Monday, 26 January 2009

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Lesson Planning 101: How to teach film responsibly in a composition class (The Dark Knight) Lest you think I'm publishing a long introduction-to-film-studies-type scene analysis for no reason, I had a few English people ask me how I taught film after I posted my syllabus last quarter. So I thought as long as I'm doing it anyway, I might could help a few folk out. I'm not an expert in film theory, so if you're looking for something along those lines, I suggest you head over to yonder blog and consult its illustrious roll. But if you want a workmanlike approach to teaching basic film vocabulary in a composition class, you could do worse. (Albeit not much.) Because I'm one of those cultural studies loons who believe that popular means culturally significant, the film I'm teaching is The Dark Knight. The scene I've tasked my students to analyze begins 1 hour and 24 minutes into the film. My lesson plan begins after the break: Before I begin, one point to keep in mind: Nolan's camera is always moving in this scene. He employs the conversational shot/reverse shot pattern and edits for continuity, but instead of a static over-the-shoulder shot, Nolan's restless camera slowly circles to the left or right (depending on whose back is to the audience), such that it seems as if Batman and the Joker's heads are on a collision course. More on that in a moment. Let me set the scene: We begin with low-key lighting from two visible sources: the lamp on the desk and the lone lit florescent behind Gordon. To the extent that it even is illuminated, the Joker's face is lit from below: The darkness behind him creates an off-screen space that's foreboding, but ultimately shallow. In the shot above, the Joker asks whether he's about to be treated to "[t]he good cop, bad cop routine?" To which Gordon responds: "Not exactly." Note how Nolan frames the scene: Gordon within the door; the door within the walls; the walls by the four corner shadows reminiscent of the initial masking of an iris-out. All the compositional elements contribute to the sense of entrapment. But they do so ironically: Gordon is about to open that door. Cut back to the Joker: Nolan places him on the left side of the screen in a medium close-up. As the Joker leans back, Nolan reframes while zooming in for a close-up: As the camera creeps closer the Joker seems to pick up more of the ambient light from the table lamp. Nolan then deepens the shot without refocusing by having someone turn on the rest of the florescent lights: Nolan deepens the dark shallow space to reveal what we didn't know the diagesis contained: the Batman. The restricted depth of field renders the Batman as a blur, but fast things are blurry and the Batman is very fast. (Emphasizing the blurriness likely accounts for why Nolan chose not to use racking focus here.) The camera remains steady as both characters momentarily exit the frame: Not only does the shallowness make the fast blurry...
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Must we still pretend to like John Updike? For the moment, I’m going to pretend I’ve never read an entire novel by John Updike and judge his literary legacy on the basis of one paragraph singled out as representative of the awfulness of his prose. The passage, we are told, typifies his habit “vacillat[ing] from the tedious to the atrocious,” scoring “somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin on the soporific scale,” and reads thus: Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the banking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. There’s much Updike wrote I won’t defend—Toward the End of Time deserved the slagging it received—but for Young Master Shapiro to choose, from a hefty body of work, the opening paragraph of Rabbit Redux to bury Updike beneath should stand as the object lesson in why movement conservatives whose tastes range from Forsythe to Uris ought not be writing about literature. I’m loath to even defend it, as it needs no defense, but here goes: Sentence #1: Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. Heavy alliteration on the “p” plays to the plodding of the pale people who emerge from the printing plant. The sentence turns on a dime, dropping the alliteration and transforming the men into “ghosts for an instant.” That instant lasts the space of the following comma—the blink—and the blinking strips them of their ghostliness. Needless to say, “ghostliness” describes a thing one is, not a quality one has, but Updike’s inverting the effect here—the men appear ghostly to each other as their eyes adjust to the light, but Updike would have us believe they become ghostly, only to rematerialize as daylight strips the indoor light from their bodies. Sentence #2: In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the banking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. More inversion: Updike opens with the dark wintry mood in a clause that hangs above everything after the semi-colon the way the mountain “hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer.” The sentence then shifts into a higher gear....

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