Hot Buttered Popcorn and Informed Analysis
Recently revived film studies courses hone critical thinking skills
Written By Donna Emert
If teachers were trying to build a curriculum that strengthened analytical skills, developed an eye for detail, and raised students’ awareness of cultural issues, their class might end up in front of the silver screen taking notes and scarfing popcorn.
Or just taking notes.
Students are drawn to film studies because they’re cinema junkies, but they seem to stay through the credits because of the fuller engagement informed analysis provides. There currently are waiting lists for many film studies courses, said Anna Banks, associate professor of English in the University of Idaho’s College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences.
Banks’ expertise is in visual literacy, which she has applied to still photography and film throughout her academic career. She currently teaches introduction to film studies, literature and film, film theory and criticism, and nonverbal communication courses.
Film students learn the identifying features of genres ranging from comedy to horror, and many hybrids in between. And they can learn much more.
“Most film studies courses involve analyzing cinematic images as text,” explains Banks. “We look at both the visual and aural aspects of film. Analysis also is approached from a cultural perspective: we look at how the film both reflects and shapes the culture in which it was produced and in which it was shown. We also look at the role of the spectator, the interaction between the film medium and the spectator.”
Students do a lot of writing in the courses, from detailed micro analysis of one-minute excerpts – analyzing those shot-by-shot for lighting, camera angle, arrangement of figures within the frame, and editing technique – to more formal narrative analyses, said Banks.
One richly nuanced text that Banks often employs in her classes is Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
“’Vertigo’ is a film that allows me to talk about a whole range of cinematic elements,” said Banks. “It is classic Hollywood cinema, and it pushes that style very much by violating some of the basic rules of the classics: with extreme camera angles that draw attention to themselves and violations of classical editing techniques that also gain the attention of viewers.”
The university’s multimedia classrooms “make a huge difference,” Banks said, because students are required to watch the images very closely.
Multimedia classrooms provide high quality projection and admit no outside light.
As visual media occupy a more prominent place in entertainment and communications, and on all the teeny and big screens that define daily interaction, it becomes imperative that we understand how images and audio are used to persuade, teach, and sometimes, manipulate us, said Banks.
“Part of what film studies does is teach the language of cinema,” she said. “I feel good that we are teaching students how to read those images critically, and that we’re raising their awareness of the power of visuals.”