F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922)
Teaching the same course through subsequent terms hardly ever results in even close-to-similar experiences. Every class of students brings its own distinct mix of personalities, and while I try to keep the curriculum relatively consistent, I also tend to have my own newly discovered texts and films to throw into the mix. “Out with the old, in with the new,” as the old saying goes. A new textbook constituted the biggest change so far in my fourth term teaching “Reading Film,” an introductory film survey course at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). The VCU Barnes and Noble reported that Ed Sikov’s clear and concise Film Studies: An Introduction went out of print (although I saw some in the inventory for other film classes; hopefully, it’ll become available again). Louis Giannetti’s Understanding Movies (regularly updated and now in its fourteenth edition) is doing the job just fine; the chapters are lengthier and the information denser, but the text provides a plethora of examples from films classic and modern. If I can go back to Sikov’s textbook, I most likely will. But even with the changes brought by new students, a new textbook, a new season, and new growing pains, a few mainstays of the class continue to work wonders term after term. I’ve shown some films that students could take or leave, even if those movies adequately exemplify the curriculum materials well enough, but Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo (2013) always manages to get students talking on day one.
My first term at VCU, I was not instructor of record but assistant to another “Reading Film” instructor. She kicked off her own class using Cargo to great effect, and I’ve since shown it each term for my own class. In Cargo, classical conventions of mise-en-scene, editing, sound, and other factors of film form come together to tell a well-produced, tragic narrative: a man infected with a zombie virus must ensure the successful transport of his daughter to safe harbor before the virus overtakes him. The film offers an opportunity to get into a little bit of every aspect of film form that we later isolate and delve into further throughout the course. It doesn’t hurt that young adults love zombie-themed anything.
Before the first assigned textbook reading and film viewing (typically Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon ), I show Cargo and have students jot down and share any and every aspect of the film that stands out to them. For this exercise, I ask them simply to consider how they would rate the film and explain why. I then ask students to share their observations while I navigate to the shot or somewhere in the general vicinity of scene to which they refer. Usually, bringing up the shot as a still frame foments further discussion. Now we have an opportunity to explore the image even more, relating it to shots before and after, or relating the shot to the film as a whole, even connecting our points to the film’s theme or ideology. Comments cover a range of topics: effectiveness of the story events, composition, lighting, the camera’s clear or blurred focus on subjects, the feel of the music, and many more aspects. Students have at least twice debated how realistic the final scene is, which introduces the problematic concept of realism in media, including its relationship to fantasy or fiction.
Mise-en-scene, perhaps the largest category of film elements, is a category introduced early on in both textbooks I have used thus far, and the category seems to be the easiest to latch onto for most students. The class seems excited that they are already invoking a lot of the concepts they will be learning more about: students already “read” film; now they are advancing their critical viewing abilities with new terms and concepts to aid them in a deeper, more descriptive analysis, while engaging with underlying histories and theories of film, to come to a more critical understanding of themselves and the world around them using film as a lens, an incredibly important endeavor for those of us barraged by filmic representation day in and day out.
This screenshot from Cargo provides several potential avenues for discussion on day one:
This shot represents the point of transition for the main character from infected human to full zombie. He has fashioned his daughter to him in such a way that he won’t be able to endanger the child once he has turned: she is strapped to his back whilst the father has constructed a bindle dangling meat in front of him to keep him walking in the direction of safe harbor where someone will hopefully come upon them and take the girl to safety. The most striking feature of this image for me is the separation between father and daughter. Not only are they each at the opposite ends of the wide-angle frame, they are looking away from each other. Their eye-lines are never matched with whatever might be in the directions in which which they are looking, leaving room for free association by the viewer regarding the off-screen space or more easily suggesting the symbolic directions of their gazes: one towards a potential future life and the other towards death. The father’s eyes are blank and more open than the child’s. The lifelessness they exude are all the more apparent by their openness, while the baby appears determined and focused through a sharp-eyed gaze. Though the baby looks away from the father, her hand remains on him in a caressing manner, perhaps relegating him to a fond memory. The memory is not only of the father but the mother as well, symbolized by the mixed blue- and pink-colored pattern visible on the man’s collar. He is physically bleeding, another sign of his mortality having reached its final limit. This shot is followed by a series of shots in which the man and the daughter he carries are shown from an increasingly greater distance from the camera, literally shrinking their size on the screen as the environment and dystopian world threatens to swallow them whole, and engendering a sense of every-growing dread before an eventual rescue. The sounds during this sequence of shots are quiet, and the stillness of life becomes louder as a result, emphasizing its fragility.
In this passage, I made some immediate observations of my own based one one shot from the film. Discussion of the film could carry on to a second day, and examples can be brought back into discussion while focusing on various aspects of film form in greater detail. While I begin the exercise with the question of how one would rate the film and why, I attempt to navigate students’ observations toward analyses of the film’s overarching themes, particularly how they could be related to topical discussions of contemporary culture and society; why are zombies all the rage these days? Hopefully, students come through the course seeing film as a unique lens through which to view themselves and their world rather than merely as a source of escapist wonder.