Saturday, January 23, 2010

New Year, New Venture

I'm teaching a film class for the first time. It's an undergraduate course titled "Philosophy and Film," and I'm doing it in partnership with my colleague Tanya Loughead, who is a Continental philosopher. Rather than being a course that uses films--or slivers of films--simply to illustrate philosophy, we've designed the course to accord equal time and importance to both areas. On the philosophy side, we'll read Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Foucault, Butler, and Derrida. For film, we've picked about 10 well-known, canonical titles including Ray's Pather Panchali, Bresson's A Man Escaped, Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Denis' Chocolat, Haynes' Safe, and Varda's The Gleaners and I. This being our maiden voyage into teaching cinema, we've chosen (conservatively) films with established reputations, films that have been amply discussed and written about. In addition to exams and papers, we've designed the course to include an in-class, small-group discussion component. My own primary role in the course will be to work to provide students with a basic grounding in film form, style and aesthetics. It promises to be an exciting--and unpredictable--venture.

We'd appreciate greatly any suggestions or advice from film teachers who happen to be reading. We are particularly curious about the experiences of others in using small-group discussions. But, really: any words of wisdom will be most welcome. Thanks!

* * *

The recent film I most want to see is Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August. An excerpt from Adrian Martin's essay on it in the new issue of Indian Auteur:

Is every important, progressive film of today a remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943)? Almost every Pedro Costa film, for instance, seems to return to it; and ghosts or zombies of every material sort seem to stalk or sleepwalk through the work of Albert Serra, Lisandro Alonso, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr … But Our Beloved Month of August takes us back to a very particular moment of Tourneur’s masterpiece: the scene in which the previously subservient, glad-handing, guitar-strumming, nightclub entertainer with the wonderful name of Sir Lancelot breaks his subaltern role and strides forward to gleefully accuse the drunken, guilty white man with his deceptively lilting ditty: “Woe is me / Shame and scandal in the family …” [...]

The great Czech-born philosopher Vilém Flusser once mused on the difference between a screen wall and a solid wall – for him, the convenient key (like so many mundane, everyday phenomena, of the kind that Gomes also alights upon) to understanding our civilisation and its discontents. The solid wall marks, for Flusser, a neurotic society – a society of houses and thus ‘dark secrets’, of properties and possessions. And of folly, too, because the wall will always be razed, in the final instance, by the typhoon or the flood or the earthquake. But whereas the solid wall gathers and locks people in, the screen wall – incarnated in history variously by the tent, the kite or the boating sail – is “a place where people assemble and disperse, a calming of the wind”. It is the site for the “assembly of experience”; it is woven, and thus a network.

It is only a small step for Flusser to move from the physical, material kind of screen to the immaterial kind: the screen that receives projected images, or (increasingly) holds computerised, digital images. From the Persian carpet to the Renaissance oil painting, from cinema to new media art: images (and thus memories) are stored within the surface of this woven wall. A wall that reflects movement, but itself increasingly moves within the everyday world: when I was a little child and once dreamed of taking a cinema screen (complete with a movie still playing loudly and brightly upon it), folding it up and putting in my pocket so I could go for a stroll, I had no idea it was a predictive vision of the future, the mundane laptop computer or mobile phone.

* * *

A couple of links:

-- At the Guardian: "Haiti's only film school was destroyed in the earthquake, but the mini-movies that its students have made since are a living chronicle of the still-unfolding crisis and will serve as enduring testaments to the power of cinema to inform and move."

-- At Sight & Sound, several critics and curators pick (and display) their favorite online videos of 2009.

-- Senses of Cinema World Poll 2009.


Blogger Marc Raymond said...

For small group discussion, it is often best to either have a student presentation that leads the discussion, or have weekly one page response assignments that the students can then rely on to make their in class remarks. This provides a wider range of students participating and less anxiety for the more introverted students. I used this in larger classes as well, where there was no chance to get to everyone in class. This way I still was able to get a response to the material from each student. Studies also show that having material written down beforehand makes students more comfortable and more willing to participate in class.

Sounds like an interesting course, and the first few times teaching are always exciting (and stressful). I'm sure it will go well.

January 23, 2010 9:25 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, it pleases me to no end that you are teaching a class on film and philosophy (two of my favorites subjects, and ones that are made to go together). I am sure you will love the experience and your students will be privileged to have you as their guide. Bonne chance!

January 23, 2010 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

The secret to teaching film (well, one secret) is the careful use of clips -- as reminders, as examples, as spurs to discussion. Most people see some of their favorite films more than once, but many approach film viewing as a one-time-only experience (even with easy access to films on video), and have to be shown how repeat viewing (even if only of parts of a film) is necessary to really analyze any text. Most students know that you have to re-read a novel or poem to make sense of it, but can feel that a single viewing is enough. So I choose clips as carefully as readings -- and in some cases show the same clip more than once: often the second re-viewing elicits comments that the first did not. Sounds obvious, I know, but ... I've observed beginning teachers who didn't show clips as their students struggled to remember scenes the teacher referred to ...

January 23, 2010 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Surbhi said...

I will add to Corey's excellent suggestions that often illustrating a point through clips from films of various genre also helps in establishing the point. Repeated viewing , each time focusing on various aspects will help bring out the point better.

best wishes on the new venture...2010 ought to be that - year of new venture, beginnings...
Eliot's "East Cocker" sums it up neatly (

"Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning."


January 23, 2010 11:16 PM  
Blogger Saurabh A said...

a series of dialogue tunes up the course with understanding of the students and their interests...

I wonder if there is any contribution of philosphy/criticism from east ???

January 24, 2010 12:27 AM  
Blogger Harmanjit Singh said...

Good list of films, and a great idea, though I don't think much of a few of the French intellectuals (the ones being taught in the philo section).

Also, Sanil V (at IIT Delhi, Humanities department) used to teach, and probably still does, a course titled "Films and Philosophy". You might want to get in touch with him for ideas and sharing knowledge.

January 24, 2010 6:22 AM  
Anonymous Surbhi said...

May i also recommend Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhake Tara for aesthetics which are couched in the Indian Dramatic traditions - very different from Ray's realism.

January 24, 2010 8:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for your suggestions and advice! Tucker, thanks for the good wishes. Marc, thank you for sharing: that's a mechanism we hadn't thought of! Corey, that is *eye-opening* and invaluable advice about the use of clips: It would've never occurred to me! I will let you know how I make out. Surbhi, "still and still moving/into another intensity" is a very worthy goal for us all! And MEGHE GHAKA TARA is among my dearest favorites of Indian films. I considered using it in this course but suspected it would be a more 'difficult' film to teach than the Ray. Definitely another time. Harmanjit, Saurabh, many years ago, my undergraduate years were spent at IIT Kharagpur.

January 24, 2010 9:41 AM  
Blogger Gabe Klinger said...

What a great line-up. Your students should be so lucky.

As this is your first experience teaching film, remember, above all, to have a wonderful time!! Don't get too stressed, and savor every moment. The first time is in some ways the best.

I feel very reticent about offering any advice other than the above. I don't know what your level of student is; in many ways, it doesn't matter...

As you're already a teacher, the same general classroom etiquette applies. A polite, non-condescending reminder to be respectful while the film is being projected is something you may find necessary. No matter the age or background of my students, I have come to expect at least one annoying disruption during the movie, especially in the first few weeks. Save yourself a lot of grief by reemphasizing the classroom policies that may or may not be enumerated on the syllabus (cell phones off, no labtops, etc. etc.) If they're younger students, these rules generally apply more rigorously.

Group dynamics are important. Small groups can work or totally bomb. Separate the students who might be losing interest and challenge them with questions. Force them to write down their responses before they enter into groups. They may hate you for it in the beginning, but they'll thank you in the end.

Lead your students into ideas about films rather than serving conclusions straight-up. I have found students will cling too easily to my conclusions if I don't give them a margin to explore ideas on their own. Terms like neorealism to talk about Pather Panchali, or melodrama to talk about All That Heaven Allows, will only get you so far. Students will too quickly replace concepts with the shorthand of the terms themselves. By the end of the semester, they'll no longer have any clue what neorealism or melodrama mean.

Always calculate so that you'll have enough time to finish films. The in-classroom experience is essential, so watch films as much as possible with your students. If your meeting times are short, show shorter work. I dread the moment when I have to stop a film in the middle because we've run out of time. You always run this risk, but try to minimize it by moderating the first half of class well. Cut student comments off if you have to. They'll appreciate it in the long run.

More practical advice: check DVD's beforehand. A faulty DVD can ruin a class. Bring a backup-- always bring a backup! If you don't have time to burn another copy of PATHER PANCHALI, bring something similar. Another Ray film. DVD players can be trouble too. If you're having trouble with the equipment, insist that your department replace it or bring your home player to school as a temporary solution. There's nothing worse than having lousy equipment or DVD's that freeze or skip. Blown speakers, dim projectors, bad acoustics, and daylight flooding into the room are other problems that you may encounter, and if you do, stay calm and find the best temporary solution in the hope that you'll be able to fix everything in future weeks.

Department admins often don't realize that the success of a class depends largely on screening conditions. A lousy projector will render ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS into visual mush. Hopefully you'll have a great working space, but if you don't, keep in mind that we've all been there and all you can do is stay positive and fight harder for better standards.

(more in next comment)

January 24, 2010 10:59 AM  
Blogger Gabe Klinger said...

(continued from last comment:)

Don't let your heart sink when students deride the films you show. No matter how adequately you prepare them, Sirk will always be "cheesy" and Bresson will always be "slow" to some students. I have no idea what they'll think of THE GLEANERS AND I, but perhaps they'll say Varda is too full of herself. I showed F FOR FAKE once and a student said "Who the hell does this Orson guy think he is?" There are always ways to reconfigure these comments productively. For example, have them define what they find "cheesy" in Sirk. Ask them to contrast what they find slow in Bresson with examples from contemporary Hollywood films (usually they'll discover that Bresson is not slow at all, that he is actually pretty fast and efficient, but that he is just working with rhythms that are unfamiliar to them).

Anyway, that's all I can think of at the moment. You'll have a great time... Every rule about teaching film is worth breaking depending on the circumstances of the class. But I always stick to one golden rule: show entire features. Clips are great for afterward, but are never enough on their own. And with that rule, the other "sub-rules" are: never fastforward and never talk over films. But I know there are productive uses for these trespasses... Manny Farber committed all kinds of atrocities, like running films backwards and taking incessantly over things.

If it works for you and your students, think outside the box!

January 24, 2010 10:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Gabe, thank you for those words of wisdom: You have no idea how much I appreciate them!

January 24, 2010 11:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Something I didn't get a chance to mention in the post. The class meets on Tuesdays (when I'll do film) and Thursdays (when Tanya will do philosophy), each class session lasting 75 minutes. In addition, we have a Sunday night screening of the film. We strongly urge students to come to the Sunday screening. If they're unable to attend the screening some week, they are required to watch the film on DVD in the library.

January 24, 2010 11:17 AM  
Blogger jeanli said...

Check the short films/videos by Peter Rose. The man Who Could Not See Far Enough, Secondary Currents, Metalogue.

January 24, 2010 11:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Jeanne, thanks, I don't know those films--I'm curious to see them. I should say: I admire the only one of your own works I've seen, Observando el Cielo.

January 24, 2010 11:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

There's a new issue of Image [&] Narrative devoted to Chris Marker.

January 24, 2010 2:02 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

As someone who has been taking classes again in recent years, albeit mostly at the graduate level, I'd strongly second Marc's comment about having students complete a short bit of written work each week: not only does it help to ensure that students actually watched the movie even if they didn't show up to the Sunday screening, but it really makes a difference to class discussions since people have some articulated thoughts and notes to refer to. The classes where I have to complete, say, two long papers but no weekly work always have less week-to-week discussion, or more accurately have week-to-week discussion in which only half the class participates.

For the film screenings, you may find it worthwhile to add a second formal screening time later in the semester - burdensome but as students take on more and more commitments with the passing weeks, those Sunday evening screenings may be more sparsely populated. One class I took had Sunday evening screenings and midweek morning screenings; I think the professor attended only the evening screenings.

Finally, as a former department administrator myself, I'd respectfully add to Gabe's comments: in my experience, plenty of department administrators (I like the full word, but then again I don't like "prof" either!) do realize that screening conditions matter, but they are sometimes dealing with ten other faculty members with overlapping screening needs, and another twenty people with other immediately urgent needs, and issues of financial and time resources sometimes create difficulties. Our visual resources centre just got a major grant for a full overhaul and I think it'll be transformative on numerous levels.

January 25, 2010 11:35 AM  
Anonymous sami said...

What a wonderful, inspiring list of films and what a fantastic idea for a class.

I agree that the use of clips is an invaluable tool and the concept of assigning one student to present each week's readings as always been a great way to stimulate discussion in classes I've taken.

Any undergrad film class I've taken usually features one or two students who continually say that others are "reading too much into films." The most rewarding part of those classes is when the dissenters get excited and engaged and lose themselves in a film.

January 25, 2010 4:21 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

One suggestion: shake things up a bit by working up to a week where YOU cover the philosophy and Tanya covers the film. When I started teaching Hindi film with Philip Lutgendorf (a Hindi/India specialist) he covered cultural background and I covered film elements. But now (having taught together 4 times) we share duties on both topics, and this works against student expectations of our having distinct areas of expertise: we don't misrepresent our strengths and backgrounds, but demonstrate that any teacher who has done their homework should be able to approach (and at least raise key questions) about the full range of topics relevant to the course.

Another old trick with clips -- it can be revealing to play a clip from a sound film without sound, and to play a clip with only sound, but no image (this works great for Welles, for instance). Students almost immediately see/hear things they hadn't noticed when the two tracks were played together.

January 25, 2010 8:56 PM  
Anonymous Omar said...

Excellent news, Girish. This sounds like a worthy course and nice to see Bresson's 'A Man Escaped' on the list. Incidentally I just saw quite a useful documentary on Bresson titled 'The road to bresson' (1983). It makes for an excellent introduction to his work and very accessible for students; also features an interview with Schrader. I think one of the best ideas is to always have a set of screenshots from the sequence you are analysing with students. Also, it is imperative to have full screenings of each film. In terms of talking over films and doing live analysis, I do this all the time and it works fine for me. Getting them to present back to the class is also valuable and enlightening in many respects. I do agree that Ghatak is more difficult for students to get into - I have written a chapter on 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' for my book on Indian cinema. Gabe Klinger's extensive advice is spot on especially when it comes to ensuring screening conditions are adequate. As far the rest, well, you and Tanya seemed to have a really strong list of films which students will inevitably find interesting. Good luck guys on this new project you are embarking on, I hope it goes well.

January 26, 2010 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

G, the most important thing to do with any clip - no matter the pain for the 'innocent' student viewer - is: FREEZE IT ! Stop the flow!! They had this right in the '70s: you've got to break - or at least suspend - the magic of motion for a moment, in order to redouble its power analytically in those tender young minds before you !! Discuss the frames, the cuts. Don't let it just wash over them, and don't make a reference back even one minute ago like 'oh, you remember that overhead shot we saw ...?' - because many will not have seen it, or already lost the memory of it !! They will just pretend to have noticed it !!! If you have time (which is precious and fleeting, I know), play the clip through, then go back with the freezes, and then finally play it through again. I can easily fill an hour that way !!!

January 27, 2010 2:52 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

My best wishes for the new venture, Girish. That's a very lucky bunch of students there.

January 27, 2010 7:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for taking the time to give us all these wonderful suggestions! Until Corey, Adrian, Gabe, and Gareth gave us all this great advice about clips, I had not realized how important (and imaginative) the deployment of clips could be in the classroom! I'm fortunate to have access to the store of insights and advice that the readers here constitute. Thanks again.

January 27, 2010 9:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

(via a note from Victor Perkins)
Sad news: Ian Cameron, the founding editor of the British magazine MOVIE, died yesterday of lung disease. He was an important figure in the renewal of British film criticism in the early 1960s.

January 27, 2010 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Omar, I don't know "The Road to Bresson" and must hunt it down. Thank you for the tips!

January 27, 2010 9:32 AM  
Blogger Jesús Cortés said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 28, 2010 7:22 AM  
Blogger Jesús Cortés said...

Sad news, Girish, about great Ian Cameron. Last week I have been re-reading his splendid, contagious "Adventure in the movies".

January 28, 2010 7:24 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

I'm sure you've read them by now; but, valuable entries in Filmkrant's "Slow Criticism Project" by Adrian Martin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gabe Klinger and various other contributors to these parts.

January 29, 2010 1:06 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jesús, I've been revisiting Cameron's writing as well, like the books on Bresson and Antonioni, and SECOND WAVE.

Maya, thanks for those clickable links: many luminaries in that issue.

January 29, 2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

All: I'm under a wave of assault from spamming e-merchants in China. I've received close to a hundred comments in the last hour. Reluctantly, I've had to change my settings to enable "moderated comments". Apologies!

January 29, 2010 8:31 PM  
Blogger Yoel Meranda said...

rossellini's films about philosophers are crucial, they represent an alternative to how cinema is generally used to understand thoughts & ideas.

socrate, blaise pascal, cartesius, are all sublime masterpieces.

February 08, 2010 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Freeoh said...

Lots of good advice here for the way to tackle a class. The other thing I would recommend is to block out your class into a couple of broad topic/concept areas - the basic goals you want to achieve in each session. I tend to approach both discussion and formal lectures by segmenting them into roughly three main sections. You can't cover everything, but identify the three (or four) main concepts or ideas that you want them to come to terms with. Then within each section, split it into different activities to achieve that goal: some brief teacher-led talky stuff, then maybe a brief discussion, then a clip, then a discussion about the clip, and somewhere in there if you find it appropriate, individual writing/small group discussion. This breaks up a big block and keeps them on their toes.

Secondly the discussion part can be tricky, and you can expect that initially, they won't want to talk if they don't know each other: no-one wants to open up their big yap and look like the dummy. Build a relationship with them over time and they'll feel more comfortable - then the discussion flows well. The My Word Is Gospel attitude referred to above - where they slavishly copy every point you make is best dispelled by playing devil's advocate - push one view of a concept and then halfway through swap to the other. They will be initially indignant, and then see that you're messing with them to force them to identify their own position, having weighed up the opposing arguments. Do it with a good sense of humour and they'll recognise that you're teaching them to think and evaluate for themselves, not simply telling them an answer to a problem. That is your role, after all.

And ditto the back up clip - always have something up your sleeve. And check the AV equipment the day before so that you know how everything works. And lastly - think about ways to deal with the odd questions or odd responses you get - some of them WILL think Sirk is cheesy and laugh at it. Cracking the sads with them won't work - it'll alienate them. Use it as a way to lead to discussion of reception, of historical context, of generic convention, of their own expectations and assumptions about cinema. And if someone says something a bit stupid, don't laugh; cock your head to the side as if they've said something really revelatory, say "That's an interesting position to take - can you expand on that a little?" and when they're done, ask for a response from someone else to get things back on track. Make them feel like they said something dumb (even if they have) and you lose 'em.

Looks like a good course - good luck with it!

February 15, 2010 8:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Freeoh, Lots of useful advice there--thank you for taking the time!

February 15, 2010 8:36 PM  

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