Lesson Plan: Basic Terms of Cinema Studies + Their Relevance for Avant-Garde Cinema

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Ian here—

I suspect that every cinema studies teacher has their own favorite examples to use when teaching key vocabulary terms, and I would not be so presumptuous as to prescribe my own favorites! Nevertheless, though, it’s an important part of the job, so I wanted to share my own approach here.

Over the past couple of years, I have gotten used to teaching these terms in a very specific context. At the School of the Art Institute, I teach first-year seminar courses. They are courses designed so that all students have some basis in college-level writing as they go through their time at SAIC. Instructors are given enormous freedom to teach whatever they like. This makes it a great venue for testing out new and interesting course ideas, but the flip side of that is that your courses never have prerequisites, and there’s no telling the level of expertise students who enroll will actually have.

What I do, then, is devote one day early on in the semester to a quick-and-dirty Intro to Film in a single lecture. I take a lot of the examples and explanations I first started using when I taught Intro to Film at U Chicago in 2015, but I condense them down into something that can fit into an hour or so. It’s potent stuff.

You can access my go-to presentation here. I’ve set the privacy and sharing settings to their most open, so if you’re a Prezi user you should feel free to copy it if you like it, subbing in your own preferred definitions and clips as you feel necessary! I’m here to share, and not here to impose.

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Five Ways to Look Smart while Teaching PlayTime

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The travel posters are the obvious gag. But can you spot the fake cars?

Ian here—

So, this isn’t a proper lesson plan. It’s just a quick cheat sheet. When teaching PlayTime, I pair it with Kristin Thompson’s chapter “Play Time: Comedy n the Edge of Perception” in her book Breaking the Glass Armor. (I consider myself incredibly lucky that I can pair one of my favorite films with a piece of writing that I consider to be one of the more astute and persuasive pieces of academic film criticism ever written.) My lesson, therefore, largely revolves around the conclusions of Thompsons’ analysis: that “the comic and the non-comic become indistinguishable” in PlayTime, and that the way the film “forces us into new viewing procedures” holds the potential to “successfully transform our perception in general.”[i] To view PlayTime, in other words, is to encounter a new way of seeing the world, one that might persist beyond the theater.

How do you successfully persuade students that PlayTime requires specific viewing procedures from its audience, ones unlike those we use when viewing a more traditional narrative film? My tactic is pretty simple: I pull student attention to moments that reward close viewing. Thompson herself lists a bunch of these in her chapter. I like to point to additional, different ones, so that I can show students new, unexpected visual rewards—therefore making both me and Tati seem smarter than we otherwise would! Please feel free to steal these.

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Lesson Plan: Film Scores Addendum

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Ian here—

This is just a quick addendum to my music-themed lesson on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) from my Intro to Film course, which I posted earlier. This bit doesn’t have as much to do with synesthesia, which is why I separated it out, but it is something that I incorporated into the same lesson.

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Lesson Plan: Animation Week

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Ian here—

It is a shame to only teach one week on animation in an Intro to Film class, but I bowed to departmental tradition when I taught Intro to Film in spring 2015 and devoted only my final week of class to it. My screening for this week included Hummingbird Wars (Janie Geiser, 2014)Adventure Time S1E6, “The Jiggler” (Larry Leichliter, 2010), and The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014).

This lesson preceded that screening, and pursued the following learning objectives: 1) I wanted students to understand that animators can work with individual frames of cinema, which can lead to the illusion of movement, but doesn’t have to. This would prep them for the flicker effects and broken motion of Geiser’s Hummingbird Wars. 2) I wanted to direct student attention to the salient aspects of Eisenstein’s theory of the “plasmatic” potential of animation, which finds expression in the Adventure Time episode. 3) I wanted students to be able to express some key aesthetic differences between hand-drawn and computer generated animation—specifically, that while hand-drawn animation excels at fulfilling Eisenstein’s “plasmatic” potential, CG animation excels at accurately simulating the physics of our everyday world.

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Lesson Plan: Film Scores and Synesthesia

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Ian here—

Spending one week on sound in an Introduction to Film course can be a daunting task. So much vocabulary, and so many new issues to discuss, with only a class or two to dwell on them. What to do?

I like to take this week to introduce the concept of synesthesia—the “bleeding” of one sense into another that results in sensations in one sensory modality being interpreted as impressions in another. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied from the era of classical Greek philosophy up through modern neuroscience, and it has provided inspiration to artists for nearly as long. For understandable reasons, it was something that was on a lot of filmmaker’s minds during the transition to sound cinema. Turning to this topic allows us to rope in stalwarts of classical film theory such as Eisenstein and Vertov, and to freely intermingle experiments in feature filmmaking with more radical experiments in the avant-garde.

In this particular lesson, I focus on music. If one’s spending two days on sound, this leaves another class for sound effects, if one so desires. Continue reading

Lesson Plan: Bruce Conner’s A Movie

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Ian here—

Bruce Conner’s A Movie is one of my favorite films to teach. I’ve taught it while covering theories of editing in an Introduction to Film course, I’ve taught it for a course on cinematic rhetoric, and I’ve taught it in courses on the history of American avant-garde cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a school that had a good-quality 16mm print of it in its collection, and since then I’ve made frequent use of a MPEG-4 rip of a VHS copy of that print (formats upon formats!). It’s less than ideal, but the poor image quality never seems to diminish students’ fascination with it.

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