Stylized Moments: Creating Student Engagement and Participation in an Asynchronous Online University Film Course

Stylized Moments: Creating Student Engagement and Participation in an Asynchronous Online University Film Course

William Thomas McBride (Illinois State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9582-5.ch020
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Abstract

This chapter provides academic researchers and teachers with access to a unique pedagogical approach to teaching film online with a detailed exhibition of strategies and technological tools that have proven to encourage and ensure interaction, presence, and participation in an asynchronous online setting. With a persistent comparative eye toward both F2F and asynchronous online versions of the course, the chapter reveals both the content and the infrastructure as it is currently delivered to 100 students, detailing how each component works, and the advantages and disadvantages of delivering such a course online.
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Background

Pundits of the post-MTV/Internet generation(s) are fond of claiming how a new visual acuity in young people is replacing the literary-based knowledge systems of yore, often citing the massive hours spent in front of TV and computer/device screens rather than between the pages of books. However, most of us are “babes in the woods” when it comes to acknowledging and articulately responding to this more visual way of knowing. In fact as a human enterprise, we have yet to quite recover from the astounding invention of the photograph over 150 years ago. Anthropological reports abound documenting first nation and aboriginal tribal suspicion over having one’s picture taken, based on the belief that part of one’s soul or spirit is also taken when “captured” on film: “There was never a photograph taken or a likeness made from first hand witness of Crazy Horse;” so claims Mari Sandoz in the 1942 biography, Crazy Horse the Strange Man of the Oglala (p. 424). The Oglala Lakota leader allegedly resisted being photographed as defense from “shadow catching” or soul stealing. In his illuminating and challenging book, La Chambre claire (1980), translated into English as Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes calls photography “unclassifiable,” a “disturbance (to civilization)” and a “wound” (pp. 6,13, 26). This last characterization bears witness to the inherent violence embedded in the filmic language of “aiming,” “shooting’” and “taking” of photographs and movies. In fact early cameras were often mounted on the stocks of modified rifles. The pioneering photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), quoted by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times 2004 obituary, once remarked: “I adore shooting photographs. It’s like being a hunter.” In his introduction to a rare interview granted to Charlie Rose for PBS (7/6/00), Rose described Cartier-Bresson as both a “sharpshooter” and a “marksman.” Weaponry metaphors prevailed throughout the interview by both interlocutor and subject. Students read in my eTextbook, Stylized Moments. Turning Film Style Into Meaning (2013), how this violence of looking, gazing, photographing, and filming, as well as its penetrative logic, are thematized by several American films, most notably under discussion in the course are Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), and as a sort of progressive antidote, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Asynchronous Learning: A pedagogical approach useful in distance learning whereby the instruction and student participation and performance is not limited by time and place.

Heisenberg Principle: The phenomenon of the observer and her instruments intervening in the perception of the data.

Canted Frame: The canted frame is achieved by tilting the camera on its axis resulting in a framed shot at an oblique angle. A canted frame usually depicts a world askew or off-kilter. Also known as a “dutch angle” or “German angle.”

Faux Raccord: From the French, literally “false echo,” faux raccord describes a moment when sound from the scene we are about to see echoes back into the scene we are watching. We hear the upcoming scene’s sound “bleed” back, causing a discrepancy with the image, and as with all stylized moments, we are challenged to make sense of it.

Jump Cut: An artificial interruption of a chronological sequence via missing footage. It is necessarily a breaking of the fourth wall and calls attention to the fact that one is watching a film because it disrupts the continuity of either time or space or both. An image unexpectedly appears, disappears or the mise en scene is altered by time, jerking the audience out of the habitual reality the film has constructed thus far.

Stylized Moment: Any formal filmic element not reproducible on the stage or page that bears meaning by way of metaphor.

Lookism: An often unrecognized discriminatory practice of favoring those whose body types and ethnicities match one’s cultural expectations.

Hermeneutics: So named from Hermes, the Greek messenger and herald to the Gods, hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. This search for meaning in texts originated as Biblical exegesis and soon branched out to legal, philosophical and literary hermeneutics, marked by a concern with the relation between interpretive subject and text.

Rack Focus: When the focus puller shifts sharp shallow focus from one plane to the other.

Femme Fatale: The femme fatale is film noir’s stereotypical fatal woman to whom the male hero is attracted, yet she must be resisted and defeated. The Western male-dominated notion of the fatal temptress goes back at least as far as Eve in the Hebrew Bible and the Sirens and Circe in Homer’s Odyssey .

Lap Dissolve: An editing technique whereby one image is gradually substituted by another image that immediately follows, the two overlapping for a brief moment before the second image is alone on the screen and the first image has disappeared. A lap dissolve often confers the passing of time while forging a strong connection between the two momentarily co-existing images.

Hardboiled: Deflecting emotion is the key motivation for hardboiled language and demeanor.

Graphic Match: Two or more shots linked by similar visual elements. The significance of this stylistic choice visually links the meaning of the two objects—they are a pair of parallel signifiers contributing meaning to each other.

The Mickey Finn Shot: From the code slang word for a drug-laced drink, this shot is more than likely a functional shot revealing the distorted vision of a character. In Maltese Falcon Gutman “slips” Spade “a Mickey,” or a Mickey Finn which is the hard boiled term for a spiked drink with “knock-out” drops—any drink laced with chloral hydrate or other sedative that renders the drinker unconscious. We witness Spade getting drowsy as he raises his eyebrows and slurs his speech. He attempts to compose himself as he glances at Gutman and then Huston inserts Spade’s pov shot, which is severely out of focus. There is no question that this unfocused shot conveys Spade’s drug-induced wooziness just prior to his swooning unconscious, but it is functional rather than stylized. Similar moments in The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen 1998) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Gilliam 1998) are not stylized because they simply depict drug-induced states in a functional way, such as the addled experiences of Jeff Lebowski and Hunter Thompson respectively and carry no metaphoric meaning beyond a drugged state of consciousness.

Authorial Camera: An authorial camera is a particularly Hitchcockian flourish whereby a seemingly subjective camera takes you on a journey to reveal information, however no one can plausibly be assigned the viewing perspective other than the film itself. In narrative theory, this perspective would be assigned to an omniscient narrator, although in Hitchcock films the authorial camera is at times (such as the camera work immediately following the murder of Marion Crane in Psycho ) much more fluid than the rote stationary establishing shots of most films’ omniscient perspectives. Whose viewpoint is seeing this odd tableau of Scotty and the mirrored reflection of false Madeleine? It is the author of the film, and as with all stylized moments, the director is nudging us to receive some meaning.

Fourth Wall: In the theater the fourth wall is that invisible line between actors and audience. Everything that happens behind that imaginary line is virtually real for the duration of the performance. It is the social convention we all accept as explained by Coleridge’s dictum: “the willing suspension of disbelief.” In traditional proscenium arch theatrical productions, that line is never to be crossed in order to maintain the illusion that what happens behind it, on stage, is “real.” Out of a fear of breaking this “fictive reality,” one of the cardinal rules of stage acting prohibits the actor from looking directly into the eyes of the audience members, and film acting continues that tradition by forbidding direct eye contact with the camera.

Functional Shot: Any shot, such as the shot/reverse shot that functions effortlessly and transparently and carries no grander symbols, metaphor, nor meaning.

Global Image Pattern: An iconic schema of similarly stylized shots, montages, gestures, detectable globally across the entire film.

Zoom: Achieved by a lens or lenses whose focal length can be increased thereby magnifying the size of the subject—zoom in, or decreased thereby minimizing the size of the subject—zoom out. A zoom in (as well as push in, dolly in, track or truck in) often confers an invitation to look closer at a character or object. The opposite movement of zooming out, like the ascending crane shot discussed earlier, produces a feeling of escape, alienation, and abandonment.

Soft Focus or Shallow Focus Photography: Shot with a specific lens that concentrates the depth of field to objects targeted by the camera which appear in sharp, clear focus, while everything else remains out of focus. Soft focus photography is used to isolate certain images for inspection, granting a heightened interest in those objects in sharp focus. A meaningful distance or isolation can be indicated among two or more characters and/or objects when sharing a frame but only one is in focus at a time.

Iris Effect: Sometimes called an iris fade or an iris wipe, consists of two choices: the iris in and the iris out. The iris out usually begins as a black screen and then opens up and out like the iris in the human eye or in a camera to reveal an image. This effect was often used in the beginning of cinema as a point of view shot to imitate the opening of the eye upon a new scene. The iris in places the circle around the frame and closes it around the image with blackness surrounding the circle. This effect literally gave closure to a scene and served as just such a transition.

Auteur: 1950’s French film critics writing in the Cahier du Cinema advanced the auteur theory that certain powerful directors, like literary authors, manage to impose a kind of unified sensibility upon this most collaborative of arts.

Blue Screen: A blue screen or green screen effect depends on technology that combines a foreground image (such as a meteorologist) with a background image (such as a weather map). The foreground subject is filmed in front of a vividly colored solid background, often blue or green, then everything blue is replaced by a background plate (image or footage) to form a composite image.

Set Designer/Set Decorator: Artists in charge of all items visible within the indoor or outdoor set such as furniture, wall hangings, etc.

Shot/Reverse Shot: A series of connected over-the-shoulder shots or one-shot close-ups of each speaker pointed approximately180-degrees opposite of each other and used to functionally portray a conversation between two characters.

Deep Focus: Soft focus photography is the opposite of deep focus photography whereby a specific lens and necessary lighting is employed to keep fore, middle, and background all in focus in a single shot. Pioneered by directors such as John Ford, Orson Welles, and the cinematographer they shared, Gregg Toland, deep focus photography delivers a kind of three dimensional image that seems to mimic the ability of human sight, although in actuality humans must imperceptibly refocus in order to see this way. Deep focus enables directors to arrange material on all three visual planes, creating tableaux where associations with props and other characters may be pondered in terms of spatial relationships.

Tilt: A vertical movement of the camera and, depending on the speed of the tilt and from whose perspective we are seeing it, can give the impression of hope, inquisitiveness, or dread (tilt up), or meekness, melancholy, or at times, a search for hidden meaning (tilt down).

Spatial Relationships: A technique often arranged as “blocking” on stage whereby significant relationships of power and intimacy are developed by means of the placement of actors and objects in a kind of tableau.

Voyeurism: (From the Fr. Voir , to see)—the gazing upon someone without the awareness or permission of the object of the gaze, often motivated by sexual or otherwise devious desires—is a notion as old as human history. King Claudius calls Polonius and himself “lawful espials” as they hide in order to watch young Hamlet “seeing, unseen” (III. i). Voyeurism also describes the active/passive dynamic every moviegoer experiences. While the stage experience allows the audience to look anywhere at the theatrical spectacle, films place us in a passive position by specifically directing our gaze, dictating every angle and object. The active element of cinematic voyeurism is evident with regard to the fourth wall rule, whereby the audience gazes upon characters who do not look directly into the camera and at least pretend to not know they are being watched.

Point Of View or POV Shot: A shot from a particular character’s subjective perspective as if seen through that character’s eyes. A director grants a particular privilege to any character afforded such a shot since the audience is being let in on that character’s view of the world. Most POV shots indicate that the subject is the center or protagonist of the film.

Mickey-Mousing: When the on-screen action matches the beat and movement of the non-diegetic music of the soundtrack, so named because it mimics the way Disney choreographed his animated characters and synchronized them to the accompanying music.

Slow Motion/Over Cranking: So called because more than 24 frames per second—the ideal, standardized speed at which to capture the illusion of movement—are taken by the camera so that when they are projected back at 24 frames per second (each frame exposed twice per second), the movement appears slower than real time. The common effect of slow motion is a dream-like experience and often it allows the viewer to savor the moment.

Vertigo Shot: Hitchcock’s famous vertigo shot—a tracking in one direction while simultaneously zooming in the opposite direction. Irmin Roberts, the second-unit director of photography/cameraman, is credited (though not in the film) for having developed this photographic “trick” done with miniatures placed horizontally. Also called a contra-zoom shot or a trombone shot, by zooming the lens, in this case, in on the subject, while simultaneously tracking out, the subject, according to all accounts, allegedly remains the same size as the background changes through compression. This is an accurate description of later vertigo shots for example in Jaws (Spielberg 1975) and Indochine (Wargnier 1992) etc., however it is not an accurate description of the effect in Vertigo where the subject is minimized as the “sides” of the image expand, creating an unusual three dimensional effect. Rather, the result is that the foreground remains relatively constant, if a bit elongated, as the background recedes.

Film Noir: French film critics writing in Les cahiers du cinéma codified the genre-linked features of this particularly American creation, including the femme fatale, the existential perspective on the individual and fate, the hard-boiled tradition, and the stylistic use of light and shadow, dubbing the genre “black film” or film noir .

Crane Shot: A crane shot is achieved by a camera mounted on a mechanism adapted from farm and building construction machinery known as a crane, which can extend vertically several feet to several stories. Helicopter or other air flight-mounted cameras can accomplish “super-crane” effects as well. In general an ascending crane shot away from an object, person, or scene can confer to viewers a sense of effortless, privileged superiority, escape, or alienation. It often serves as closure or poignant commentary inviting contemplation at the ends of films. A descending crane shot toward an object, person, or scene can confer to viewers a sense of increasing observation and interest accompanied, nonetheless, by a certain detachment.

Chekhov’s Dictum: Russian playwright Anton Chekhov dictated his “Dictum” to all would-be narrative artists: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there. “From over one hundred years ago this strict economy of props serves well as a principle for all well made films, as it supports the kind of analysis this book advocates: read everything on the screen as necessary and meaningful.

Split Screen: Typically two or more separate shots (separate camera takes) divided by a thin black line placed on the screen simultaneously. Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903) is often credited with being the first film to use multiple screens, while Abel Gance sought to announce a new art form with his “polyvision”—a three screen presentation in his 1927 film Napoléon . The effect is used to depict Rock Hudson’s and Doris Day’s characters on the phone in Pillow Talk (Gordon 1959), which is taken to extreme with multiple conversationalists on screen in Bye, Bye Birdie (Sidney 1963). Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968) seems to split the screen in a vague attempt to reproduce Albert DeSalvo’s split personality. In the case of a documentary film like Wadleigh’s 1970 Woodstock (with fledgling editors Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), at times two separate screens produce discrete, asynchronous footage that the viewer is encouraged to integrate, while during live musical performances, such as by the Who, multiple images of lead singer Roger Daltrey and separate images of Daltrey and guitarist/singer Pete Townsend invite viewers to inspect and savor multiple perspectives of a single event.

Structuralism: A linguistic and anthropological procedure of understanding social phenomena as part of a system of signs whose meaning resides in their interrelationships.

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