not necessarily a better way to think (each has its advantages and disadvantages), but it’s the way of thinking we’re using more and more thanks to mass media.

The Response: Film and Mass Media Literacy Technology influences what we need to learn and how we think. How, then, should we respond? In regard to the latter, I believe that schools oriented toward a classical model of education are in a good position in that they both understand the importance of left brained, critical thinking (and even teach formal logic to their students), and the value of the imaginative arts. In regard to the former, I argue that even schools oriented toward a classical curriculum should acknowledge the need for film literacy and teach it.

That said, I know that parents and teachers from various backgrounds mistrust mass media, not just for its immoral content, but for its negative effects on the thinking abilities of children. They say that television turns kids into passive viewers and stifles their imaginations. But I argue that learning how to read film and television can over- come many of these problems and turn electronic media into useful tools for teaching and learning.

What then does this new literacy entail?

The primary quality of film is that it communicates on multiple levels at once. Though this can be dangerous, it can also be beneficial because film can say a great deal after the fashion of all good imaginative texts: by showing—incarnating truth into form. The secret to learning how to read film, then, is to do so on multiple levels, focusing on the variety of techniques film incorporates in its text.

1. Good movie watchers pay attention to a film’s images. Directors will use lighting and shadow to highlight key places and people on the screen, or to communicate something about the images like, “Here’s a shadowy villain.” Color is often used as a theme or symbol in a movie. Also consider framing: though there is a principle subject on which to focus, a good director fills his camera frame (like an artist his canvas) with as much information as possible and even makes good use of spaces that are outside the frame (called off screen space).

2. Editing offers much for analysis, being first of all used to regulate the emotional pace of a film. Scenes that are action packed will be edited with short sequences or cuts so that the camera angle is constantly changing. This fast pace helps the audience experience excitement, suspense, confusion, or fear. Sometimes editing will be used to connect separate images together. Using a device called parallel development, the editor of “The Untouchables” adds suspense to a train station shootout by cutting back and forth between a gun battle and a baby carriage careening out of control down a stairway in the midst of blazing guns. Suddenly the scene is not just about defeating criminals; it’s also about saving an innocent life.

3. Sound is instrumental to film. First, it provides realism. Second, it helps to establish context: if we see a darkly lit room but can hear ocean waves and sea gulls, we know where the room is. The other key sound element is the music track. Its purpose is to enhance the emotional effect of the images or otherwise comment on the action.

If we can learn the techniques and production methods used by film makers, we can become more conscious and critical in our lm viewing, gather more meaning from a film text, and overcome the dangers of manipulation and passive viewing.

The New Literacy 2.0

In the future, schools will teach students to be proactive, not just reactive toward film, television, music, computer games, and the internet. Such a revolution in literacy only took a decade for computer education. Even in an age where school curriculum often balloons out of control, I nevertheless argue that electronic image literacy is a needed addition and long overdue.

It will come in two forms:
1. Technique Analysis and Interpretation: As I outlined above, current approaches to media literacy emphasize the analysis of particulars. Additionally, informing students about propaganda techniques, marketing methods, and the way mass media industries are structured is also important, as is applying interpretive methods students are taught to apply to story and poetry in English classes.

2. The trend on the horizon is video production. Not elective video journalism classes where a handful of students create a weekly newscast—these have existed in schools for some time. Instead, the best way to learn how to read a movie is to have to make one. If film literacy becomes the job of language arts/English teachers, produc- tion will become a part of their curriculum (I have made it part of mine for almost two decades). Students may eventually do research video documentaries on Macbeth not just research papers.

Traditional reading and writing won’t disappear (in fact, the more I learn about film making, the more I realize that it’s at its best when it begins with well crafted writing), but, as video production becomes cheaper and easier, students will be taught (hopefully in a variety of courses) to do script writing, pre-production problem solving (called doing a script break down), camera operation, and post- production editing.

In my experience, assigning the average student a research paper may get ten hours of work from him; assign him a research documentary, and he’ll put in fifty. Students will produce research based videos as well as creative projects for a variety of classes in the future and in so doing will exercise higher order thinking skills, dive deeply into curricular content, and put in more hours of work than their teachers could possibly imagine.

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