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04n1holdstein

04n1holdstein

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11/15/2013

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Using Film to Teach Writing: Personal Enthusiasm Transforms the Hitchcock Method

Deborah H. Holdstein
The Scene:

1980. Chicago, Illinois. Literature Ph.D, experienced composition, literature, and film teacher enters an urban, private university to direct basic writing curriculum. Lifelong vocation-filmmatched by developing interest in writing research and established research in film, search for more effective pedagogical methods for writing (including design of computer-aided instruction). All must benefit technically-oriented, writing anxious students. The Suspense: How will all of these interests merge? Can an "avocational enthusiasm" for film create better pedagogy? Stay tuned.

Such was my situation as I came to the Illinois Institute of Technology, where the merger of technology, culture, and the humanities continues to create the challenging backdrop for engineering, architecture, and science students, undergraduates who are more often than not anxious and frustrated when they first come to a college writing class. The anxiety, of course, stems from the unfortunate student myth that scientific skill and writing skill must be mutually incompatible; the frustration stems from the students' sense of having tried for many years to write more effectively while achievinglower grades from writing instructors than in other courses. I'd begun to bridge the humanities-technology pedagogy gap through my work designing computer-assisted instructional modules for writing. But as Director of our basic writing program, I sought to develop and provide other useful, interesting, inviting contexts for helping my beleaguered students learn to write more effectively. Further, I wanted to merge my other interests-most notably film analysis
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and criticism-with my students' need for "attitude adjustment." I hoped that a striking, unusual, yet learner-centered forum for writing would emerge. And, I confess, 1hoped that my enthusiasm for writing, newly enhanced by my unbridled enthusiasm for film, would spill over to my students. My enthusiastic if slightly scholarly interest in film seemed a natural way to interest my developmental writers in pursuing their skill more seriously and effectively; fortunately, my excitement did spill over. After all, their interest had piqued when I used business and technical writing formats ("career-related lab reports, memos, letters, etc.) as the impetus for the writing process. But it wasn't until I mulled over this film-writing connection during a semester I also taught a film seminar (andcompleted a research project dealing with writing across the curriculum) that a cinematic Hitchcockian parallel began to clarify my teaching goals. Besides, if writing could go to the curriculum, so to speak, then certainly the film curriculum could come to writing. The methods began to gel as I read critical appraisals of A l h d Hitchcock's numerous films. I'd l i e to quote from an interview with the director, one in which he is described as the "master of pre-planned production" (Albert J. Lavalley, ed., Focuson Hitchcock, Prentice-Hall, 1972, p. 22). Hitchcock finds that the shortest period involved in production is the shooting period. Creativity rests entirely in the planning: I wish I didn't have to shoot the picture. When I've gone through the script and created the picture on paper, for me the creative job is done. . . . You have to have story, you see, because you need shape. (p. 25) Hitchcock the filmmaker, then, evokes the cinematic equivalent of prewriting-thorough, meticulous prewriting. Everything is carefully-conceived, planned, and executed so that the actual filmingread "actual writingr'-is almost anti-climatic. In Hitchcock's demand for shape and story, I recognized the plea for the inseparability of form and content, within which lies clearly-communicated, well-directed, lucid prose. In addition, the parallel matched the writer's concern for a clear thesis, structured by a strong pattern of organization. I worked out my evolving ideas with my students during one of our class sessions: a typical Hitchcock "pattern" usually features some suspenseful event or question within a particular sequence that underscores the long-range contextual suspense of the {ilm as a whole. The question is connected to the main charact&) of the film, people with whom we've become involved and with whom We identify Further, the
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suspense stems not only from context within the narrative, but also from an immediate danger posed to the character at a particular time. In North by Northwest (l959), for example, there is a sequence at the United Nations during which an ambassador is stabbed to death and our hapless hero, played by Cary Grant, plunges further into danger. The class and I detailed the suspense on the blackboard; our goal was to prewrite important details about the sequence and then devise a thesis based on our work: Contextual Information: Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill) has been mistaken for a secret agent; the "bad guys" are pursuing him. In Grant's attempt to straighten out these circumstances (which confuse him, as well), he goes to the United Nations to find Lester Townsend, the man he believes held him hostage the night before. As it turns out, someone was impersonating the real Townsend-who turns out to be a respected UN ambassador. We had already defined and detailed some fundamental characteristics of Hitchcockian suspense before we began: dramatic irony, "surprise versus suspense," narrative context, long takes versus quickly edited cuts (and effects), "reversals" of our expectations, high and low angle shots, pan shots. Now we began going through the scene in chronological fashion: First Event: Grant (Thornhill) asks for Lester Townsend First Surprise: Lester Townsend isn't the same man who said he was Lester Townsend the night before! Introduces new suspenseful questions: who was that otherman? What will this man think? Will he help our hero? Dramatic Irony: Camera pans smoothly to the right to reveal someone we recognize as an evil henchman from the night before. For whom is he lying in wait? Thornhill? Townsend? What will happen? The dramatic irony, of course, stems from our knowing something that the people on the screen don't-and more suspense. Second Event: Thornhill and Townsend try to figure out the confusion. That is, Thornhill says "why, you're not Lester Townsend." The man, obviously sincere, says "oh, yes I am!" Thornhill tries to resolve this mystery by showing him a photograph of the man he encountered the night before.
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Second SurpriszThe realTownsend, seeing the picture, gets a very shocked, surprised lookon his face-we think it's because he recognizes the man in the picture. But then we have a "reversal"something that isn't what it seems-when the look of surprise stems in fact from the knife that's been hurled into his back! Third Event: Thornhill unwittingly grabs the knife out of Townsend's back; onlookers seem to think, then, that he's guilty. Thornhill only reinforces this by defensively backing away and saying "get back . . . get away from me," as he runs away. Fast editing showing people turning to look at him. Third surprise in that Thornhill now seems to have been implicated in Townsend's murder, something he had nothing to do with. Fourth Event: "Bud's eye view" shot of Thornhill running out of the UN Building, making him look insignificant and vulnerablenow, the police will alsobe after him. Result of this Sequence: buildup of suspense in sequence has the result of contributing to the long-range suspense of the film as a whole. Now Thornhill has to run from the evil spies as well as the police. Question for Formulating Thesis: How did Hitchcock create suspense in this scene? Why were we concerned with "what would happen next"? In creating this schema, 1 also tried to create a prototype for using individual sequences from films to enhance writing instruction-few if any of my colleagues were familiar enough with cinematic terms and such to devise this on their own. But from this prewriting activity and a rudimentary list of cinematic terms and definitions, my students and I were able to work up prewriting prototypes for short papers on the buildup of suspense in the Hitchcock film. From this, we could see the many parallels between film and writing: the directofs own skill in meticulously detailing his craft-planning, prewriting, writing, revising, and more revising, with tight organization, purpose, and structure, an overriding "thesis" or question for a particular sequence that contributed to the whole-and the details within the narrative events as they underscore observable, specific techniques to generate ideas and papers for students. My informal questionnaire (which students could answer anonymously) noted not only their enthusiasm for learning to write organized, specific arguments through this method, but a s documented lo
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their sense that this type of "accessible" writing project would help them continue to develop skills that would carry over to their typical writing assignments. My informal observations throughout the rest of the semester indicate that they were right. The thesis statements? I divided my students into small workshops of four each and asked them to devise thesis statements based on the sequence we had seen from North by Northwest. The responses were intriguing and encouraging. Here's a sample. (I've doctored obvious grammatical flaws here.) Group I: "Hitchcock develops suspense in the UN sequence in North by Northwest through the use of dramatic irony, the things we've known all along about the main character, and specific shots and camera angles." Group 1I:"The UN Sequence in North by Northwest really turns the movie around. Up to that point, most of our suspense stems from all of the confusion-how didThorill (sic) get into all this, who is the real agent. Here some of that suspense is solved and bigger questions come up." When all the groups had reported to the class, we all worked to help group I1 (and one other) refine the thesis to make it more unified and specific. Most importantly, however, the students were eager to work on this project; they had all seen the film (although I've conducted this exercise when we've only been able to see the sequence-then I've provided the contextual information for them), and felt some investment in the outcome of the project. With polished thesis statements, armed with prewriting activity results, the students went home to write their papers. I was very happy with the results, as were they. Certainly many prewriting activites-particularly those conducted in class-are positive and useful exercises. What I noted about the film workshops, however, was the change in student attitude toward their work. They had trouble, at first, realizing that the challenge of writing could also be an enjoyable challenge, but their enthusiasm quickly took over. And I firmly believe that the enjoyment with which they approached the project-and the success with which they completed itinsured carry over of their s k i s to other, perhaps less invigorating assignments. The Hitchcock filmmaking philosophy seems to have several implications that help us encourage good writing through the use of film: extm writing models (those background, informational factors about
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Hitchcock that impress my students with the importance of planning and revising-the director's meticulous approach to his work); and intm writing models (the visual accessibility of Hitchcock's films, those points within the actual sequence that students can follow or imitate to create specific, organized prose). The practical issues involved in using films in any course have lessened somewhat with the advent of video tape. Most film video rentals cost between$2.50 and $5.00 for a24-hour rental, as opposed to the one or two hundred dollar film rental cost for a 16m print. Many college audio-visual departments feature VHS or BETA video-cassette players and recorders; these, too, are easy to rent and use. And for those of us who question their knowledge of cinematic terms and technical innovations, perhaps the use of film to teach writing will encourage dialogue between the composition instructor and yet another instructor across the curriculum. In the semester during which I first used North by Northwest, students were able to see the entire film on 23" television sets in our Educational Technology Center. Then we spent two class periods working out our schema and thesis statements. During another semester, however, it was impractical for the entire class to see the film. Instead, we saw the sequence twice during class, I introduced the general, short list of film terms we would use, and we began the project. In this case, the entire unit (not counting the due date of the paper) took one week of three class periods. As we proceeded, I was gratified to note the ways in which the project reinforced other aspects of the writing process: the students had to be concerned with notetaking of highly concrete detail, good training for writing experiences where the "evidence" isn't so visually observable; they had to focus their notes towards the thesis statement they would actually use (the students themselves discovered how many were possible from that one sequence). With a regular freshman composition class, I redesigned the project to enable each student to choose an individual topic after viewing an entire film of choice. This, obviously, was even more challenging for the student, and we devised a list of Do's and Don't's for the paper, which featured the following:
1) Avoid plot summary. That isn't criticism; use the plot only to

And from students in the freshman composition class and my film analysis and criticism class (where I emphasize writing a great deal), I began to receive the following substantial, proveable, argumentative thesis statements: In Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather 11 (1974), music is an important factor in conveying the emotional responses of a major character in the film. The director uses several major themes in connection with Michael Corleone's character to illustrate 1)Michael's narrow view of the world, and 2) the demise of the family under his leadership. In The Pilgrim, Charlie Chaplin uses the contrast between religion and prison to create humor in the film. This contrast also supports a major theme in the film: the hypocrisy of people. For this particular composition class, I extended the film unit to 1% weeks; we practiced the rudiments of analysis using the North by Northwest sequence, but I allowed extra time for peer workshops to help students devise thesis statements and solidify evidence after they had seen a film of their choice outside of class. While my students and 1developed models for using film for writing in part to make it accessible to other instructors with little academic interest in film, I don't pretend that my experience in the classroom points towards the enhancement tool to suit everyone's taste. But that is, in fact, the point-the pleasure of teaching writing and adapting one's avocation and personal interests to pedagogical activity. Not only had my students, overall, found pleasure in tackling the writing process, but they also followed the same, rigorous codes for writing that we demand in any paper-concrete diction, detail, organization, a focused thesis, etc. I see the use of film in the writing classroom not as a substitute for our old war horses, but rather as the encouragement to all of us to make use of our own interests and backgrounds to better help Our college students write. In the process, our students learn that writing is not only important, but that it can be enjoyable-at least do-able. And the bridge between writing and film fits the Hitchcock method in our mutual attention to detail, our careful preparation for writing and revision, and our stylistic concreteness: the method may build in a few pleasant surprises for student and teacher alike, but much of the writing-anxious suspense is eliminated.

clarify points within the paper.
2) Don't try to cover the entire film. Zero in on a single p i n t .

3) Focus your topic and use examples from the film to prove your pints. Be precise. Show how technical terms we've learned during this project substantiate what we "see" in the film.
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Deborah H. Holdstein teaches film and directs the basic writing program at Illinois Institute of Technology.
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