We Need Film Education

I went to film school and it was one of the best years of my life. Although some of that may be due to the fact that I didn’t have to deal with the freezing temperatures of my home town, but I’m pretty sure it was the learning that was most responsible for my great year. I learned a lot, was surrounded by people who actually cared about the same things I did, and found myself in an environment that cultivated creativity and rewarded abstract thought. It was a priceless experience, if it was an expensive investment, but lots of things are expensive these days. It’s too bad then, that film school is kind of lame.

No, it really is. Now that I’m back home I almost don’t want to tell people. “You went to film school?” they say, like its some sort of dark place full of ogres and witchcraft – which it is. Or is that just in my imagination? Maybe some people would think it’s cool, which is something I’ve never really been. I’ll never understand what is cool, I guess. Maybe it would help if I stopped making references to Lord of the Rings in my economy classes, but that seems unreasonable. Still, it’s hard not to be aware of the stigma of having an interest in the creative arts. Even the drama kids, the photography students, the art majors, they all live in the margins, sort of set away from the rest of the world comprised of experts in “proper” topics like math or engineering. Are those the same thing? Kidding.

Why is this? The world is increasingly creative. Analytical skills are out, outside the box thinking is in. (Don’t think too hard about that, it will give you a headache.) So how come those of us who major in the fine arts are still so marginalized in society? Some of the world’s most respected leaders are artsy people, so how come we still don’t get much respect? Maybe we do but nobody talks about it. So let’s start talking about it.

We have now come to a time when I believe we should be teaching film education in high school. We don’t need a whole overhaul of the education system to make room for more fine arts programs, but I really think that at least a beginner education in film history or film theory would have huge benefits. We all go to the movies, or we all stay home and watch Netflix, or at the very least we all consume media in one way or another, so how come most of us don’t know anything about the types of media we subject ourselves to? We already make students read Shakespeare in high school, isn’t that kind of the same thing? Except with Shakespeare, nobody understands him or cares except for the few people who will go on to study Shakespeare further and just end up learning more and more about a topic the rest of their peers dismissed as some old guy who talks funny. Ask anybody you see on the streets, there seems to be only two responses: either they love Shakespeare, or they hate him. Nobody falls in between. That doesn’t leave much room for a dialogue.

So why do we study Shakespeare at all? Maybe because he is the single greatest writer of the English language. You don’t have to read Macbeth to understand modern English though, clearly. We read him for a couple reasons:
1.) He shaped so much of modern English that we are influenced by him every single day, even if we don’t realize it.
2.) He touched on pretty much every issue known to man and by reading his work you can find at least one thing to empathize with and apply to your own life.

Those are the two big ones. The second one is enormously useful but not exclusive to Shakespeare. You could read any great writer and learn the same things. Shakespeare just had a large variety of works. The first one, however, is more subtle. The way we speak to each other is so important in today’s world of mass communication and interconnectivity.

Choosing one word over another can change everything. We have binary emotions: happy, sad, angry, frustrated, and so on. The thing is, “happy” means different things to different people. You might be happy to have apple pie for desert, but I’m happy to still be alive after my near accident yesterday (hypothetical situation). Same word, different meanings. A simple example, but it works.
Apply that basic difference a thousand times over throughout the course of a single day and it’s a miracle we can communicate at all. Actually all communication is a miracle, really. Shakespeare gives us tools with which we can exchange ideas and emotions, and learn to empathize with each other. Empathy is, of course, the most amazing part of humanity.

Film is the same way. It is the ultimate form of art, at least so far, combining every other medium we’ve invented so far to create an experience unlike anything else. Unlike reality, even. You can look at a painting, you can also look at a sunset. You can listen to music, or you can listen to the birds sing. You can watch people dance or you can dance yourself. Film, on the other hand, is a complete construction. You can’t do all of those things at once in any other way other than by watching a movie. Film brings every art form together into a whole that transcends the sum of its parts, and we teach absolutely nothing about it in school. If you’re lucky maybe your school offers a class but you have to be lucky.

In the same way that we’ve added Shakespeare into our curriculums to teach students skills in communication, empathy, culture, and so on, we should also add film studies to our curriculums. It would be foolish to ignore the most influential art form of the last century.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding that takes place whenever a polarizing movie comes out. Some people love it, some people hate it, some don’t understand it, some claim to understand it but really don’t. The truth is, although art is subjective and there’s no right answer, we have no real way of talking about it. Why did you hate it? Why did you love it? We’re left to fall back on tangible details and our whole system of communication falls apart because we don’t have the tools to discuss a movie. Was that shot meant to be interpreted a certain way? How come? Was it an homage to another film? If so, does having seen that film help you understand the intent of the current film? Maybe it was an attempted homage that failed, that didn’t match the original tone and instead can be interpreted wrongly? Although there’s no right and wrong way to make art, there are actually correct and incorrect ways to construct it. For example, you can be as avant-garde as you want, if you leave the lens cap on, you’re doing it wrong.

How are we to discuss a movie with others who have a different reaction than we do if we have no communicative tools with which to do so? Media is changing at an insanely rapid pace right now and we need the next generation to be equipped to handle it. I’m not saying we should require students to sit through old black and white movies or else they’ll fail their grade, but we should be teaching them something. It will help, I promise, with the national conversation. And, like Shakespeare, it will help students understand a bit more about themselves and the world they inhabit. Except it won’t just be some old guy who talks funny.

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