Posts Tagged ‘film’

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The Movie Review as a Claim-of-Value Essay

posted: 2.13.15 by Donna Winchell

Because my son Jonathan is a film scholar, I am probably even more aware than most that this is awards season. The Academy Awards ceremony each year is for our household what the Super Bowl is for others. Jonathan recently posted on Facebook that in his lifetime he has seen 2,502 movies. The fact that he knows that speaks volumes about his obsession, along with the fact that he was watching classic silent movies before he could read the subtitles. I came naturally to use the movie review as a means of teaching the claim of value, but my approach can be adapted to other types of evaluative writing as well.  [read more]

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Donna Winchell, Genre, Popular Culture, Rhetorical Situation
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posted: 1.24.13 by Jack Solomon

When advising students on how to go about choosing a movie for semiotic analysis, I always suggest that they have a look at those films that have been nominated for an Oscar Best Picture award.  This is by no means a sure-fire route to finding a culturally significant movie for analysis (and, of course, every film is semiotically significant), but by definition any Oscar-nominated movie has attracted significant popular attention and is likely, accordingly, to offer a rich field for analysis.

Such is certainly the case for this year’s frontrunner in the Academy sweepstakes, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.  Indeed, if I was a wagering sort of person I’d be betting the farm on it to win right now, not only because it is a very well conceived, written, and directed film that displays some of the best acting in Hollywood history, but because it is a potent cultural sign as well.  And it is Lincoln‘s status as a sign that I would like to look at now.

To begin with, Lincoln is one of those movies that the members of the Academy love to award Oscars to.  Quite aware of the poor reputation Hollywood has earned for mostly making action-packed blockbusters for adolescent audiences, Academy voters gratefully shower gold-plated statuettes on those films that aim at the higher end of cultural production.  Historically themed movies do particularly well in this regard (think Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, and Shakespeare in Love—which boasted the added cachet of being about a high cultural literary icon), and Lincoln lies very much within this tradition of movies that polish up Hollywood’s tarnished image. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon
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Larry Crowne, Tom Hanks, and the Common Man

posted: 7.14.11 by Jack Solomon

My cue for today’s post comes from a blog post by Steven Zeitchick entitled “Fourth of July Puzzle: Are America and Tom Hanks Out of Step?” Zeitchick’s post concerned the opening weekend box-office failure of Hanks’s new movie Larry Crowne, a failure made all the more interesting by the fact that Julia Roberts also stars in the film. With such star power, the movie’s disappointment at the box office is particularly striking, and Zeitchick suggests, puzzling:

Larry Crowne, after all, had two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood history. Over the past quarter-century, Hanks and Roberts have accounted for nearly two dozen movies that grossed at least $100 million and defined the culture to boot, from Forrest Gump to Erin Brockovich, Cast Away to Pretty Woman. And yet here they were, together, struggling to out-open Hall Pass and Jumping the Broom.

Zeitchick’s solution to the puzzle is twofold: first, he observes, star power is waning in Hollywood and is no longer a certain ticket to cinematic success. That observation is worthy of a further semiotic analysis in itself, but it’s his second point that I want to pursue here: namely, that the kind of role that has made Hanks a superstar—“the regular guy we could all identify with”—is no longer in touch with the current American zeitgeist. Zeitchick then goes on to list the sort of protagonists that do seem to be in touch with the times these days, a list that includes “the kooky and stonerish (The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis); the swashbuckling and sometimes morally ambiguous (Pirates of the Caribbean’s Depp); and, most commonly lately, the Adonis-like and reticent (Thor’s Chris Hemsworth).”

Larry Crowne is about not only an ordinary man but an all-too-common experience these days for ordinary Americans (a man struggling to cope with the loss of his job), which makes this movie all the more poignant. We could argue that a lot of people might not want to shell out the price of admission for a movie about the sort of thing they came to the theater to forget, but I think that there is more to it than that. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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Girls Behaving Badly

posted: 6.30.11 by Jack Solomon

One of the most important concepts in teaching cultural semiotics is that of the gender code. Gender codes consist of those often unwritten rules that govern the conduct of males and females within a society, and they customarily unfold as a list of binary oppositions—for example, men should be aggressive and powerful/women should be passive and nurturing; men should work outside the home/women should stay at home with the children; and so on and so forth. It was through the work of feminist cultural analysts that the socially constructed foundations of such codes were revealed, challenging the common presentation of them as dictated by nature and biology. Feminists also pointed out the patriarchal privileging that is inscribed in the traditional gender codes as well.

But how one approaches gender codes can depend upon one’s own theoretical positions.  The “American” style of feminist analysis, for instance, takes an equalitarian approach, challenging not only the privileging within a patriarchal gender code but also the treatment of men and women as different. From such a perspective, women should have equal access to male-coded characteristics. The “French” style, as espoused by such theorists as Helene Cixous, Lucy Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva, on the other hand, celebrates rather than challenges gender difference and explores the characteristics that distinguish women from men. A Queer Theory approach to gender codes, for its part, deconstructs the entire structure, undermining any basis for making an unambiguous distinction between the categories of male and female. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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Free Documentary Films for the Classroom

posted: 2.10.10 by Traci Gardner

Last year, I shared a site that was full of ready-to-use movie clips that you can use with students. (found via Lifehacker) is a similar site, but it’s full of nonfiction trailers and movies. That’s right. The site has full-length documentary films. All you have to do is download them.

The Technical Details

The site highlights documentaries like Super Size Me and SiCKO on the home page, but it also includes shorter (and likely, less well-known) documentaries. Menus on the right side of the page allow visitors to browse the documentaries by topic or region as well as to look for French or Spanish documentaries, short documentaries, and documentaries with closed captions.

The length of the videos varies. Many are less than an hour long, so they could be played during a class session. Others are longer feature-length films. Since the site and the movies are free, however, you can manage any time management challenges by having students watch movies outside of class as homework.

The site is still being developed, so there are some features missing. There’s an area on the right for tags, but it hasn’t been developed (or at least isn’t working at this point). The movies launch in a new window, so you may need to turn off any pop-up blockers you are running.

The site also requires visitors to figure out some details about the films on their own. The length of the documentaries wasn’t listed anywhere obvious and to find the dates that the films were released, I had to go to the Site Map. Still, with a free collection of documentaries readily available, the disadvantages are things I can live with.

The Pedagogical Details has an explicitly educational goal, as explained on the site’s About Us page:

Our goal is to have everyone that watches a film at learn something; whether it be a new perspective on a topic, simply understanding a conflict, or being more accepting of a certain belief system.

If your goal is to increase students’ awareness on any of a range of specific topics, there are award-winning documentaries on the site to choose from, such as the Academy Award-winning films Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids and The Fog of War. You’ll also find documentaries that take up opposing perspectives, which you can use in the classroom to foster debate on a topic. Use the “Films by Topic” menu on the right side of the page to find collections that focus on related issues.

If you’re teaching a piece of literature or an essay, you may find a documentary that provides additional background information on the same topic. Talking about Holocaust literature? Add an episode from the Auschwitz series. Teaching The Things They Carried? Hearts and Minds, Vietnam: The Quiet Mutiny, or The Fog of War could be effective complementary texts. The collection of videos leans toward contemporary issues, so you’re not as likely to find a pairing for a Shakespearean play or the Emily Dickinson poetry. If you’re teaching a text from approximately the 1940s on, however, you may find a suitable documentary to supplement class readings.

If you’re teaching nonfiction composition, there are additional ways to use the materials on the site. The documentaries can serve as models for multimodal compositions and as examples of visual rhetoric for class analysis. Most of the documentaries are obviously persuasive (if not propagandistic), so there are opportunities to talk about persuasive techniques, argumentative fallacies, and the rhetoric of argument. As you discuss advertising techniques, for instance, you might show PBS Frontline: Merchants of Cool, which explores how corporations market products to teen consumers.

A Few Comments

  • Be sure the documentaries you choose are appropriate for the classroom, and provide any warnings or disclaimers to the class before showing the film. There is no censorship in the documentaries. Some of the films display raw images of situations that may upset students, including violent and graphic images. Many deal with tough subjects that may lead to controversial discussions. Always preview the entire documentary before you use it. That’s the best way to ensure that the film will fit with the students and local community where you teach.
  • Note the “donate” links. All the documentaries are available for free. You don’t need to donate anything to view the films. If students are confused by the “donate” links, spend a few seconds explaining why they are there and let students know that they do not need to click on them.

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Categories: Discussion, Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
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Interview with Rattapallax Editor and Filmmaker, Ram Devineni

posted: 5.12.09 by archived

Ram Devineni is the founder and editor of Rattapallax magazine, a literary journal dedicated to publishing poetry from around the world. Devineni, also a filmmaker, co-founded the film school Academia Internacional de Cinema in São Paulo and recently co-produced Amir Naderi’s Vegas: Based on a True Story, which premiered at the 2008 Venice Film Festival and showed in competition in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. For the 2009 PEN World Voices Literary Festival, Devineni curated a panel on literary short films and documentaries.

The Teaching Poetry blog asked Ram a few questions about his work with poetry and film.

Teaching Poetry: Tell us about your documentary on Ginsberg.

Ram Devineni: Ginsberg’s Karma is a thirty-minute documentary about the American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. It follows his mythical journey to India in the early 1960s that transformed his perspective on life and his work. Poet Bob Holman, director of the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, traces the two years Ginsberg spent in India by visiting the places where he stayed and talking with the people he met and influenced, as well as intimate interviews with Beat poets and friends. Bob and I make appearances in it, too. [read more]

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Categories: Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology
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