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How to Read a Film

By Harry Cheney
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #37, 2000.

What we should look for when we are analyzing a film
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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 higher.

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 generalizations.”2

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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