Laurence Alster assesses a resource pack with a stimulating choice of film clips.
Hollywood types don't waste words when discussing movies. That at least is the impression given by Lorenzo Semple, writer of Three Days of the Condor and Superman. Asked for his definition of the language of cinema, Semple shot back: "Yeah, that's what you get when you can't afford Kevin Costner."
Film Language doesn't have Kevin Costner either, but it does feature brief appearances by, among others, Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh, Ben Kingsley and Ewan McGregor. Nor does it have Semple's cynicism, focusing not on the bottom line but on those aspects of film-making usually rendered invisible by the skills of the production team.
The result will please teachers and students of film and media studies at both GCSE and A-levels. Using the pack is straightforward enough. A videotape with 18 clips from 13 films comes with a booklet that points to the clips (plus a number of interesting, well-printed stills) to illustrate the basic elements of film production: lighting and colour, sound, camerawork, mise-en-sc ne and editing.
Under these broad headings more specific subjects are covered: underlighting and back lighting, contrapuntal and parallel sound and settings and props, each with its own description and examples. There are also plenty of questions and tasks to help students understand the preparation and practice essential to good film-making. A few examples give some idea of the general high quality. A clip from Trainspotting with junkie Ewan McGregor kitting himself out to go cold turkey is reviewed in terms of its sound, music and props. So that they may later create their own, students are first directed to graphic matches from the opening scenes of Schindler's List and The English Patient. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a film as misconceived as the monster in it, gives far better value in part than in whole, with two clips that illustrate the use of sound and camera movement. And three extracts from the 1996 version of Jane Eyre demonstrate how movement, focal length and framing can be combined to impressive effect. All these films are, of course, fairly recent. Some others, though, are not.
The opening scenes from Orson Welles's Citizen Kane - mist-shrouded views of Kane's Xanadu folly, where he lies dying - will strike many students as amateurish, while the Odessa steps sequence from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is bound to appear clumsy to eyes accustomed to slick modern editing. But these films give teachers the chance to point not only to, say, Eisenstein's innovative cutting or the sheer audacity of Welles's directorial vision, but also to the fact that films made in 1925 and 1941 respectively are still considered among the best ever made. Contrary to what many students think, old is not always naff.
Not that Alfred Hitchcock's films are ever bracketed thus, with Psycho especially still seen by many students as a classy chiller. So teachers will be grateful for the famous shower scene, which has some of the most telling cuts in film history. The questions here are particularly intelligent, not least those on the ways in which editing is linked to Bernard Herrmann's lacerating score and some grisly sound effects. Students have a chance to show what they have learned from the master by constructing a flow diagram of spooky churchyard shots of varying length for their own production, Terror in the Night. Like many in the pack, this task looks as much fun as instruction.
One other, though, will be considered rather strange. Offered for analysis is Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", the opening line of which reads "Bend double, like old beggars under sacks." That first word should be "Bent", of course; the mistake makes a nonsense of the first stanza at least. Film language is important, true, but a little more care with the printed word would have been welcome.
Film Education, Alhambra House, 27-31 Charing Cross Road, London WC2 OAU. Tel: 0171 976 2291.