A Film and Literature Course from a Commencement Address by Sydney Pollack

May 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

Tis the season of commencement addresses. Speeches brief and not so brief, exhorting graduates to go forth and improve the world. The people who deliver these addresses are often famous, coming from all walks of life; actors, writers, politicans, musicians, military leaders are de rigor for commencement addresses. One address was given by director, actor, and producer Sydney Pollack at Binghamton University in 2003.

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Sydney Pollack (IMDB.com)

Beginning in the 1960s, Pollack represented a blend of Hollywood celebrity and artist.  His famous films included This Property Is Condemned (1966), the hit comedy Tootsie (1982), and the award winning Out of Africa (1985) which garnered him two Oscars:  Best Direction and Best Picture. Pollack also produced the films The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003). He was honored with the John Huston Award from the Directors Guild of America in 2000 as a “defender of artists’ rights” before he died in 2008.

Two paragraphs from his commencement address were posted in the NYTimes in a feature piece by Sam Dillon titled Commencement Speeches; Reflections on War, Peace, and How to Live Vitally and Act Globally (6/1/2003). When I read this section of his address, I was inspired to use his ideas as the objective for a film and literature English elective for the senior class.

In two paragraphs, Pollack articulated the power of fiction as a tool for developing compassion:

  “We all live rather prescribed and narrow lives. I’m just this one white guy, 60-something years old. I’ll never be anything else except older. I’ve got one set of kids. I’ve got one wife. That’s it for me. But then, there’s this great, great library of experiences that’s housed in the liberal arts. Fictional worlds created that I can put on like this gown or coat, eyes that I can borrow to see the world.

      I can be a black housewife. I can be a king. I can be a C.I.A. spy. I can be a warrior. I can learn what it is like to be tried and convicted, to confess, to win the beautiful girl, lose the beautiful girl. It’s a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when that experience is part of the imagination. Compassion finally is the great gift of literature. Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world with compassion.”

The fictional worlds that Pollack created in his films are similar to those worlds created by a reader experiencing fiction. Film, however, demands a combination of sight and sound in order to communicate a story, and the talented Pollack knew how to manipulate those elements to make the viewer surrender self to the emotional highs and lows in a retelling of a story.  For example, his, “aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds” used various points of view to make viewers feel as through they were flying in a biplane over the African Savannah in this clip from Out of Africa:

Making a film is a collaborative activity that includes actors actesses, cinematographers, producers, editors, and directors. Even the credits for the shortest film scroll with a multitude of oddly-named professions: key grips, gaffers, and best boys. Literature, by contrast, is created as a singular, intimate activity; the author’s words stimulating the reader’s imagination. Both creative processes are studied in the Film and Literature course offered to 12th graders.

In the film part of the course, students are made aware of the technical elements in film making. They learn to recognize the differences between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. They learn how to notice a cinematographer’s or film editor’s use of the rule of thirds. They learn to identify long shots, establishing shots, and extreme close-ups. They watch John Ford’s Stagecoach and notice his use of natural lighting in many scenes. They watch Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and comment on the use of light for transitions from scene to scene. They watch Frank Darabont’s  The Shawshank Redemption and deconstruct the lighting in the mise-en-scene of the prison break.

In the literature section of the course, the students study how Milos Forman recreated the character of R.P. McMurphy from Ken Kesey’s text One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in a film of the same name. They analyze the authentic dialogue of adolescent males in Steven King’s short story The Body, a story that eventually became the film Stand By Me. By the end of the course, the students agree that at the heart of every great movie, all technical elements aside, must be a good story.

Pollack understood how a story is shared in literature between the writer and reader, and he allowed viewers to become the characters: the housewives, kings, spys, warriors he mentioned in his commencement address. He understood that film exacerbates sensory experiences that aid in developing empathy, an empathy that can lead to compassion. In his work in the film industry, he also proved that creating compassion is also the great gift of film since film lets us “borrow eyes to see the world.”

The two paragraphs in Pollack’s commencement address in 2003 served as the genesis to the Film and Literature course now running at my high school, but they could just as easily serve as the objective for any literature course; fiction persuades us to learn compassion. In our increasingly connected, contentious, and competitive world, learning compassion through story is a skill worth developing.

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