Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Teaching with Trailers: The Pedagogical Value of Previews for Introducing Film Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Teaching with Trailers: The Pedagogical Value of Previews for Introducing Film Analysis

Article excerpt

During my second seme s ter te aching a general introductory film studies course, I con- firmed a fear that had emerged the first time I taught the course: my students were failing the lesson of analyzing film style, which I consider to be the overall objective of the course. Even though we had adequately discussed the steps for this task, they were turning in extensive plot summaries, not analytical papers. I found this vexing since they were doing quite well when the class examined the individual elements of style in isolation (mise-en-scène, cinematog- raphy, editing, and sound). However, moving from the "parts" of style to the "whole" seemed to create a critical impasse that made the ultimate step-proposing meaning in a film- nearly impossible for most students.

Reflecting on this conundrum, I began to hy- pothesize that perhaps the problem stemmed more from my method of instruction than their critical erudition. Like many film instructors, during the "parts" section of the course, I had employed the traditional pedagogical approach of using frame stills and multiple viewings to teach the elements of film style. In other words, I would pause the DVD on the shot of Susan's suicide attempt in Citizen Kane (1941) to dis- cuss depth of field or replay Marion's drive to the Bates Motel in Psycho (1960) over and over again to detail the dimensions of film editing.

Though indispensable for training students' senses to the fundamentals of film, these teaching techniques, I started to believe, might be stunting their ability to analyze an entire film. After all, it is hard for students to perform an analysis of Casablanca (1942), with its run- ning time of nearly one hour and forty-five min- utes, when they have honed their critical skills on segments and scenes that rarely run beyond one minute and forty-five seconds. However, I did not think it would be beneficial to continue such techniques during the "whole" section of the course because the practice of constantly stopping a feature film under analysis in order to discuss the meaning of elements with stu- dents is likely to distract their critical involve- ment with the work, especially if it means having to view the film in consecutive class periods (not to mention the fact that it usually takes the entire film for meaning to evolve). What I needed was an intermediary lesson between the "parts" and the "whole," one that combined the analysis of an entire work and its amalgamation of elements with a running time that allowed for repeated viewings and sub- sequent discussions in one class period. This article details such a lesson.

Following the steps of "Analyzing Film Style" found in David Bordwell and Kristin Thomp- son's Film Art: An Introduction (306-09), used here because of its popularity as an introduc- tory film studies textbook, this article demon- strates that it is possible to do a feature-type analysis with a short film, namely the trailer for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera (2004).1 I selected this work since most students are familiar with the Phantom story (because of its recycling in popular culture), which presumably allows them to pay close at- tention to the trailer's formal elements instead of its plot. Also, given its running time of two minutes and twenty-four seconds, I can easily screen the trailer four times in a seventy-five- minute class period (one viewing per each step of the analysis lesson) with plenty of time left over for discussion.

I begin the exercise by playing the trailer once for the students with no demands, just so that they can get a sense of the film (a luxury not allowed but often presumed by stu- dents performing an analysis of a feature film screened in class). Next, corresponding to Film Art's first step in analyzing film style (Bordwell and Thompson 306), I replay the trailer and ask students to take notes on its structure (since they have already seen it once for "fun," they should know what to expect and thus can be more critical in their viewing). …

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