When you have time on your hands…..

In the days when I was a student I had the habit for a while of watching old movies on a Sunday afternoon. As a young art-student I had the feeling that I had a whole load of culture to catch up on and dipping into the history of film making was part of that. It was kind of a weekend luxury that I enjoyed, and in a way, whenever I watch films from the Hollywood output of the 1940s and 50s I am taken back to my Sunday afternoon student days in London when college was over for the week.  I had time on my hands and enjoyed familiarizing myself with the cinema of the past, it was all a little like reading a good book on holiday.

I still like watching old movies and regularly dip into watching one when I have time. Mostly that will be online or on a DVD at home. The chance to watch them on the big screen comes along less often. But in the last week of the school holidays, a day in Amsterdam visiting the museums ended with a trip to the Amsterdam Eye to see Double Indemnity, part of the Billie Wilder season being shown there. Screen 3 wasn’t full, but there was a pretty good turnout for the early evening screening. The lights dimmed and instead of the curtains pulling back for the full wide screen effect as they normally do, they shuffled almost apologetically to a slightly narrower aspect for the old screen format……before the black and white film began to roll.

In my work in education I have to work hard at times to convince the 15-year olds that the technological advances, that are a constant feature of the film world, aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to quality. Many at times seem convinced that the newest films, with all their computer aided opportunities and effects are, by definition, going to be a better film. Why anyone would choose to watch a black and white movie when vivid colour is so obviously so much better is beyond them. They are only fifteen, and maybe at least in part thanks to the lessons we are able to spend looking at films outside of their normal film consumption, some of them at least will open up to a broader and richer view of the cinematic world that is on offer.

Whether this will ever result in any of the turning up to watch an early evening showing of a film noir classic such as Double Indemnity I’ll probably never know. But if they don’t they’ll be missing the performances of Fred MacMurray and the captivating Barbara Stanwyck and the razorsharp Raymond Chandler script.

 

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Love and Mercy – the Brian Wilson bio-pic in class

Was I sure that this particular film, the Bill Pohlad bio-pic about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, was going to work with the twenty-eight fifteen year olds of class V4D? No, not at all. Both our lessons each week are right at the end of the day when pupils are tired and concentration less focused; no, I really wasn’t sure.

But I wanted to show the film because on the surface it ticked many of the boxes that I wanted to refer to in the short film studies course that I offer around this time each year.

Part of the reason for choosing it was that being a bio-pic, the film narrative sits nicely in the global theme that we were dealing with of fact and fiction in the cultural (and in this case in the film) world. But added to this, there were the interesting other issues of:

  • The popular culture of the past being introduced to my pupils
  • The extensive use of music in the film
  • Mental health perspectives being explored
  • The lengths that the filmmakers have gone to, to get the ‘look’ of the film and the actors right

All good reasons to show the film to my pupils and discuss with how the filmmakers involved had set about presenting the story of Brian Wilson to us.

 

Yet sitting in the classroom watching it together I still really wasn’t sure. It’s a fairly long film and we had to spread it over three lessons on three different days, not and ideal setup. If I’m honest, the first 30-40 minutes are a little slow and, for a younger audience perhaps a little confusing as the narrative jumps backwards and forwards between the nineteen sixties and late eighties. Time is spent setting the stage for the main body of the film. That first lesson the class watched with me, they were a little twitchy at times. Sometimes they seemed to be finding Wilson’s unpredictable behaviour funny rather than disturbing.

Were we going to make it to the end of the film, to start with I really wasn’t sure. But I wanted to persist. One of my big aims with the film studies course is to offer material that is outside of the pupils’ normal area of experience. I want to stretch and draw them into new areas, but without going so far that it switches them off.

We returned to the film the following lesson, and slowly, you could see them being drawn into the film. The room went quiet and they became more settled. By the end they were thoroughly engaged and wanting to see how the creeping tension that is built through the film is played out.

Now, two weeks later I am reading the 1000-1200 word essays that the pupils wrote about the movie. I was curious, I felt I really needed the proof, the confirmation that they had enjoyed it as much as I had secretly hoped.

It would seem that my uncertainty about the film was misplaced, almost without exception the reports have been both enthusiastic and well written. A couple of points stand out. The styling of the visual appearance of the film is greatly appreciated. Having shown them a few film clips of the real Beach Boys they see the parallels and the efforts that has been made to create the look of the past and the appearance of the main characters. The focus on the mental health issues experienced by Brian Wilson throughout his life hit home in the minds of the pupils. It made for fascinating reading. The appreciation of the huge difficulties and abuse that Wilson suffered made a very strong impression and undoubtedly broadened their understanding in this area.

 

The film continually jumps from the sixties to the eighties, with two different actors (Paul Dano and John Cusack) playing the role of Wilson. It was interesting to hear which section of the film engaged the pupils most. For me it was Dano and the younger version of the musician. This was partly for the performance, but mostly for the music and the look at the creative process that it gave. However for the bulk of my pupils it was the older phase of Wilson’s life that drew the attention. Why? Well two reasons I think, partly the love story that was being played out with Melinda Ledbetter. But more so for the sense of jeopardy that was being created, was Melinda going to be able to save the hugely vulnerable Brian Wilson from the manipulative clutches of Dr. Eugene Landy?

All-in all reason enough to use the film again next year? The answer is simple, yes certainly.

Finding that right movie

Around this time of the year, every year I am faced with the same challenge; trying to find the right feature film to show to the fifteen and sixteen year olds who I teach a broad cultural education program to.

Although the course as a whole covers all sorts of artistic disciplines I like to start the year if possible with a movie, for the pupils its familiar territory and compared to some areas of art and culture film is generally quite accessible to them. The idea is to watch a feature film together and then become engaged with a little film analysis to give them some insight and appreciation of the craft and practices of film making.

babadookI said at the beginning that I try to find a suitable film, well actually I try to find several. I teach three parallel classes of twenty five to thirty pupils, so this year a total of eighty two pupils, and importantly for me that means eighty two reflective essays at the end, each of around one thousand words. I don’t Think that I have to enlarge on what eighty two films about the same film does to your head when you’re marking them!

So with this in mind I often return to films that have proved popular  and effective in the past, but also try to add at least one new one each year. Last year I wrote here at some length about the response on my class to Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary entitled Senna about the formula one racing driver Ayrton Senna. So struck was I by the class’ response to the film last time that I had no hesitation in showing it again this year to one off my three classes. Once again the atmosphere in the classroom at the end of the movie was amazing, a hushed stillness as the pupils took in and tried to order and evaluate the captivating climax of the film. So much of the average teenager’s entertainment world is often trivial, violent or superficial it is truly fantastic to show them something that has been constructed with such skill that the narrative that all the film fragments carry take us right to the heart of a high profile sportsman’s world, it’s pressures, it’s challenges and ultimately it’s horrendous risks. For many it was wide open eyes and hands on mouths at the end!

You can find further reflections on Senna by clicking here and here for posts from last year.

A second film I chose to use this year was Australian director Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Babadook.  For several years I have wanted to take a look at a horror film with my fourth year groups. But trying to find an appropriate movie has been so difficult. Many teenagers in the fifteen to sixteen age bracket love horror films and have seen many. Others in the class though have seen virtually none or doubt whether they want to see one. Some pupils seem largely insensitive to the tensions of a horror movie whilst others struggle to cope. Add to this a personal requirement to only use a film that I feel comfortable myself showing, also  keeping in mind that I too am a father of a fifteen year daughter. What wouldn’t I mind her seeing at a school screening? With all these points to consider it has been difficult, I’m not happy to show excessive violence, blood or gore, I am also cautious of using a film with a huge number of ‘shock’ moments. Finally though, The Babadook has come along and after watching for myself I felt relatively sure that this could be the one. It has more of a creeping tension, as with many of the best horror movies, the fear is more in what you imagine rather than what you actually see. It also makes use of a good number of ‘classic’ horror film elements, a scary domestic context, relatively innocent key characters, sound effects and ultimately a monster. All good stuff when it comes to critically trying to unpack the movie with the pupils afterwards.

Below is a review of the film by Mark Kermode on BBC radio.

As I write this I am half way through the class with class V4D. I offered an alternative film to anyone who really didn’t fancy a horror film. Three chose that option, which was fine, and a fact that went uncommented on by the rest of the class. I watched the first fifty minutes together with the class this week. I’ve already of course watched the film several times and so regularly found myself watching the pupils watching the film rather than focusing on the film myself!

Reading the reports at the end will be the ultimate test of the enjoyment. But as far as I could see there seemed to be three categories of viewers:

  1. Viewers (most often, although not exclusively boys) who were just lapping it all up, completely enjoying themselves
  2. Viewers who whilst regularly seeming to be frightened by occurrences or frightened in the anticipation of what was going to occur, but who nonetheless were still enjoying the experience
  3. Viewers who when you looked at their faces were either transfixed by the action or turning continuously away.  Were these pupils actually enjoying the experience? Or was it more a question of endurance?

I worry a little about the third category, have they felt pressured to stay and watch? Are they wishing that they had chosen the alternative. I offered the choice again, nobody wanted to leave.

When it comes to writing about their cultural experiences and their opinions pupils are in my experience extremely open and honest, so I expect I’ll get a clearer picture in the end, but for now it’s another forty five minutes of pupil watching as the climax of the movie comes closer and I look forward to the discussions afterwards!