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Inside the classroom

A day in the life

Inside the classroom

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A lot of students say, 'Oh, I'll just take one Film Studies course.' But then they end up staying to take things they'd never thought they'd be interested in.


Lights, camera, active learning


John Woo’s The Killer, screened in Dr. Shannon Brownlee’s Popular Cinema course, is not a film for the faint of heart. And it’s not for the passive viewer, either. After the lights come back up, you’ll take part in lively discussions about the film’s relation to Hong Kong culture. You’ll also learn how to do a formal visual analysis—like the composition of the film’s shots and how those shots aestheticize violence.

“Students find the formal analysis very interesting,” Dr. Brownlee says. “For many, it’s a new thing, and it’s very specific to the medium. But when they master it, they have a sense of seeing the film in a different way. Before, they might have received that visual information passively, but now they see how a film is put together, how it’s made.”

She says many students come into the class with the ability to analyze a film only in terms of its narrative. “But they leave with the skill to analyze a film visually.”

To encourage that learning process, Dr. Brownlee gives her students specific film-related terms and brings them up in discussions about specific shots in a film. “It’s important to know these terms and concepts—and I test students on them.”

“A lot of students say, ‘Oh, I’ll just take one course,’ but they end up staying for things they never thought they’d be interested in,” Dr. Brownlee continues. “I know a couple of students who took Popular Cinema and went on to do the most challenging course—Documentary, Experimental, and Animated Film. Some of the films in that course are nothing but a slow zoom and some irritating sound,” she laughs. “That’s the kind of thing you watch—for 45 minutes! It says a lot about what the students were willing to take on.”

And the popularity of the Popular Cinema course just keeps growing—around 165 students at last count.

Back in time through film


History courses—nothing but memorizing dates and names, right?

Wrong. At least, that’s not the case when you take Film History 1 and 2. Taught by Dr. David Nicol, these courses are two of the four core ones you’ll take to complete the Film Studies minor.

“We look at 12 films from different periods of the first half of the 20th century,” Dr. Nicol explains. “Those films are the framework for considering how the various artistic movements changed, and how people saw the medium of film. As well, we look at the impact of film on society.”

One of those 12 films is Fritz Lang’s renowned Metropolis, “the grandfather of science fiction films,” Dr. Nicol says. “It can be read as a glorification or condemnation of the Nazis, depending on how you look at it.”

Other topics you’ll investigate in the first Film History class include the transition from silent film to sound, the birth of Technicolor, the Hollywood golden era, and “reactions against the Hollywood way of seeing things,” Dr. Nicol adds. “Then toward the end, we look at rebel teen movies—yes, Rebel without a Cause is one of them,” he smiles.

Do students today have to force themselves to enjoy the earlier film aesthetic? Not so much, according to Dr. Nicol: “It’s surprising how they do get engaged with it,” he says. “But it’s also a question of introducing those films so students will understand that they’ll feel different and look different. I try to create intrigue—and students often surprise themselves."

Stargazing


A class that's a big hit with Film Studies minors and Theatre majors alike: Stars and Stardom on Stage and Screen. Dr. Roberta Barker—a stage director and a professor in the Theatre Department—leads the class in looking at “the idea of star performers, specifically actors, and other theatrical and film performers, from the 17th century to the present day.”

Though there’s certainly an element of history, Dr. Barker says the course content isn’t presented in chronological order. The earliest of the performers discussed are the castrati of the 17th and 18th centuries. The most recent is Johnny Depp. “We’ve sometimes touched briefly on Robert Pattinson,” she says with a smile.

The course takes a broad and critical view of the nature of stardom. “What is a star, compared to other performers,” queries Dr. Barker. “And how does that relate to the marketing and construction of a star? What’s the interaction between the personal qualities and personal life, and how the person performs, and the apparatus—whether cinematic or theatrical? How is all that packaged for public consumption?”

She also brings up issues of gender and race and how they affect stardom. “We look at African-American stars, like Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, and Morgan Freeman and other current-day black male stars—how are they responding to the way black men have been treated in the past?”

How women are portrayed is another topic. “We go from ‘Blaxploitation’ films to Chinese action films to Bollywood, looking at the ways in which women are packaged for a global audience,” Dr. Barker says.

And there’s also the idea of the star as immortal. “They literally are immortalized on celluloid forever,” Dr. Barker notes. But more significantly, how do some stars seem legendary, the stories of their lives told and told again to new generations of fans?

“There’s the ‘tragic star,’ like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean,” offers Dr. Barker. “With Marilyn, it’s curious the way her tragic private life has come to shape how we view her comic films even today. So we also look at how stars’ private lives seep into their films.” The ongoing relevance of that phenomenon can be seen in recent films such as My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams.

Though the class does consider stage stars, Dr. Barker says the emphasis is decidedly more on the screen. “Screen examples are easier to illustrate,” she explains. “One of the strengths of film is that it’s a less perishable or transient medium than live performance. But we look at Sarah Bernhardt—some of the first film is about her, including films of her stage performances. And the Chinese actor, Mei Lanfang and his film performances, though he was mostly a stage actor—he was filmed doing stage acting, but he also did films.”