Literacy. Like “gay” and “choice,” it is
a word that has been politicized and changed from its original
meaning. We now have “media literacy,”
“cultural literacy” and the current educational fad,
“computer literacy.” It seems that Johnny may never
read but he can click boxes on a computer screen to order useless
plastic objects or visit a panoply of pornographic websites.
The original definition of “literacy” is easy to
discover. Webster’s Dictionary defines the literate person
as one able to read, write, and exhibit the
“characteristics of humane learning.” True literacy
is a passport to our cultural past, providing a thorough
understanding of our antecedents. “The soul of our
society,” says literacy defender Sven Birkerts, “is
encoded in print.”1 Literacy insures our survival through
the distinct characteristics of reading: contemplation, inner
dialogue, and memory. Like the characters at the end of Ray
Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the literate person carries the
words and ideas within him, becoming a reservoir of civilization.
Alarm bells go off in the minds of homeschooling parents whenever
anyone suggests a curriculum that includes film appreciation.
After all, we live in a media-saturated society where 97 percent
of families with children ages 2 to 17 own a VCR—more people,
according to census figures, than have indoor plumbing. A
conservative estimate of the time children spend each day in
front of a video screen is four hours, with some estimates much
And now, you’re thinking, some deranged film professor
wants to toss our children into this same morass of media
manipulation. Quite the contrary, I am calling on all
homeschooling families to unplug. Send your cable careening. Turn
your satellite dish into a salad bowl. Savor a menu of selected
film classics and teach your children to discern the difference
between fine art and feeble filmmaking.
Indeed, film analysis can be a remarkably pliable tool for
homeschoolers. Most well-crafted movies can serve as the basis
for some powerful unit studies. The technique and history of film
production itself can supply a semester of science for the
advanced student. A proper understanding of how motion pictures
physically work requires a familiarity with everything from how
the mind perceives images to how a camera works—from its
“Latham Loop” to it’s shutter speed. Many film
textbooks, in fact, begin in 1646 with a Jesuit priest named
Athanasius Kircher, the world’s first film theorist.
Hence, true literacy is not merely the ability to decipher the
“Bob Books.” It also implies a deeper understanding
of the human condition gained through a lifetime habit of
reading. The literate person is someone who, according to
communication theorist Neil Postman, “can dwell comfortably
without pictures, in a field of concepts and
But what about these “pictures?” Birkerts, again,
points out that a majority of Americans form their ideas about
what is going on in the world based on the identical images and
viewpoints of a handful of media conglomerates. From the prancing
pixels of the television screen to the towering image in a movie
theatre our culture is shaped by a few techno-shamans with
cameras mesmerizing an audience held captive by its own
indolence. “A finely filamented electronic screen has
slipped between ourselves and the so-called outside
world.”3 Our culture views itself through a glass darkly,
squinting at the world through the myopic eye of a corporate
camera. Literate individuals staring into this image are indeed
seeing their culture face to face and it is often an unsettling
countenance staring back at them.
Yet, such a confrontation is necessary if one is to understand
and communicate with the post-literate world. “The clearest
way to see through a culture,” says Postman, “is to
attend to its tools.”4 And these “tools”
constitute a language that can be readily learned, hence the term
“visual literacy:” an oxymoron with a trace of truth.
For there is, in a real sense, a “grammar” of the
cinema. In 1981 James Monoco published his famous book How to
Read a Film. Following his lead, the informed viewer must no
longer be a passive recipient of these received images but can
learn to “read,” like a text, the powerful vocabulary
of film. If one moves to a foreign country it is best to learn
the language. Christian homeschoolers are, by definition,
strangers and pilgrims in this image-saturated world. By teaching
the dialect, we can prepare our children to confront the culture
on its own terms. We can protect them from the easy deception of
the “seeing is believing” school of logic.
There is certainly no denying the power of mass media. Reading
newspaper accounts of federal agents snatching Elian Gonzales
from his Miami home is quite different from the visceral response
of seeing the photograph of a machine-gun-toting INS agent
confronting the screaming child. Yet the newspaper text
(hopefully) provided the historical context for the unsettling
photo. After seeing Steven Spielberg’s magnificent Saving
Private Ryan, many people claimed they understood, for the first
time, what happened on Omaha Beach. This, of course, is absurd.
They may have felt what it was like in the pit of their stomachs
but the moving images from this master director were mere
illustrations of the source material: primarily historian Steven
Ambrose’s D Day and Citizen Soldiers. A picture is not
“worth a thousand” words, but it may appear to be at
first glance. And when you multiply those pictures by 24 frames
per second (the speed of film through a projector) and combine
them with sound effects and music you have the ability to deceive
the typically somnambulant filmgoer. Edit those images for
maximum effectiveness, anywhere from 1 frame (!) to a maximum of
12 seconds in length, and you place the audience on a runaway
train of impressions and emotions which flash by too quickly to
absorb on a rational level. No pausing to contemplate the
author’s meaning; the meaning is in the edits
themselves—and they are flashing by like billboards by the track.
Education is the key to unraveling the elaborately layered
images of film and television. The enlightened viewer can see
through the artifice and still enjoy the thrilling ride.
Film—classic cinema—should be included in any study of the visual
arts, from painting to architecture. Indeed, the creation of a
good movie can be likened to the construction of a cathedral.
Notre Dame is not the work of a single artist but the end product
of numerous craftsmen whose individual talents contributed to the
combined beauty of the finished product. The cinema may be the
last bastion of true corporate craftsmanship in the world. We are
doing our homeschooled kids a disservice if we deprive them the
pleasure of watching John Wayne ride boldly across Monument
Valley or hearing Judy Garland singing “Over the
Rainbow.” They will experience the beauty of the human form
in motion as the sublime Astair and Rogers glide across the dance
floor or laugh at the pratfalls of Buster Keaton and the fragile
fallibility of mankind. The literate person is one with a deep
understanding of our society and the very best films represent
what is good and enduring in the human spirit.
And what of the films themselves? As you’ll see, there is a
wealth of information in each scene to consider in our selected
movie, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. This film is
certainly not a classic, but it is well crafted and vividly
illustrates my point. Spielberg is a master of cinematic
technique and uses every tool at his disposal (his critics say he
overuses them) to tell his stories. I defer to my wife in matters
of age appropriateness and she gives this film an advanced high
school rating. “Too many dead people with their eyes open
for younger children.” she explains.
So lets begin. Reset your counter to zero as the opening titles
appear on the screen: “In 1941 China” (This is known
as a “crawl.”) If you have a digital counter simply
eject and reinsert the tape.
Immediately we are presented with some historical data that
requires further research. What were the antecedents to this
conflict? Who were the aggressors? What were the justifications
for colonialism and its results? What was the reach of the
British Empire in 1941 and what were the causes of its demise?
There’s enough in this introduction alone to keep you busy
for the school year.
The first images we see as the movie begins are funeral wreaths
and coffins floating in Shanghai harbor. Clearly this is not a
comedy. On the soundtrack a young boy’s voice is heard
singing the beautiful Irish lullaby “Suo Gan.” Then
the prow of a warship knifes through the shot, pushing the
coffins aside, and the Japanese flag fills the screen. Stop here
and ask your student what these images are meant to convey: Death
certainly, and the immediate threat of war. But why a lullaby?
Who is slumbering that will soon be awakened? Remember, at each
stage of a movie ask your student: “What did you see and
what did you hear?” Create in them a heightened sensitivity
to picture and sound.
A series of quick images (known as “establishing
shots”) take us to a cathedral where, outside, Chinese
chauffeurs polish a fleet of black Rolls Royces. Within, we
discover a choir of English lads is the source of the music, and
the soloist is none other than young Jamie, our protagonist.
Pause here and look around. Have your student describe what they
see. Remember, Mr. Spielberg didn’t just pop into a church
one day and begin filming. He had a highly skilled crew of
craftsmen preparing the set ahead of time. The proper location
had to be found, and stripped of any contemporary accoutrements
that would be anomalous to 1941 Shanghai. Everyone had to be
dressed in period clothing and the church had to be properly lit.
What is the source of the light? This will become important in a
moment. Continue the movie.
In between solos, Jamie’s mind wanders until he is startled
to attention by the choirmaster thumping on the podium. Pause
here again and consider what you’ve just seen. This shot is
less than 2 seconds long but it provides us with a hint of the
complex art of filmmaking.
First of all, the actor had to deliver a controlled performance;
he’s a minor character and shouldn’t attract undue
attention. What did you hear? Thumps, snaps, singing—all recorded
months after the scene was filmed and matched to the picture.
(That’s my job.)
And, of course, the shot had to be lit correctly to be both
aesthetically pleasing and to match the previous wide shot. Did
you notice the dust rising from the podium? Someone sprinkled the
book with something called “fullers dust” to achieve
this effect. And they did it very carefully. Too much dust would
have seemed comical and too little wouldn’t have been
apparent on the screen. Hence the importance of cinematography: a
shaft of light had to strike the podium at the correct angle to
capture the moment. So why make an issue of a two second shot?
Because the dust is the key to the scene. It is the British
Empire that is slumbering as its old way of life, dusty and
unattended, is about to be washed away. Too detailed? Remember,
everything in a film is planned down to the last frame and every
frame—each 1/24 of a second—represents a decision on the part of
the filmmaker. Your job is to keep from being swept away in the
flood of images and sound. Pay attention to the details and the
big picture will make more sense.
If you have chosen to simply analyze selected scenes rather than
view the entire movie, fast forward to 09:25. In doing so, you
will miss a short conversation about God and some scenes
emphasizing Jamie’s privileged lifestyle.
At this point, Shanghai’s British subjects are headed for a
costume party. Each colorful outfit represents a different aspect
of colonialism. Just for fun, try and guess what each costume
symbolizes. Is this an accurate view of Western imperialism?
You may stop at the party itself if you like and skip the
sequence where Jamie is separated from his parents during the
Japanese takeover of the city. Fast forward to 28:06.
Jamie returns to his devastated neighborhood. Notice how the
wide, high angle shot of the deserted street emphasizes the
predicament of the abandoned boy. The following scene in the
kitchen and Jamie’s reaction to the spoiled food tells us
that some time has passed. Now follow our protagonist upstairs.
What follows is pure cinema. Jamie enters his mother’s
disheveled room. The floor is covered with spilled talcum powder.
Without dialogue Spielberg tells us what happened to Mom. Listen
to the music. What is it trying to convey? Watch the boy’s
expressions. Notice how they change with each subsequent image.
These are known as “reaction shots” and they cue our
own response to any subsequent image. In this case: devotion,
dismay and panic.
Jamie’s dreamy glance is followed by a shot of a delicate
female footprint in the powder. His reaction alerts us to its
owner. Suddenly the music changes and the images come faster,
signaling a shift in mood. There is a footprint of a boot. Cut to
Jamie’s reaction. Then we see several quick images of
handprints and claw like marks in the powder. Spielberg uses the
rapidity of these shots to emphasize the violence of the unseen
struggle. We thus infer what happened to Mom and so does Jamie.
He rushes to the window and flings it open. Exaggerated
gale-force winds rush into the room and, along with the powder;
Jamie’s privileged past is gone with the wind. Of course,
the wind isn’t blowing that hard, Spielberg is using
dramatic license to make his point.
Once again, if you have chosen not to watch the entire movie
please don’t miss the emotional finale. Fast forward to
2:16:30 and avoid the brutal prison camp sequences.
The war is over and “Jim” (young Jamie has outgrown
his boyhood name) is trying to revive his dead Japanese friend
before his American mentor yanks him back into reality. While
maintaining your analytic frame of mind, allow yourself to simply
experience the emotional impact of the final scenes. Watch for
“motifs”: images and sounds that have been repeated
throughout the film and bring us full circle to the dramatic
conclusion. I’ve viewed these scenes hundreds of times and
they never fail to move me. And this is, after all, why we watch
movies: to feel and understand a little better God’s
magnificent drama of life.
1. Birkerts, S. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994. p.20
2. Postman, Neal. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985 p.26
3. Birkerts, p.5
4. Postman, p.8
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