Reeling them in
The BBC has lined up a film season that will delight and educate beginners and buffs alike. Laurence Alster gets the popcorn in.
This short season of programmes in The Learning Zone's media studies strand gives some idea of why the subject is becoming so popular. Media studies investigates the familiar in ways that students find fascinating, and no aspect of the discipline elicits a more enthusiastic response than film.
So a wide range of students and teachers will both enjoy and learn much from the programmes on offer in this batch, many of which are taken from mainstream items shown previously. From Face to Face, for example, come Jeremy Isaacs's interviews with several successful directors, including John Schlesinger (December 12), Steven Spielberg (December 15) and Oliver Stone (December 12), while The Late Show contributes profiles of directors Michael Powell (December 16) and Pedro Almodovar (December 12).
Added to these are Film Education programmes on The Crucible and Sense and Sensibility (both on December 10), plus masterclasses on film screenwriting, production and directing. Throw in the Film Education strand dealing with the production, distribution and exhibition of modern films, and the result is a schedule suited to everyone from absolute beginner to seasoned film buff.
Films not only provide entertainment, but also instruction. While they don't exactly teach us how to behave, many can certainly be seen as making strong suggestions. This is why, in an interview by Bill Moyers in 1985, David Puttnam (December 9) declared his dislike for what he described as "conscienceless" films, mostly American, that seek to make money from what is often spectacularly violent content. Drawing a parallel with the increasingly bloodthirsty circuses of ancient Rome, he voiced his fears for the future: "We've got to stop and ask what we're doing to ourselves. What are we?" His question is no less relevant today, not least to Oliver Stone, director of the Vietnam war films Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. Grilled by Jeremy Isaacs on what critics viewed as excesses in both films, Stone simply replies he was there; what went in the films was what happened.
Equally controversial are the works of Pedro Almodovar, if for rather different reasons. For feminists in particular some of the images of females in films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down are questionable both in terms of motive and possible effect. The weakest of the programmes sent for preview, The Indiscreet Charm of Pedro Almodovar, should be used with discretion; scenes of one woman about to urinate over another could bring a flood of parental complaints.
Ian McKellen also makes an appearance, as the eponymous hero in Richard III, but as part of a ploy more instructive than it is shocking (December 16). Playing the monarch as a 1930s dictator, McKellen begins the "winter of discontent" speech at a state banquet when, half-way through, the scene cuts to the gents toilet. Speaking all the while, McKellen relieves himself both physically and verbally. An audacious but entirely effective cinematic device, it lends weight to McKellen's remarks that cinema can make Shakespeare accessible to a larger public in ways previously undreamt of.
As was nowhere better demonstrated, of course, than by Baz Luhrmann's recent smash hit, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The many students who loved the film will be intrigued by its hip young director's thoughts on how he made radical changes to time and place without compromising the central issues of the drama (December 11). Just like Richard III, in many respects, so why was the Luhrmann film so much more successful at the box office?
The most obvious answer is Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. Another possibility emerges from a particularly thoughtful review of the relationship between British cinema and society in The Fall and Rise of Cinema (December 19), that of American marketing muscle. Without the backing of any of the media conglomerates that own most of this country's multiplex cinemas, films such as Richard III and Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (examined both here and in a separate programme, Loach on Location - December 17) are lucky to gain even a limited release.
These and many other relevant and related issues are thrown up by programmes that, for the most part, are first-rate examples of their kind. Teachers and students of media studies and film studies would do well to get some blank tapes in.