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Film Studies in the Leaving Certificate…

I sat the Leaving Certificate over five years ago, so the memory of the examine is still fresh in my mind. For those international readers, that’s the exam we do at the end of secondary school before we go to college (it determines whether we get a place as we don’t really have college fees… yet). Anyway, no subject perplexed me as much as English did. here was a subject that could be interesting and compelling, but mostly ended up boring the pants off anyone sitting it. The subject is taught over two years with students choosing one core text (taken for a set list by the Department) and then three ‘comparative texts’ (also from a list, albeit a larger one). There were also poets and composition and all the stuff we would expect. I remember being excited when I heard that films were on this comparative list. But that soon changed when I learned which films. With all the kids going back to school, I wonder if film studies should be made a larger part of English studies, or if we simply need to revise which films we use and how we use them in the class room.

Looking for the reel deal...

Looking for the reel deal...

Alright, I’ll ‘fess up. I studied Cinema Paradiso and I loved it. Not as much as I love it now, but I loved it. Those in the class loved it a lot less and it’s easy to see why. It’s a film that isn’t the most easily-accessible to a bunch of 15-year-old schoolkids in an underfunded Irish school. First of all it’s subtitled – and I’m not going where you think I’m going with this, by the way. Most schools in Ireland – indeed, anywhere – can’t afford televisions with screens big enough for the pupils anywhere past the middle of the classrooms to read the small text. It’s just not practical to use a subtitled film unless you can promise that every student can read every bit of text.

My other problem with the selection is that Cinema Paradiso is a love story to cinema, for people already in love with cinema. I loved it then because I was a film nerd – I wasn’t into sports or anything ‘cool’ or ‘hip’ or whatever words the kids use these days to describe things that were once gnarly. There are any number of obscure references and it sucks the audience into the tale of coming of age and falling in love with the silver screen because most of us grew up falling in love with the silver screen and can name most of the films showcased. Fifteen-year-olds can’t. Even I didn’t really appreciate the film for what it was until long after I’d got my grade back (and to this day I can’t explain how I got that A).

I don’t have a list of films that we could have studied in the year that I sat my exam, but I do have the list of films from the following year (Much Ado About Nothing, Dances with Wolves, The Dead, Strictly Ballroom, Il Postino and Witness). Of that list, I can think of several problems with it – as much as I love John Huston, The Dead is only on there because it’s based on a James Joyce book; Il Postino is Italian and just a little schmultzy for an English classroom (teach us to love poetry!); Much Ado About Nothing had no chance of anybody picking it up – no teacher would dare teach two Shakespeare plays – and it isn’t Branagh’s most interesting adaptation by a mile; as solid as the film is (Harrison’s Ford’s only acting nomination!) I can’t see too many schools going with Witness, due to its relatively violent content; Strictly Ballroom will cause a minor heart attack to any boys in the class; and that leaves Dances With Wolves, a fantastic drama… about tolerance set in the past.

That’s not to say those aren’t necessarily good films – Dances With Wolves is a modern classic – but that they aren’t accessible to students at the age of fifteen or sixteen. The only one I can see holding a class’ attention for two hours is Witness and I can imagine the hell trying to run that past parents. To make my position clear, I’m not a proponent of either dumbing down or jazzing up. While I love Hugh Jackman as host of the Oscars, the presence of Zac Efron insulted me and I don’t want to see the honorary awards go. But this is a situation where you have to cater to teenagers.

My problem with the teaching of English literature is the way that classics are rammed down childrens’ throats. I’m glad I studied Macbeth and not Hamlet, because I don’t want that play ruined for me by memorising four paragraph summaries of what Hamlet was or wasn’t faking at various points. That and… well, the way that some of their selections (Wuthering Heights anyone?) are just crap. It sounds condescending, but I am young enough to say this with earnestness: kids aren’t experienced enough to appreciate the true classics, the vintage stuff. If you want to expose us to great literature, you need to give us a gateway drug, for lack of a better metaphor, to get us hooked.

In fairness, I looked up this year’s list of films being studied and I have a glimmer more hope. Students who got their results this year would have studied one of the following: Richard the Third, Strictly Ballroom, Inside I’m Dancing, The Third Man, Cinema Paradiso, The Truman Show. First of all – not that I’m complaining – but someone has a crush on Peter Weir. Second of all, is that a modern film I see? One starring the modern action hero from Wanted, Mister James McAvoy? And it’s a good film you say? Awesome. Thirdly, the Truman Show? A film starring Jim Carrey and a film that makes points that are incredibly socially relevant in an era where half of the class probably votes in Pop Stars or I’m a Celebrity, Get Me A Career? Even the token Shakespeare adaptation is a little trippy – albeit not fantastic.

That’s a much better selection and the choice of The Truman Show is inspired. If you could populate a list of six films of that ilk, you’d be on to a winner. The point isn’t to teach students that a film has to obscure or foreign or black-and-white to contain ideas – it’s to teach them that all (or at least most) contain ideas that mert discussion. I helped my younger brother in doing the film for his Leaving Certificate (also Cinema Paradiso), simply by sitting down and discussing the family movie each week with him after we’d all watched it. He now jokingly blames me for not being able to switch his brain off when watching movies, even the stupid ones.

That’s how you do it. You don’t teach kids that analysis should be saved for (what to them are) sacred and dusty old films or obscure foreign ones. You should show tham that an ability to understand metaphors and comparisons working within even highly popular and successful films is possible. Critical thinking isn’t saved for when you have to read subtitles or stare at a black-and-white screen. I’d seriously suggest revising the list each year to pick a relatively recent crop of films that the students will hopefully have heard of before coming into class. Things like The Dark Knight or Slumdog Millionaire or Iron Man or Moon. If you still want a hint of prestige or you are worried about dumbing down (why should you be?) use a multiple Oscar-nominee from the previous year (Doubt would be my choice, as it flows along, Frost/Nixon might be too much for the history nuts). Or go with popular directors or classic films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something similar.

The point here isn’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) to expose the class to something they wouldn’t have seen and never want to see again – it’s to show them that these analytical skills are relevent even to the films they go and see in the cinemas. If you’re really lucky, you’ll ignite an interest and they’ll wander off and see those kind of films themselves – that’s even better than ramming those films down their throats.

Ah well. Now, I must rewatch The Truman Show.

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