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A HUNDRED YEARS, A MILLION MILES: PART 2

LEARNING IN THE DARK
By Hunter Cordaiy

The question of visual literacy and the ways in which that literacy is acquired are two of the most important cultural questions in the present media saturated society. What was once elite knowledge - to understand and make films - is now available in Universities, specialist schools, evening classes and self-help courses. The most profound change in the last 50 years has been the rise of educational access to moving images, and the integration of that knowledge into a broader cultural education. More than special effects or global delivery systems, the individual and group education about images has made the film and media industries the 'hottest' points on the cultural landscape.

 

The most powerful challenge to the ubiquitous control of the movie market is film education. To know and understand the workings of moving images in sequences is to be literate in the most appropriate way for this age. Film education over-rides the power of publicity and gives audiences genuine choice at the box office because of their intellectual understanding of cinema.

Film education which started out as 'appreciation' and is now at the centre of progressive academic work has only really been around for 25 years. I took my first course in 1972, in England. I was an English major student and needed a fourth course to fill my load, so I enrolled in Understanding Film, taught by David Thomson.

In the first class, he screened Un Chien Andalou followed by Fritz Lang's M and Godard's Alphaville. To a student of D.H. Lawrence, and T. S Elliott, this was all a revelation. In a matter of days I had abandoned my interest in image-less narrative and with the fervour of conversion, became a film student: I even took a work study job as the course projectionist.

The secret was, that I was taught to see rather than watch. Cinema was unlocked, as an understanding of the past and comprehension of the present. This twinned perspective is under threat in the current educational climate, and much of film education today is contemporary - and for immediate use.

It is not seen as intellectually necessary to have seen everything

This is also reflected in the low standard to film criticism from writers who have not, literally, seen films made before 1960. For those of us lucky enough to have studied early with teachers as rigorous as Thomson, we have engaged the complete oeuvres of, say 20 major directors rather than their greatest hits. Thomson's classes ran from just after lunch often until late at night. Try scheduling that number of hours in a higher education institution today, or worse, try getting a projectionist after 6pm.

There is great pressure in film courses now not to provide such coverage, such depth of history. There are two reasons for this: firstly, it is not seen as intellectually necessary to have seen everything; and secondly, there is a clear division emerging between film and media courses on the one hand and specialist academic research in particular areas of film on the other.

In extreme cases this can be research about criticism which does not require the watching of any movies. It is debatable whether graduates from such courses are cinematically literate in any sense of the word but rather experts in a form of linguistics which might as well not be about movies.

The first generation film students are now out in the cultural industries and their knowledge is filtering into everything, making another division between formal and informal education. By this I mean that so much of film (and media) is self-referential that viewers of say, The Simpsons, need to have seen the top 10 of the last year's current releases in order to understand some episodes.

The recent interest in remaking ‘noir’ films comes not only from an existential assessment of current social conditions, but studies in earlier adaptations of pulp fiction undertaken in film courses. These remakes have an educated audience which understands the aesthetics of ‘noir’ and the codes used.

This cinema is at the centre of contemporary culture

This double pleasure is what sustains the art house despite the bombardment by mainstream 'product'. The audience is attracted to the values of these particular films because they have encountered them in another, educational, context. This discerning audience is not seriously considered, I believe, by the marketers of mainstream cinema, except where they see the art house as another 'segment'; a boutique dollar.

This is a great mistake: the art house, intelligent cinema lets call it, is more than a segment - it's a way of thinking and seeing, the delivery of ideas, social and political attitudes, for an entire generation of viewers. This cinema is at the centre of contemporary culture, and often aligned with, yet sometimes counter to, the global momentum of music, magazines, televisions and fashion.

One way this happens is by the informal film school created by the exhibition of films in niche markets such as festivals, Cinémathèque seasons, and the art house (in the broadest sense) supported by a plethora of magazines, radio and TV slots. The downside to all this opportunity is

that it's presentation is unstructured and beyond an overt educational context. Most of my students know who Bertolucci is, for example, but have never seen or heard of The Spiders Stratagem. They know Godard directed Breathless but have never seen Two or Three Things I Know About Her. The end of history means there is little depth to cultural experience, and the role of film schools should be to provide a complex level of understanding.

To understand the moving image is now seen as one of the major planks of social survival.

Context is everything in this cultural climate. What is good about the expansion of film education is that it is no longer seen as a privileged area of study: when the New Wave soon-to-be directors were studying film they sat in the dark at the Cinematheque and watched, debated movies collected by Henri Langlois. When Roman Polanski decided he wanted to be a director he was lucky enough to be chosen as a student at Lodz Film School (and made a wonderful graduating film, Two Men and A Wardrobe).

The change is that now film, media and popular culture courses reach from primary school to doctorate level at University. There are few other subjects which have made such rapid progress through all layers of education. To understand the moving image is now seen as one of the major planks of social survival.

On the local scene the nationally positioned Australian Film Television and Radio School is one of the key components to the creation of a bona fide Australian film industry. It is supported by undergraduate courses in film and television at most major Australian universities plus a vibrant art college scene which is producing many of the more innovative short film and video directors.

Visual literacy empowers its owners and protects them from exploitation in a dominantly visual society.

The result has been not only the kick-starting of many careers but the more fundamental notion that such careers are valid and available to a wide number of people.

Critics of the system would say, however, that the question of access is not as 'open' as it pretends to be. Visual literacy empowers its owners and protects them from exploitation in a dominantly visual society. Access programs are inadequate for aboriginal students, students from a disadvantaged (and often multi-cultural) background, and an often neglected group - the seriously experimental.

Whilst the funding threat to the maintenance of national film archives does not threaten the future of film education, it is compromised into sectional and often generalised offerings. My hope is that this trend can be reversed and the key to that is the dissemination of low cost, sophisticated technology which provides access in a more democratic way.

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Urban Cinefile continues a three part series exploring the state of cinema after 100 years. In this second essay, HUNTER CORDAIY (pictured),explores the vital subject of film education and the role it plays in an image-conscious society.


" . . . I was taught to see rather than watch. Cinema was unlocked, as an understanding of the past and comprehension of the present. This twinned perspective is under threat in the current educational climate, and much of film education today is contemporary - and for immediate use. . ."

See:
The Marketplace, Part 1
of Hunter Cordaiy’s trilogy on 100 years of film.


HUNTER CORDAIY is a Sydney based writer and lectures on film at the University of Western Sydney (Macarthur). He is Director of Film West, a University based Festival and community film organisation in western Sydney. Currently he is preparing a book of essays on film and cultural issues titled The Loot of the World. For five years, Hunter contributed the film reviews and a critical column on film for The Sydney Review, which ceased publication in January 1996.







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