Sunday, July 8, 2007

My Would-Have-Been Film Class

Last winter I submitted a proposal to Minneapolis Community Education for a class I was interested in starting spring term for adult enrichment: Film Appreciation. Sadly, only six people signed up for the class, and per the recommendation of both coordinators the class was canceled due to lack of interest. This kind of took the air out of me for a few days as I was really looking forward to doing it.
Though it has been a good three years since I was in school at the U taking my own film classes, the passion I have for film has only grown stronger since I finished. Here are some of the ideas I had for class discussions, had there been any interest:
1. Opening Credits. Think of some of your favorite film credits and why you like them. Or do you notice them at all? Do you see the credits as simply an unimportant opening to the feature presentation or an actual part of the film? Sometimes film credits can be separate, distinct segments with which the director is able to creatively “bookend” the actual film (Fightclub’s animation of the inner part of Ed Norton’s brain or Run Lola Run’s juvenile cartoon depiction of all the running). Other times the credits can let you in on important background information not disclosed during the film itself (Mean Streets’ credits reveal a surprisingly happy conclusion one otherwise would not know about; Gone in 60 Seconds’ opening displays through framed photography the family events which lead to the Raines Boys’ decline to car thievery).

2. Sound Editing and Design. Have you ever seen a film and really been struck by its sound effects or soundtrack? Are there films that you have seen that had bad sound design or ill-fitting soundtracks? What about when the soundtrack and music is a spot-on match for what’s happening in the film, how does that affect the overall experience? Do the actors’ deliveries or accents affect the way you understand what is being said?
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Sean Penn’s performance in Mystic River, I lost much of the dialogue’s impact trying to decipher what he was mumbling. I was also seriously annoyed by the organ theme first used during the daughter’s confirmation and then replayed at every emotional moment thereafter; I didn’t find it a good match for the intensity of what was happening in the movie.
In one of my production classes we did an exercise that involved watching a film segment without the picture and only sound (mine was Apocalypse Now). We wrote down what we thought was significant and how we were impacted by the sound and music alone. After that we watched the segment as intended, sound and picture together. It was really a cool thing to do. It was amazing how much more meaningful the viewing experience became when you took a deeper notice of what you were hearing along with what you were seeing. Helicopter blades fading into ceiling fan blades, Jim Morrison chanting about the children being insane, and Martin Sheen waiting in his room; it was lovely.

3. Narrative and Theme. What are some of the greatest stories ever told on film? How are they presented to you? Do you enjoy a more straight forward narrative that unfolds traditionally with a beginning, middle, and end in that order? Do you look for hidden meaning in a film’s message and plot elements? What of out-of-sequence narratives, intersecting plot lines and multiple endings?
Consider for a moment the significance of three classic films: Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and Singin’ in the Rain. What is it that has made these films popular? Do they make most every top 100 film list because they are genius works of cinema or because people enjoy them? Many people I have spoken with professed that though it was well done, technically remarkable, and pretty much a masterpiece, they really didn’t enjoy Citizen Kane. Was it too long? Was “rosebud” too obscure? Sunset Boulevard is similarly brilliant and wonderfully done but it’s still kind of a downer. How about Singin’ in the Rain? The dance scenes are easily the best ever performed and the comments made on the early film industry are witty and somehow even relevant today (hello, Entourage?) This is one we can all feel good about, provided of course you are able to stomach Debbie Reynolds.
What is it that makes a movie good? Can you get past an uninteresting narrative if it is technically put together well? I had this problem recently with Babel. Though it was very skillfully done, I just had no commitment to any of the characters or anything that happened to them. I found myself wishing I could change the channel and then check back later to see if anything good had come up. I grudgingly gave Citizen Kane my respect for similar reasons. The other side of this of course is getting past a marginally-made picture because the story is entertaining. Marginally made can mean a lot of things but I limit the term to having extremely bad acting, editing, sound, or dialogue ( such that would make the pope weep, as Mark Borchardt would say). There are actually quite a few films that I enjoy yet put into this category: bad 80s films (Porky’s, Evil Dead, Sleepaway Camp), mainstream blockbusters (Armageddon, Terminator 3), or pretty much anything starring Vince Vaughn or directed by Kevin Smith. Somehow I think that the American Film Institute leans toward the technically advanced sorts of films and NOT the kind I’ve just listed.