Archives For Film

Twice this summer, I found myself thinking that maybe educators are not taking advantage on how we could show films  in class.

We seldom, if ever, show the film’s credits.

Perhaps the lack of attention to film credits is because there is not enough time already for what many educators might consider a passive activity of sitting and watching. I have worked for administrators who have limited or banned films entirely from curriculum because they perceived that a movie shown in class was merely a babysitting tool. In these situations, I would try to convince them that film is artful storytelling, one that engages the visual and audio learner very effectively.

Films and the Job Market

This past summer, after watching Pixar’s Inside Out (2015) and the last broadcast of The Daily Show (8/6/2015), I considered a different argument: films should be included in schools as part of career development.

Consider first this annual entertainment (film) ticket sales graphic over the past 20 years from Research and Market Reports:

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.52.06

The explanation that followed:

The global movie and entertainment industry is expected to reach an estimated US $139 billion in 2017 with a compound annual growth rate of 4.2% over the next five years. This growth is likely to be driven by the acceleration of online and mobile distribution of movies, lower admission prices, and government policy initiatives in developing countries.

Or, read the report from The Motion Picture Industry Association on its website:

In the process of producing video content for today’s audiences, the American motion picture and TV industry contributes approximately $40 billion per year in payments to more than 330,000 local businesses across the country, according to the latest economic impact figures.

Credits for Pixar’s film Inside Out

Screenshot 2015-08-22 13.44.47Pixar’s film Inside Out was a 94 minute animation on the “headquarters” that managed the emotions of a 12 year old girl, Riley, during a particularly difficult time in her life. After the resolution, the first set of film credits (producer(s), director, actor/actress credit) ended with a montage of emotional centers running the lives of supporting characters in the film: Riley’s teacher, a pizza girl, a bus driver, a dog and (hilarious) a cat.

Then, another six full minutes of credits ran after the montage, a listing of all those who had contributed to the film. These credits scrolled listing teams of people involved in creating this animation: visual effects creators , sound designers, animators, editors, artists, etc. (an abbreviated listing is on  Internet Movie Database- IMDB page). Six minutes listing the names of people employed in a film that was very profitable:

  • Budget: $175,000,000 (estimated)
  • Opening Weekend: $90,440,272 (USA) (19 June 2015)
  • Gross: $335,390,545 (USA) (7 August 2015)
Jobs in the Film Industry

Educators are confronted with preparing students for employment in this 21st Century economy that is far more diverse domestically and internationally than any before it. The names of those who had worked on the film Inside Out  had been employed in creating a product for the Walt Disney Company, a major corporation which held assets worth a total of 74.9 billion (US dollars) in 2012.

Perhaps, instead of limiting the showing of a film and asking students about the message or information, we should slow the credits down and ask them to find out answers to some important questions:

What are the kinds of jobs we see in film credits?
How much does one of these positions get paid?
What skill sets do you (students) need to have to get each of these jobs?

There is a great amount of talk about teaching students to be collaborative, and any film can be an example of collaboration.  Unlike a poem, essay, or novel, a film has multiple authors who each bring a particular skill to its creation. The six minutes of credits illustrated how enormous this collaboration had been in Inside Out.

Giving credits-The Daily Show
Audience on the last night of "The Daily Show" as part of the final walk-through

Audience on the last night of “The Daily Show” as part of the final walk-through

I found myself thinking about showing credits again when, on the night of his last broadcast, Jon Stewart offered a backstage look at those who had worked on his show to make it successful. In one section of the show, there was an extended hand-held camera walk-through of the offices and studio taken from Stewart’s point-of-view. As the camera moved through the hallways and onto the set, Stewart rattled off the names of those who had worked in every aspect of The Daily Show‘s production: writers, designers, researchers, editors, make-up and costumers, and even his family.

The sequence took 6:46 minutes in total, culminating with the contributions of the viewers and studio audience. After the clip, Stewart repeatedly praised the members of this collaborative team as a positive experience.

Maybe that particular clip will never be shown in a classroom, but the walk-through raises questions educators should consider. What skills did these people have in order to get a job with The Daily Show? With The Daily Show as part of their resume, where will these people now find employment? How many in the television audience watched this walk-through and envied those who had a hand in creating this show?

Film and entertainment is a major industry in the US and international economy, and educators should make students aware of the possibilities. When showing a film in class, we might let the credits (slowly) and explain that these jobs could be something they would be interested in doing as a career. At the very least, teachers may have students do a little research and find out what the Gaffer does in a film.

The last part of the credits in Inside Out listed the names of the children born to the entire team during the six years of production. Following the names, there was a dedication from the entire collaborative team:

 “this film is dedicated to our kids. please don’t grow up. ever.”

But our role as educators, is different. Educators prepare them [students] to grow up….and maybe develop skills that could be featured in a scrolling film credits.

The Hollywood Academy released the 2015 nominations this past week, and their choices for best picture, best actor, and best director lit a firestorm on social media about the lack of diversity in their choices.Oscar

Some of the heated discussions called into question the make-up of the Academy, which according to a  2014 Los Angeles Times article is:

  • 93 percent white
  • 76 percent male
  • Average age of 63

The percentages that make up the homogenized Academy bear a striking resemblance to the make-up in the canon of literature traditionally taught in high school English classrooms, a list of works dominated by white male writers. There are numerous reasons as to why the literature is singular in gender and race: politics, economics, culture, and textbooks play a part. The most probable explanation on why the traditional canon endures, however, may be as simple as teachers teaching the books they were taught.

Even the average age of the dead white male writers in the canon is the same as those in the Academy. A sampling of traditionally assigned authors at the time of their deaths (offered in no particular order) is the average age as the members in the Academy=63 years: John Milton (72), Percy Bysshe Shelley (30), F. Scott Fitzgerald (44), Dylan Thomas (39), Arthur Miller (90), William Shakespeare (52), John Keats (27) Ernest Hemingway (62), William Faulkner (65), John Steinbeck (66) William Blake (70), George Orwell (47), and TS Eliot (77).

My observation that older white male literature dominates the curriculum is nothing new, and while there are there are glimmers of diversity, authorship bears little resemblance to readership. Occasionally, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and August Wilson pop up to address racial diversity, while the inclusion of Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters are worthwhile contributions to gender equity.

At the same time, there is a growing body of popular young adult literature from authors representing diversity such as Jacquelyn Woodson, Sharon Draper, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Gary Soto, and Sherman Alexie.  In a manner akin to film audiences, students have been voting for these book choices with their pocketbooks or checking out library books. They are selecting materials (novels, graphic novels, animé, pop culture, biography) that they want to read.

As readers, students look for characters like themselves, who have problems like themselves, even if the settings of the stories are in the ancient past or distant future. If a student never builds empathy with a character because all the assigned reading comes from the canon, then the canon is disconnected from personal experience and useless for that student. If creating life long readers is the goal, curriculum developers must pay attention to student interests and the trends in the popular reading lists. Continuing the disconnect between the traditional canon in school and what students choose does little to build credibility.

That same kind of disconnect is seen in the nominations submitted by the Academy. Their choices show a wide gulf of opinion between critics and audiences, between the selected films and popular films at the box office. National Public Radio (NPR) film critic Bob Mondello noted the low audience numbers for many of the 2015 nominated films:

MONDELLO:  If you total up all of the grosses for all of the best picture nominees this year, you come up to about 200 million, which is roughly what a picture like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” makes all by itself so that you’re talking about very few eyeballs were on those pictures.

Mondello’s noting the difference in box office is striking in comparison to the the top three box office films to three of the nominated films for best picture:

TOP GROSSING:
1 Guardians of the Galaxy – $333,145,154
2 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 $330,643,639
3 Captain America: The Winter Soldier – $259,766,572

NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE:
94 Birdman  $26,725,993
95 The Theory of Everything $26,317,946
100. Boyhood  $24,357,447

Mondello further suggests that Academy has not supported its own self interest in making nominations:

And the idea here is that you’re not going to watch the Oscar telecast unless you have a horse in the race….And I think what they’re hoping is that the next six weeks up until the show, these movies will be seen by a lot more people. If they aren’t – and they only have 38 days to do this – then you’re going to have the lowest rated Oscars telecast in the history of the Oscars.

Encouraging people to attend the films nominated by the Academy will be a challenge, and the success of the Oscars this year will be determined by audience choice. The deaf ear of the Academy this year may make them more open to diversity in future years. In contrast, a deaf ear from curriculum developers who continue to assign literature from the canon because “it has always been taught” may result in student audiences disconnected and less interested in reading anything at all.

Hoping to bridge this disconnect are organizations such as the Children’s Book Council (CBC )Diversity Committee whose mission statement is:

We endeavor to encourage diversity of race, gender, geographical origin, sexual orientation, and class among both the creators of and the topics addressed by kid lit. We strive for a more diverse range of employees working within the industry, of authors and illustrators creating inspiring content, and of characters depicted in children’s and young adult books.

The organization We Need Diverse Books is also committed to expanding diversity in literature and in the video below, the popular YA writer Jon Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns, Looking for Alaska) makes a compelling case for including other, newer voices into the literary canon that is taught in classrooms.

Unlike the choices made by this year’s Academy, the choices in English classroom should represent diversity in authorship, in genre, in character, and in topics because the readership is diverse. NPR’s Bob Mondello’s metaphor about engaging an audience for the Oscar show this year could be a metaphor for creating life long readers. Unless students “have a horse in the race” in what they read, they will not value the choices made for them.

17 minutesI was researching websites for the Film and Literature class when I first heard about the “17 Minute Rule;” a rule that suggests the real plot is revealed to the audience 17 minutes into any film.  Todd Pack’s Messy Desk Blog uses a number of examples to illustrate  The 17 Minute Rule:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find his real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes intoJaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

This 17 minute phenomenon was corroborated on other blogs as well.  Writer and Director Nathan Marshall posted Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points Script Frenzy! blog where he also called attention to minute 17:

3) Page 17. Next time you watch a DVD, pause it 17 minutes into the film. Trust me—any film. What’s happening at that point in the story? Most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. A teenage Indiana Jones runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead. Shaun convinces his girlfriend to trust him in Shaun of the Dead. Captain Renault asks Rick why he came to Casablanca. On page 17, your audience should realize what the film is really about. It’s not about finding the Holy Grail, Indy—it’s about learning to forgive dad!

The same was outlined on the  All About Screenwriting blog. In addition to explaining the rule, this post made the claim that the ratio of screenplay to minute of film is 1:1; and page 17 will be the 17th minute of a film. The site provides a basic outline for a screenplay of the average movie made today:

FADE IN: 

  • Between pages 1-5: The HOOK, something that grabs our attention and pulls us in.
  • Page 10: At this point in your script you should have the “MINI CRISIS”. The “MINI CRISIS” should lead us into…
  • Page 17: …The DILEMMA. Creation of the team and what the movie is about.
  • Page 30: The REACTION to the dilemma or situation.
  • Page 45: First “REVERSAL” of the 17 minute point. This point furthers the characters and pushes them deeper into the situation or the dilemma.
  • Page 60: The “TENT POLE” of the movie. Where the passive characters become active or vice versa.
  • Page 75: Second “REVERSAL” to the 17 minute point. To reaffirm what the story is about.
  • Page 90: The LOW POINT of action. The place from which our main character has to rise up from.

FADE OUT.

So when I noticed students picking up books for independent reading and discarding them after the first few pages, I wondered if they were giving the book a real chance. Could a 17 page rule apply to books student might choose to read? And, if the rule applied, would a student become more engaged once he or she reached page 17?

In a short experiment, I grabbed three books off the top of the book cart, and noted the following:

The Hobbit (The Dwarves and Gandalf invade Bilbo’s home)

“The poor little hobbit sat down in the hall and put his head in his hands, and wondered what had happened, and what was going to happen, and whether they would all stay to supper. Then the bell rang again louder than ever, and he had to run to the door.”

Little Women -Marmee gives  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy their Christmas gifts with her words of encouragement to survive the difficulties of life.

‘We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another.Out burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.’”

Lord of the Flies-The boys Ralph and Piggy discover they are on their own in a hostile environment:

“They’re all dead,” said Piggy, “an’ this is an island. Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know—”
His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist.
“We may stay here till we die.”
With that word the heat seemed to increase till it became a threatening weight and the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence.”

Yes, the rule was working for books from the canon. Later that same afternoon, I was working with a “reluctant reader” who had selected James and the Giant Peach as a guided reading text. I glanced at page 17 and noticed the wonderful passage where James finds the entrance to the giant peach.

James and the Giant Peach 

“Almost without knowing what he was doing, as though drawn by some powerful magnet, James Henry Trotter started walking slowly toward the giant peach. He climbed over the fence that surrounded it, and stood directly beneath it, staring up at its great bulging sides. He put out a hand and touched it gently with the tip of one finger. It felt soft and warm and slightly furry, like the skin of a baby mouse. He moved a step closer and rubbed his cheek lightly against the soft skin. And then suddenly, while he was doing this, he happened to notice that right beside him and below him, close to the ground, there was a hole in the side of the peach.”

Not every text has a page 17 moment…sometimes the dilemma is posed on page 16 or page 18 or 19. I suspect the rule holds up because the 17 minute rule/page 17 is part of a pattern in storytelling, and stories always follow a pattern.  Sharing this rule with students gives me another “tool” in my teaching toolbox, so when I see a student toss a book aside after reading only a few pages, I casually remark, “Did you get to page 17 yet? There’s a rule about page 17…. on page 17, something important always happens.”
I may get a quizzical look, but several minutes later, I have seen that same student engrossed in the text.
“The book got better,” says the student.
“Well, you got past page 17,” I respond.

The 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

Moreover, watching the different versions meets the Common Core State Standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.7
Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare)

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

The scenario of film clips went in this order:

Act I; scene i: The “Who’s there?” opening:

  • Branagh (Note: Jack Lemmon as Marcello is woefully miscast)
  • BBC (Patrick Stewart plays both Ghost and Claudius)
  • Olivier (students thought the graphics and set were amazing for 1948)

Act I; scene v: In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet. I started with Zefferelli, and then moved to the Branagh version.  I added two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the 1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor. To have a sense, here are some clips to compare of the Ghost meeting Hamlet:

Kenneth Branagh
Grigori Kozintsev

Alexander Fodor

I had asked the students to consider the origin of the Ghost-from Heaven (“spirit of health”), from Purgatory (“till my sins were purged”), or Hell (“goblin damned”). Where did they believe the Ghost originated? After watching the clips, they decided:

  • Zefferelli: Heaven or Purgatory (“The ghost looks so sad..”)
  • Branagh: Hell (“there’s fire coming out of the ground! it’s Hell unlashed,” said one.)
  • Hallmark: Hell (“there is a hand that comes from the ground!” “He’s wounded by the Ghost!”)
  • Fodor: Hell (“That’s an abusive dad!”)
  • Grigori Kozintsev: Hell or Purgatory (“Darth Vadar!”)

Act III; scene iv: The students also watched the stabbing of Polonius in Gertrude’s bedchamber where Zefferelli’s version veers into a disturbing Oedipal psychoanalysis akin to Olivier’s version. Students compared that version with the more toned down version from Branagh before moving onto Act IV.

Finally, when we arrived at Act V; scene ii, I lined up the five different versions moving between the Smartboard and a small projector. This year, I followed this order and have summarized the student responses:

  1. Starting with Zefferelli’s authentic combat, Hamlet is both clown and avenger. The three bouts are elaborate and full of suspense; my students were amazed at the hand-to-hand combat that would have been for “entertainment.” Glenn Close’s Gertrude dies in pain with wonderful contortions, and one student noted hearing “a satisfying “crunch” when Claudius is finally stabbed. As the camera pulls away, four bodies litter the stage, and the “rest is silence.”
  2. Branagh wisely kept Fortinbras in the play (all four hours of it!) using the setting of Blenheim Palace in England, which could serve as a substitute for the Russian Winter Palace of the Tsars in his Marxist take on the play. The students did not care for the elaborate staging in the death of Claudius who is “fed” poison after he has been lanced by a foil and crushed by a falling chandelier. They did, however, give “thumbs up” to the editing which juxtaposes the combat between Laertes and Hamlet with the invasion of the palace by Fortinbras. One of the open-ended questions I had asked was to choose “Fortinbras or Hamlet: The soldier or the scholar?” This film put most student squarely in Fortinbras’s corner as the man of action.
  3. The BBC version switches between security camera feed and with a single-camera setup giving the impression that the action recorded will be later viewed in some criminal investigation. Patrick Stewart returned to the BBC as Claudius where played the same role in 1980 with Derek Jacobi as Hamlet. In the final scene, confronted by Hamlet, Stewart’s Claudius takes the cup and with a resigned shrug, drinks the remaining poison and falls dead a few inches from his beloved queen. My students thought this version was hilarious, a dark and cynical twist on justice.
  4. The Almereyda version suggests that Gertrude, played by Diane Venora, willingly drinks from the cup in order to protect Hamlet and that Laertes played by Liev Schreiber is not Claudius’s dupe. As Hamlet remarks to Laertes, “You do but dally. I pray you, pass with your best violence,” Schreiber’s brutish and vengeful son of Polonius stands up with a concealed weapon and, in the scuffle that follows, shoots Hamlet in the abdomen before being wounded in the same way himself. My students reacted in shock:”didn’t see that coming!”  Once avenged, Schreiber’s next act is one of brotherhood towards Hamlet as he hands the weapon off for Hamlet to kill Claudius. Viewers should note that Horatio has something useful to do in this version, as he holds the dying Hamlet upright to hunt Claudius.  

Watching these four Hamlets die took all the time we had in our block schedule (80 minutes). A few more minutes, and I could have offered a fifth? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

Die again, Hamlet, please, die again.

Christmas storyThe holidays are here and network television takes full advantage of our want to replay our favorites, to stir memories, or to remind us of our childhood. Perhaps no film is more nostalgic than the 1983 film A Christmas Story based on a novel by Jean Shepard, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Director Bob Clark and writer Leigh Brown also collaborated on the screenplay for this time piece of the 1940s that highlights one family’s battles with Oldsmobiles, coal-burning furnaces, and spotty electrical wiring. The film is also a timeless story of a young boy’s obsession for toy, a Red Ryder B.B. gun, for Christmas from Santa Claus, the guarantor of all secret wishes.

The casting of actor Darren McGavin (The Old Man), actress Melinda Dillon (Mother), and the young Peter Billingsley, as the bespectacled Ralphie, was perfect, but it is the voice of Shepard himself narrating the story that makes the movie so memorable. The viewer sees the events through Shepard’s eyes and hears his emotional range as he reflects on this one momentous Christmas season. In recalling his youth, he is at turns indignant (“Ovaltine? A crummy commercial?”)  terrified (“Scut Farkus staring out at us with his yellow eyes. He had yellow eyes! So, help me, God! Yellow eyes!”), and determined (“No! No! I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”)

The visual laughs abound in the story: Flick’s tongue stuck frozen to the flagpole, Miss Shields’ morphing into a witch, and the camera closing in on Santa’s boot as he shoves Ralphie down the slide into a soft pile of cloth snowballs. But it is the language, Shephard’s script, that gives the film its enduring appeal. Long after December, I have heard people quote lines from the film such as:

  • Fra-gee-lay. That must be Italian.
  • It… It ’twas… soap poisoning!
  • Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
  • But those who did it know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.
  • You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

Not only are the lines marvelous in construction, but the vocabulary in Shepard’s recounting is of the highest caliber, with many words worthy of an SAT rating, for example:

“We plunged into the cornucopia quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice.”

“Over the years I got to be quite a connoisseur of soap. My personal preference was for Lux, but I found Palmolive had a nice, piquant after-dinner flavor – heady, but with just a touch of mellow smoothness.”

“Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.”

“Mothers know nothing about creeping marauders burrowing through the snow toward the kitchen where only you and you alone stand between your tiny, huddled family and insensate evil.”

When a word is not suitable, Shephard turns Shakespeare-like and creates his own:

“Gradually, I drifted off to sleep, pranging ducks on the wing and getting off spectacular hip shots.”

Shephard also preserves the language of a different, perhaps more polite, time when a more conscious effort was made to create substitutes for profanity. The actor McGavin peppers the “Old Man’s” frustration with all things mechanical: nincompoop, dadgummit, keister, and for cripes sake, as well as more colorful expletive sound-a-likes: You wart mundane noodle! You shotten shifter paskabah! You snort tonguer! Lame monger snaffa shell cocker!

The script is also filled with a myriad of examples of figurative language guaranteed to please any English teacher. Here is an opportunity to teach students the power of similes:

“My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop!”
“Randy lay there like a slug! It was his only defense!”
“He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.”

Shephard’s metaphors are also exceptional. These are constructions of “dictional elegance”, the rare combination of the sacred and profane:

“In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

“Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, upon which the entire kid year revolved.”

“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”

“Next to me in the blackness lay my oiled blue steel beauty.”

122208lampleg

My personal favorite metaphor of all time centers on the infamous lamp, a prize won by Ralphie’s father who in one hilarious sequence, digs wild-eyed through packing material in a large wood carton. He uncovers a tribute to all things burlesque:  a glass leg adorned with a fishnet stocking and a fringe shade covering the upper thigh. As Ralphie stands, slack-jawed in admiration staring at the lamp, his alarmed mother shoves him back into the kitchen. Ruefully Shephard intones:

Only one thing in the world could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.

So, during the next 24 hour marathon showing of A Christmas Story, when you tune in for the memories, to watch the exceptional acting and the period piece visuals, pay attention to the language that makes the film so unforgettable. You may even develop an appreciation for Ralphie’s theme essay on “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.

Poetry. Sheer poetry, Ralph! An A+!

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.

Screen Shot 2013-05-22 at 8.09.07 PM

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.

Spoiler alertEnter the spoiler alert. Because the number of ways people hear about stories is increasing, spoiler alerts for books and films are offered as a “heads-up”, a means to prevent plot details from becoming public.  Knowing the end of a story might mean that the strategy of “predicting” a story has been compromised, however, there are genres of stories that absolutely count on predictability, for example, Nancy Drew will always solve a mystery with her best friend, Bess and George, while on TV, predictability has a time limit; the shipwrecked crew will never leave Gilligan’s Island (30 mins) and House will solve a medical mystery (60 mins).

Predictability means to state, tell about, or make known in advance, especially on the basis of special knowledge, and students are taught at an early age that making predictions can help them to determine what will happen in a story.

I noticed how predictions are important even if the end has already been decided when my six-year-old niece was watching the Disney film Running Brave. This was her favorite film, and she watched the VHS tape every afternoon. On one such afternoon, I noticed she was drifting asleep, so I made a move to turn off the video.

“Wait,” she cried out, “I think….I think he’s going to win again.”

From her perspective, the outcome of the race was still in doubt. The cinematic elements, the tight editing of shots , and a triumphant soundtrack created suspense where the viewer might doubt the inevitable. Krista had seen the movie hundreds of times, but she still was “testing” her prediction.

I admit that I have felt the same way watching Miracle, holding my breath for the final seconds wondering if the US ice hockey team would still win the Olympic medal. Krista’s experience is also mirrored in the classes where students often choose books based on a movie that they have seen.

In the independent reading allowed in our curriculum, the 9th graders can choose contemporary fiction or non-fiction, and many of the titles have movies in circulation, for example:

Some students purposefully choose these books because they know the endings, and in knowing how the book ends allows the reader to pay more attention to the craft of the author in bringing all the plot points together in a conclusion. Take for example, the Harry Potter series. Most readers predicted with certainty that Harry Potter would finally face his nemesis, Voldemort. The how and when, however, were still very much in the air, and J.K.Rowling’s crafting of the series’s magical settings and character development kept readers in a willing suspension of disbelief for the length of seven volumes. The final conclusion was satisfying to her fans who knew all along that Harry would prevail, after all, Good’s triumph over Evil is a predictable plot. Readers and filmgoers were not disappointed in following the story of a boy with the scar on his forehead because in each volume and subsequent film release, they correctly predicted that “I think…I think he will win again.”

So when I teach a whole class novel, I know there are some students who already know the ending. They may have reached the conclusion before others, or been informed by older students who notoriously share their opinions and critical information with younger students. In this case, my role is to impress on students that knowing the outcome will not destroy a well-told story, and to focus their attention on the other elements. This was the case with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

“I heard this is a sad book,” one student said when I assigned the first chapter, “One guy kills another guy.”
Other students looked up for my confirmation.
“Yes, this is a sad book, but the reason for the sadness is really about caring. We will grow to care for these characters.”
“I already don’t care if I already know what happens,” was his reply.
Four weeks later, this student refused to watch the final scene in the film version.
“I know what happens, and I cannot watch,” he said sadly as he walked out into the hall.

The same sentiments are expressed at the beginning of our study of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
“Guess what? They die,” said a student as I passed out the books.
“Yes, they die,” I kept passing out the copies.
“So why are reading this?” another asked.
“Because this is a great story,” I responded, “and the story’s ending will mean more after we finish because we will have read how Shakespeare writes about these ‘star-cross’d lovers’.”
“But we already know how it ends!” they whined.

Now that we are in Act III, no one cares that they know the end, instead, they are recognizing how Shakespeare creates the tragedy. They notice the “hints”: Juliet seeing Romeo “As one dead in the bottom of a tomb”, Friar Lawrence’s herbs of “Violent delights”, and “Love devouring death”.

This discovery of an author’s details makes students more appreciative of the craft in writing as they still try to predict. They notice Shakespeare’s allusions: “Such a wagoner/As Phaeton would whip you to the west/And bring in cloudy night immediately” (3.2.2-4), because we had studied the Phaeton myth earlier in the year.

“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” I heard one say, “Romeo’s gonna crash and burn like Phaeton.”

That kind of analysis is exactly what the English Language Arts Common Core would like to see in a close reading of a text. How interesting that students who already know “what happens” may be better at picking up on an author’s craft that a close reading generates.

Spoiler alerts do warn those readers or viewers who want to be surprised, but knowing the ending does not necessarily ruin the reading or viewing experience. Want to experiment? Here are 50 plot spoilers for 50 novels. I predict that each novel will not disappoint, even if you already know the ending.

A startled Macbeth exclaims, “The Thane of Cawdor Lives! Why do you dress me in borrowed robes?” (1.3.109) as he receives the news that verify the Witches’ prophesy. Shakespeare’s tragedy centers on this valiant warrior, a man whose “o’er riding ambition” brings death to those who surround or oppose him, and a man who brings on his own damnation.

Sound familiar? Well, yes. This is also the plot of the original Netflix production of House of Cards, an American remake of the successful British political mini-series based on a book by Michael Dobbs. In this series, Francis Underwood (Macbeth) played by Kevin Spacey is the calculating Majority Whip of the House of Representatives; Claire Underwood (Lady Macbeth) played by Robin Wright is his conniving wife. Director David Fincher’s mini-series is for educators only with a TV-MA rating, because, “This wicked political drama penetrates the shadowy world of greed, sex, and corruption in modern D.C.”  The plot similarities to Shakespeare’s play are not literal, but rather they are in the same desire for the golden round or, in the case of the television series, the American presidency.house of cards

Of course, I am not the first to point out these parallels; there are multiple reviewers, bloggers, commenters who have called attention to the Shakespearean qualities in characters and plot line. What I am finding particularly interesting is the inclusion of the many images from the play artfully placed in each episode. For example, Claire’s jarring encounter with the old woman in a graveyard while she was jogging is one. “You should not be here,” the hag appears suddenly warns Claire, “Show some respect here.” The incident resonates much like the specter of the witches, a constant presence in the play. Later, Claire’s $20 handout to a beggar outside a hotel is rejected. The beggar turns the bill into an origami bird, tossing it at Claire’s feet the following day. She leans down and collects up the bird, but that incident pulls Claire into a “spell” of origami folding. Later, Claire is seen neatly folding paper into small figures. The viewer wonders, what was the power of that beggar?

The crimes mount; the murder of a hapless politician, lured into a media trap set up by Francis, is underscored with images of dripping water from a leaky faucet. That same faucet is repaired by Claire, echoing Lady Macbeth’s chilling statement, “A little water clears us of this deed”(2.2.64) Another repeated theme connects Claire to the frightening Lady Macbeth who, in urging  Macbeth assassinate the king, declares that if she had a child, she would, ”have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums, And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you…” (1.7.16-17). Claire grows obsessed with her childless state, but when she confronts and makes contact with a pregnant adversary, the viewer can positively feel the fetus recoil in horror from the touch.

Additionally, the references to sleep merge the language of Shakespeare and the images from House of Cards. Yes, both Francis and Claire Underwood “sleep around”, but the sleep that is the “balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course” (2.2.36) is missing. Claire has nightmares, Francis is exhausted. “You look tired,” says she. “I am beat,” says he; they are weary and haunted.

Even the camerawork mimics the framework of the play. Francis delights in engaging the audience in his conspiracies, breaking the fourth wall by delivering his thoughts in folksy soliloquies. His first lines are delivered as he stares into the camera over the body of a dog that has been hit by a car, “There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” He then strangles the dog.

When I teach the play Macbeth, I try to make the characters relevant to my students. I make comparisons to world dictators past and present, I mention mobsters and thugs, I bring up warlords.

I ask my students, “Do you think there are Macbeths today?”  “Yes,” they respond, sometimes calling on names from current events.

Unfortunately the rating on House of Cards prevents my sharing this slick contemporary series with my students despite how well the drama picks up the themes and images of Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”.  Perhaps that is best; they are not prepared to evaluate this cynical treatment of democracy. The show is an illustration of a ruthless Macbeth, one that Shakespeare would have wanted, a frightening political operative of our time.

Here is a “re-post” from last year, “At this festive time of the year…”

There has been some chatter on blogs that I follow that  centers on discussions of the many film versions of Charles Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol. The networks always feature these films during the holidays. Additionally,  Dickens’s  200th birthday will be celebrated in  2012. A website dedicated to the celebrations marking his birthday is at http://www.dickens2012.org/

Dickens’s association with Christmas is best known through his characterization of Scrooge, a cultural icon whose name conjures visions of a cold-hearted, seemingly unredeemable money-lender.

For many film critics, the best portrayal of Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge was by Alistair Sims in the 1951 version Scrooge (Re-released as A Christmas Carol) filmed at Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England.  Sims, a Scot by birth, was an elocution and drama lecturer at the University of Edinburgh before leaving for the stage as a character actor; his low voice was often described as critics as particularly “ghoulish”.

So why is his portrayal the best?

Watch Sims’s performance in black and white (heavens, not the colorized version!) and see how his Scrooge takes thrift to a new low in a pub where he huddles over a bowl of thin soup:

Ebenezer: Waiter! More bread.
Waiter: Ha’penny extra, sir.
Ebenezer: [pauses] No more bread.

Watch a terrified Sims, wedged protectively into a tufted high-backed chair, challenge the ghost of Jacob Marley who has come to chide Scrooge’s avarice:

Ebenezer: You see that toothpick?
Jacob Marley: I do.
Ebenezer: But you’re not looking at it!
Jacob Marley: Yet I see it, notwithstanding.
Ebenezer: Well, then, I’ll just swallow this and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins, all of my own creation! It’s all HUMBUG, I tell you, HUMBUG!

Watch Sims, barefoot, shivering, and exceedingly rumpled, stumble out of bed to reluctantly confront the gentle Spirit of Christmas Past:
Ebenezer: Are you the spirit whose coming was foretold to me?
Spirit of Christmas Past: I am.
Ebenezer: Who and what are you?
Spirit of Christmas Past: I am the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Ebenezer: Long past?
Spirit of Christmas Past: No, your past.
Watch Sims, stunned by the largess celebrating the arrival of the Spirit of Christmas Present, rub his eyes in disbelief:
Spirit of Christmas Present: So! Is your heart still unmoved towards us, then?
Ebenezer: I’m too old and beyond hope! Go and redeem some younger, more promising creature, and leave me to keep Christmas in my own way!

And watch the following two minutes of the most touching moments in the film. Here, a redeemed Scrooge travels to his nephew Fred’s home on a snowy Christmas night. He is greeted by a wide-eyed maid who takes his hat, scarf and coat. Without saying a word, Sims shifts from his characterization of a brusque Scrooge to a Scrooge who is hesitant, filled with trepidation. The ballad of Barbra Allen plays in the background when Sims turns to the maid and pauses for several seconds; she nods to encourage him. A sheepish smile passes his lips as he reluctantly turns and opens the double doors to Fred’s parlour. The party inside immediately stops, all eyes turn to Sims, who with a new found grace and humility charms all with the following apology:

Dickens understood Christmas, and  he brilliantly committed to paper the emotional tug the holiday has on those who celebrate. In The Pickwick Papers, he writes “And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilized nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!”

Merry Christmas, Charles Dickens. Merry Christmas, Alistair Sims. Thank you for A Christmas Carol and for Scrooge. My holiday favorite, hands down.

Here is how to add an informational text to appease the Common Core State Standards without throwing out literature. Find an exceptionally well-written piece of non fiction and use that informational text as a centerpiece for a thematic unit.

Here is my example: On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into Washington DC’s 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River. There had been a heavy snowstorm which had closed National Airport earlier that day. Improper de-icing procedures were credited as a major reason for the crash; 78 people were killed, four of these fatalities were motorists from the bridge who had been caught in the traffic jam caused by the storm. Only five people were rescued from the icy waters, and their rescue was broadcast live during the evening news. A news media crew, stuck in traffic only a few hundred yards away from the plane crash, filmed one rescuer’s memorable plunge to pull a flight attendant  from the icy water. I remember; I watched that happen live on the evening news.

Twelve days later Roger Rosenblatt’s piece The Man in the Water appeared in TIME magazine (January 25, 1982). His opening paragraph starts with an ordinary sentence, “As disasters go, this one was terrible but not unique, certainly not among the worst on the roster of U.S. air crashes” He continues to comment on the setting, “There was the unusual element of the bridge, of course, and the fact that the plane clipped it at a moment of high traffic, one routine thus intersecting another and disrupting both.” But then, there is a shift; Rosenblatt suddenly shifts into the kind of figurative imagery usually reserved for poetry:

“Washington, the city of form and regulations, turned chaotic, deregulated, by a blast of real winter and a single slap of metal on metal. The jets from Washington National Airport that normally swoop around the presidential monuments like famished gulls were, for the moment, emblemized by the one that fell; so there was that detail. And there was the aesthetic clash as well—blue-and-green Air Florida, the name a flying garden, sunk down among gray chunks in a black river.”

Rosenblatt’s purpose was not to comment of the disaster itself, but rather to focus on the actions of one individual who rescued other crash survivors floundering amid the frozen chunks of ice and crash debris floating in the Potomac. This individual Rosenblatt christened “The Man in the Water.”

“Balding, probably in his 50s, an extravagant moustache.) He was seen clinging with five other survivors to the tail section of the airplane. This man was described by Usher and Windsor as appearing alert and in control. Every time they lowered a lifeline and flotation ring to him, he passed it on to another of the passengers.”

Rosenblatt called attention to the other resuers in this disaster including, Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor, a park-police helicopter team and Lenny Skutnik who jumped from shore to drag flight attendant Priscilla Tirado to shore. But it is the “Man in the Water” that Rosenblatt immortalizes in the essay:

“When the helicopter came back for him, the man had gone under. His selflessness was one reason the story held national attention; his anonymity another. The fact that he went unidentified invested him with a universal character. For a while he was Everyman, and thus proof (as if one needed it) that no man is ordinary.”

I use this essay, which is anthologized in an English literature textbook, as the thematic centerpiece for the senior elective Hero or Monster. The essay sets up the essential question: What makes a hero?

There are other resources to use with this text. A National Geographic Video Plane Crash in the Potomac (credit – Discovery/ National Geographic channel Seconds From Disaster)

After reading this essay and watching the video, student are charged to consider what makes a hero in literature. The required reading for the thematic unit will including selections from the Iliad, James Thurber’s short story The Greatest Man in the World, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and an independent reading book. Students will also read about the monomyth or hero’s journey and trace the journey of a hero in a book of their choice.

While Rosenblatt’s essay never identifies the man in the water, forensic experts determined that his name was Arland Dean Williams Jr. Of course, by not naming the man in the water, Rosenblatt suggests anyone can be a hero,and concludes in a memorable last line, “He was the best we can do.” Similarly, if informational texts are required in the Common Core State Standards, than including an essay of this caliber for our students is also the best we can do.