How to get a rush from the rushes

10th July 1998 at 01:00
"I love the reactions I get to showing Un Chien Andalou," said Roy Asbury, of Queen Mary's College, Basingstoke. You remember, it's that 1920s surrealist short film by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, in which you see a blade slicing through an eye.

"They ask 'What does it mean?'. When I say I don't know, you can see them thinking 'How dare you show us something you don't understand'," he says.

Asbury feels that many teachers are nervous of "alternative" film - which he defines as anything outside the mainstream - for various reasons: it's too esoteric, resources are hard to find, it isn't relevant to the syllabus, and some work is too controversial to use in class. But the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Asbury began his workshop on teaching alternative film by explaining how non-mainstream work - anything from Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon to David Lynch's Eraserhead - throws Hollywood into relief: "Apart from its intrinsic interest, and the impact it has on practical work, alternative film also helps to teach the mainstream."

When analysing a film such as Casablanca, students often fail to see what there is to discuss - it's obvious that shots are edited to make action flow, that the ending is satisfying. That obviousness is shattered when students confront Un Chien Andalou: "What a film is, becomes an issue rather than an assumption."

Asbury reduces the shock value of alternative film, by introducing ideas early on in mainstream film study. Analysing silent movies, for example, helps students to be aware of the constructed nature of film. They begin to ask "what is a film?" rather than taking texts at face value.

He always teaches textual analysis and historical contexts alongside practical work. Alternative film's low-tech nature can encourage students to take a more creative attitude to equipment limitations. Asbury showed the group some of his A-level students' short films. "I really believe in screening students' work as widely as possible. It gives them such a rush."

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