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3. Films dealing with school life, initiation and identity formation




Table of Contents

1. Stand by Me (1986)
2. Dead Poets Society (1989)
3. Muriel's Wedding (1994)
4. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
5. Billy Elliot (2000)
6. Finding Forrester (2000)
7. About a Boy (2002)



1. Stand by me (1986)

This film by Rob Reiner, which is based upon the well-known short novel The Body by Stephen King, came out in 1986. The writer has often been associated with horror stories; this narrative, however, is an exception to the rule. The text as well as the film deal with the problems of initiation, namely with the four major characters' first confrontation with death.

As I was told by Günter Burger in an e-mail from June 14th, 2007, this film was first recommended for instructional purposes by the following author:


David John Wood, Film Communication Theory and Practice in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Lewiston, 1995. ('Stand by me': pp. 153-169)


Summary
In his preface, Wood states that he has written a study which is based on video movies, i.e. on the most motivating audio-visual resource, and on one of the most effective language-teaching methodologies, namely the communicative approach to teaching English as a foreign language (p. VII). Furthermore he claims that, in the practical half of the book, a wide variety of communicative video techniques is presented, which refer to individual scenes (p. VIII), but also to video films as an entity (p. IX). Thus the film Stand by me, which is very popular with young audiences, is presented as a case study. In accordance with the communicative approach, it is the author's aim to involve the learners personally. This means for example that, in group work, students are expected to enter the individual characters of the movie and subsequently to explain their viewpoints in class (p. 75).

Wood suggests several techniques for facilitating the comprehension of the film. As a kind of warming-up, he wants to show photos of the four boys, which, for example, can be seen on the video cassette and can be used for basic identification purposes: thus their formal and familiar names may be pre-taught to the students (p. 78), which might be a help to afford access to the film. First the instructor could have the learners describe the boys' physical appearance, then he could have them conjecture freely about the demeanour of each boy (pp. 153-54). This could be accompanied by the use of a character tree (p. 154), which would be a long-term measure to facilitate orientation. Another technique for easing comprehension would be to have the students match if-clauses and result clauses before they actually proceed to view a scene (p. 157).

Or it would be possible to use the film's trailer, which features a number of key objects and which foreshadows many aspects of the movie (p. 95). These can form the basis of an observation exercise that includes a number of distractors or false items, which would pave the way for checking the comprehension of the film as well. In this context, it may also be mentioned that the students should take notes as an ongoing part of their regular viewing (p. 155). Such a procedure would imply that the presentation of the film is divided into several segments; at the same time it would serve as a long-term writing assignment to prepare the students for an overall newspaper report of the major action, which also helps to check the comprehension of the movie. The use of a true-false quiz may fulfil the same function: if the students think a statement is false, they must say what happened instead in their own words (p. 158).

The author also draws attention to practical language study. He recommends several steps to extend the students' vocabulary, e.g. concerning crime-related words (p. 155) or terms referring to the rules of the games played by the boys (p. 159).

Generally speaking, Wood proceeds in a chronological way in order to discuss the use of selected scenes in the classroom. Thus it is gradually revealed that the four younger boys who start out on an adventure are faced with the same central problem of their lives: that of failed family relationships and the accompanying sense of desolate loneliness (p. 160). The dead body is regarded as a symbol of loneliness and emptiness, and the boys' quest is turning into a soul-searching struggle for self-respect (p. 160). The crossing of the railroad-bridge is classified as the central scene of the movie with pervasive undertones of death's invasion (p. 162). Moreover, the structure of the whole story hinges on this particular aspect (p. 162). Therefore a possible assignment for the learners would be to watch the first half of the movie again, to count the number of lines containing references to death and to study all the synonyms for death and their different nuances (pp. 162-163). Such an activity would raise the students' awareness of death's omnipresence.

The way each boy crosses the railroad bridge is very revealing in terms of their personality (p. 82). Therefore the students should very carefully watch the scene itself two or three times, and if possible, in a slow-motion mode (p. 163). The instructor could use a split-viewing task (p. 164), which is reminiscent of an information gap assignment: that is, half the class watches the scene while the others brainstorm questions. The viewing group answers with "Yes", "No", "I don't know", until the class can piece together what happened; perhaps a reversal of roles will be necessary.

In the following scenes individual reactions to the deeply moving experience of being faced with death become obvious (p. 164). When, at night, the howling of a coyote is heard, the boys agree to take turns staying awake (p. 164). Gordie and Chris undergo deep emotional changes (p. 165): it is them who find the dead body after all, but there is also the confrontation with a group of older boys (p. 166). Again the instructor is advised to stop the presentation at this point and to let the students conjecture what the younger boys' reactions may be (p. 166), and, of course, they may also speculate on the outcome of the movie.

In the actual film, Chris is left alone: he has to defy Ace, the sadistic leader of the older boys, and is ready to die so as to win self-belief (p. 166). However, Gordie appears, gun in hand, and outwits Ace (p. 166). Now the gun is not only used as a real weapon, but it also becomes a symbol of bonding between Chris and Gordie (p. 103). Chris and Gordie get the solutions to the problems haunting them throughout the film whereas Teddy and Vern are not much different from how they started when they go home (p. 167). All these suggestions may be understood as while-viewing activities.

As a follow-up assignment, it is possible to compare parts of the original novella with the shooting script and the movie (pp. 168-169). The learners' first task is to find out what major points are cut en route to the film and to consider the specific differences between this film and the story it stems from. Yet they should realize that films and stories are not necessarily intended to be the same (p. 169).

Evaluation
There are some striking aspects concerning this contribution. To begin with, the presentation of the film is not discussed explicitly. Yet the author puts much emphasis on techniques for easing and checking the comprehension of the movie. As might be expected, he suggests both written and oral assignments for its analysis as well as tasks to extend the students' vocabulary. Undoubtedly, his suggestions are realistic and worthwhile reading even today. However, Wood makes no suggestions for a sequence of concrete steps in class. Thus it remains the teachers' task to develop their own particular lesson plans.


For this reason, teachers who are interested in this motion picture, are also advised to consult the following publication, which appeared ten years later:


Jens Hildebrand, A LESSON IN MOVIES: 'Stand by me'/'Bend it like Beckham'/'About a Boy'. Köln: Aulis, 2005. ('Stand by me': pp. 9-42)


Generally speaking, the author distinguishes between two ways of film presentation (pp. 7-8).
a) A film is shown from beginning to end at one sitting without any interruption; this may be called a non-stop presentation.
b) There is a successive/sequential presentation of the film in small steps; this is sometimes called a stop-and-go procedure.

Many didacticians think that the second solution is preferable. Above all, if the film becomes a teaching subject in its own right, suspense is kept up by a successive procedure, and speculations concerning further events in the film remain possible so that methodological variation is greater. These advantages which are derived from learning psychology, according to Hildebrand, are more important than the possible disadvantages of splitting up of the film into small segments (p. 7).

The first procedure is only recommended if the reception of the film is preceded by a reading and interpretation of the corresponding literary work. Hildebrand draws attention both to a simplified version of The Body published by Penguin Readers and to an edition of the original text published in Different Seasons (Signet Books; cf. p. 9). It should be pointed out, however, that, according to the new currricula, films should no longer serve as a supplement to text analysis: they are now meant to be a medium in their own right.

As can be seen from its title, Hildebrand's monograph deals with three different films. Even a short glimpse at the table of contents shows that the structure of argumentation is more or less the same in all three cases. The contribution concerning Stand by me consists of the following parts.

First there is a survey about the major characters of the film in German (pp. 9-10); this is follwed by a brief overview of the film's sequences in English (there are nine sequences and 28 scenes; the running time of the film is 1:21:43; cf. p. 10).

The next part is entitled "Synopsis and Interpretation" (pp. 11-15); similar to the corresponding chapter about Bend it like Beckham, it is more a reproduction or a periphrasis than an interpretation or an in-depth study: in other words, this part is descriptive rather than analytical.

At times the linguistic dimension of this part is deplorable. To begin with, the author uses English terms in the German text where they are absolutely unnecessary: [ein Hund,] der auf "balls" abgerichtet sein soll (p.12). Die Wanderung der Vier ... wird für Gordie zur "obsession" (p. 14); later on in the vocabulary, "obsession" is appropriately translated as "Besessenheit" (p. 40), so there is no reason to insert the English term into a German text. In addition, there are quite a number of elliptical sentences: this might pass in a newspaper article, but it is not acceptable in academic expository prose. And in the case of "seit" and "seitdem" (p. 9, p. 11) the author may well be expected to know the difference between the preposition and the conjunction. Moreover, I doubt very much whether you can use "konfrontieren" in German transitively; anyway, the most current pattern in our language is: "jemanden mit etwas konfrontieren." And the following form of spelling is not justifiable either: ü-berwunden (p. 22).

This is followed by a selection of key scenes: they are discussed in German and are illustrated by photos in black and white from the film, which makes the publication attractive as to its lay-out. If the technical devices used in the film are analysed, the corresponding English vocabulary is quoted in brackets. As a glossary the teacher may use chapter 4: "Technical terms of film analysis - English and German" (pp. 131-141).

It becomes clear that the four major characters are on a journey: they want to find the body (cf. King's title) of a boy who assumedly was run over by a train a few days ago. In doing so they have to leave home, where all of them are unhappy. They have to overcome several obstacles, to face challenges (for example the junkman and his dog), to cross a dangerous bridge until they actually find the boy's body: thus they are confronted with death. Sometimes the reader is referred to chapter 5, which is going beyond the three individual films and which is entitled: "Popular Film Structure: 'The Hero's Journey'" (pp. 142-144). As to a criticism of chapters 4 and 5, cf. the review of Nick Hornby's About a Boy below.

Moreover, Hildebrand offers two reviews of the film (pp. 26-28), the first of which has a very high percentage of unknown words while the second is briefer and easier to understand. Still it is possible to use both of them in class since there are sufficient annotations: in most cases they consist of English explanations, sometimes there are also German translations.

These additional texts are followed by tasks for the whole film (pp. 28-33): for each sequence, a few questions exist. The reader is told that the answers to the questions may be derived from chapter 1.1; the correct number of this reference would be 1.3. Sometimes there are elliptical answers which have been printed in italics. However, the answer to the last question concerning sequence 8 is printed in normal type (p. 29), which is just a formal error.

Part of this section is a worksheet concerning characterization (pp. 30-31); it can be used like a character file or a flow chart: the different columns may be filled in step by step just as there is a progression in class concerning the discussion of the film. The worksheet also includes a vocabulary list which may help the learners to characterize the major figures. Besides, the students are expected to interpret the content of the film and to analyse the devices of "film language". To my mind, the term "film language" is somewhat misleading: Hildebrand wants the learners to speak about the technical devices used by the film director and their effects: the technical terms indispensable for that purpose are not to be found in the film but are applied to it. What the pupils have to learn, then, is not "film language" but the language of film criticism.

Next the reception process is dealt with (pp. 32-33). After the presentation of the film, there is a collection of first impressions, an analysis of reviews (also as a part of written tests) and a production of own reviews. As a preparatory step, material should be classified according to positive and negative aspects.

Another large part consists of a vocabulary list for all sequences of the film (pp. 34-42). There are annotations in English and in German, and they include allusions to American films, sports, institutions and explanations of informal as well as of vulgar language. Some may be unnecessary, for example structure words like probably, thus, except, though, almost or elementary lexical items like hero, polite, far, peace, lovely, illegal, to rest, dear, to earn. Unfortunately the author never uses phonetic transcription. Yet in general, his annotations are undoubtedly helpful for the comprehension of the film and certainly also helpful in order to improve the students' proficiency in the English language.

With these elements in mind, the following steps for classroom procedure are thinkable. First the teacher has to check comprehension, for example by using a fill-in-exercise, summaries of a sequence, or a complete transcription of separate scenes: this may result from public work in the learning group or from individual work by the students. Global comprehension may also be checked with the help of closed questions.

Next the students' receptive skills of viewing and listening should be developed. In this context, the section entitled "Vocabulary" is useful. It seems that, unlike many didacticians, Hildebrand does not underestimate the difficulties of film comprehension. The same procedure can be seen in the annotations of additional material. However, comprehension is the necessary basis for interpretation, which is supposed to focus both on the content of selected key scenes and a formal analysis of cinematographic devices. For the latter purpose, the teacher may introduce technical terms from the glossary mentioned above.

Evaluation
The problems connected with the linguistic dimension, i.e. with the learning of the target language, are taken very seriously. In spite of some minor aspects of criticism, the annotations given are very valuable in order to encourage an active use of the target language. As to methodological procedure, it is not quite satisfactory: the author more or less always recommends the same steps in the discussion of the key scenes. In this chapter of the monograph, the reader will find some basic ideas which are close to teaching practice. Since these are also recommended with the other two films discussed in Hildebrand's book, it leads to the undesirable impression that Hildebrand advocates something like a formalized approach to film teaching. Instead, to my mind, more variety would be desirable. Otherwise the students might lose interest in what should be a motivating medium for them.



2. Dead Poets Society (1989)

This film was directed by Peter Weir, who is also responsible for such well-known productions as The Truman Show (see my review in "Films critical of society") and Picnic at Hanging Rock, which deals with another teenage tragedy occurring at a private school in Australia (as to a brief characterization of the novel see "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 10"). The film, in which Robin Williams plays the role of Keating and which was released in 1989 already, has won attention in several publications. However, there is only one fully developed teaching model on the didactic market (cf. below). This has been reviewed by Graham Wilson.


Engelbert Thaler, Dead Poets Society. EinFach Englisch: Unterrichtsmodell. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2003.


Like others of its kind, this volume in the well-known Schöningh series deals with a popular film which will no doubt motivate pupils and teachers to include it in their choice of something to be dealt with in class.

Engelbert Thaler certainly has a good point in his preliminary considerations when he says that Dead Poets Society (DPS) was not exactly a contender for the hall of fame of the cinema – it is too conventional and avoids major problem categories such as race, gender or politics. Nevertheless, as he also points out, such films that do tackle these areas might be far too difficult for FL classrooms. He recommends the film for several reasons, some of which are the possibility of practicing all four major skills and the additional skill of viewing comprehension; its use for practical film analysis; its possible additional background material of school and the American education system; and its general topics of peer group pressures and self identity, realism and idealism, life and death, all of which could interest pupils. Thaler also quotes several other useful teaching guides and materials for Dead Poets Society, both in print and online, as well as editions of the film and the extra possibilities the DVD offers over video – all of which is a refreshing difference to other models in this series.

A brief synopsis of the film, brief descriptions of the characters and of the actors who play the roles, an overview of the scenes with the timer settings of the DVD, together with the unusually thorough preliminary considerations already mentioned form an impressive start to this book.

The sequence is conceived on the basis of six premises: the analysis of the film and not the book, a broad selection of pupil-oriented tasks, content before form, the avoidance of unnecessary and time-consuming analytical discussion, the setting of clear and relevant aims, and the inclusion of more open approaches. Thaler therefore splits this sequence into five components.

Component 1 deals with the first third of the film and gives the pupils the opportunity to analyse setting, characters, themes by intensive viewing of short film segments interspersed with questions. The tasks during freeze frame stages and the introduction to cinematic techniques in Component One is extremely thorough. In the first 9-minute segment, Thaler recommends the use of freeze frame with various questions a total of eleven times, giving the pupils a deep insight into the setting and resulting in a homework task of 100 words on the characterization of the six boys. In the next 11-minute sequence, the pupils are introduced to cinematic techniques by means of a worksheet which introduces aspects such as symbolism, atmosphere, montage, foreshadowing, etc. A third lesson deals with Keating’s "Pritchard Poetry Lesson" and requires the pupils to differentiate between realism and romanticism. The next 9-minute sequence of the film is the cave scene, which is covered by group work in class with a variety of tasks.

I have included detail here in the discussion of Component One as this book offers, in my opinion, one of the most useful introductions to film analysis I have seen, and most certainly in this Schöningh series.

Component 2 deals with poems used and read in the film, both in Keating’s classes and in the cave scenes in which the DPS meets; the aim here is to break down many pupils’ aversion to poetry. This is a component I personally am not very happy with at all. It is true that poetry does play an important role in the film, but whether it is useful for the understanding of the film to deal with five poems from it, is debatable. This is particularly so because the method used is absolutely traditional and breaks with the otherwise refreshingly innovative character of this teaching guide: "read the poem … consult the dictionary … what does the poet intend? … does the poem appeal to you?" I wonder whether 16 to 18-year-old pupils would feel comfortable presenting their results "in dem zur Höhle umgewandelten Klassenzimmer" which reflects the secret meeting of the DPS in a cave – "dazu muss lediglich der Raum verdunkelt werden; ein Tisch wird in der Mitte platziert, auf den ein weißes Tuch gelegt wird; ein großer Kerzenständer sorgt für quasi-romantische Atmosphäre" (p. 36).

Component 3 deals with the main part of the film (45 minutes), which should be shown en bloc without pauses, with a variety of viewing tasks to avoid passive consumption and to incease the general understanding of the film. Whereas the emphasis in Component 1 was on intensive viewing, here it is extensive viewing. Thaler suggests project-oriented group work, and there are five attractive, photocopiable worksheets. These worksheets deal with Keating’s followers and antagonists, and pupils are asked to look for language, content, points of view, behaviour, mood of the main characters throughout this part of the film.

This should be completed at home and then discussed in the classroom in what I would call a pyramid technique, and which Thaler calls "Gruppenpuzzles". Pupils who have dealt with the same worksheet discuss their findings together first, and then the groups are mixed to form groups of five in which there is one person who has worked on each of the separate worksheets. In the final phase the findings are discussed in plenum. Each phase should last 15 minutes. In my opinion, the tasks on the worksheets would indeed lead pupils to a better understanding of the film and do build on the analytical skills acquired in Component 1.

Component 4 concentrates on the climax and end of the film: the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Neil’s suicide and Keating's being suspended from school, all of which are intended to provoke a subjective reaction from the pupils. Here the emphasis is on atmosphere and symbolism, again with an attractive worksheet. Finally, the pupils are led towards the so-called "Oh Captain, my Captain" scene in which Keating is dismissed and has to leave the classroom. The emphasis is on the pupils’ reactions to the behaviour of the various characters and the groups of characters that are either strongly pro- or strongly anti-Keating.

Component 5 is a post-viewing phase in which the pupils should work in their own time on a variety of tasks and which can be shortened according to time available and pupil interest. There is a choice of 12 project tasks, each with a worksheet, including a mock trial, a debate, open questions for discussion (such as "Should teachers encourage nonconformism among their students?" or "Would you like to attend a school like Welton Academy?"), guided discussions on reality versus idealism, conformity versus freedom, and a good project on "Comparison Book – Film" with a detailed section from Chapter 14 (Neil’s suicide). If the class is using the DVD version of the film, there are also projects on deleted scenes, the audio commentary, and the trailer. To many of these projects there are also Thaler’s suggestions as to what he might expect from the pupils.

The book is rounded off with a list of possible internet sources and an extensive bibliography (very unusual in this series) with 15 titles, including other articles and study guides which are available, like Hans-Georg Krapf’s Aschendorffs Vokabularien to the book or the perhaps better-known book by Wolf Liebelt, published by the Landesmedienstelle Niedersachsen. Finally (although this is on pages 14-19 in the fashion of the series), there are suggestions for two written tests (Klausuren), the first of which is a viewing test of a five-minute film sequence towards the middle of the film which has been dealt with in less detail in Component 3 – a good application of what has been learnt in Components 1 and 3 – and the second of which is an analysis of a film review.

In conclusion, I must confess that I would not normally choose Dead Poets Society for use in the FL classroom as I regard it as Hollywood schlock of the worst kind. However, this teaching guide has made me think again, especially when one considers the way in which the pupils are guided in the film analysis, and when one considers that the film would be suitable, with this teaching guide, for German pupils of grade 10 and above. As Thaler implies in his considerations, it is not necessarily the content of the film but what you can do with it that is the more important aspect. If I did use the film in class, I would use this excellent teaching guide. And I would encourage Engelbert Thaler to produce more of this calibre, such as the one in this series which deals with Monty Python (see my review in the file entitled : "Miscellaneous").

Graham Wilson


Two earlier publications on the film Dead Poets Society may be mentioned:


Lucille Grindhammer, "Hollywood in the English Language Classroom: 'The Dead Poets Society'", in: Neusprachliche Mitteilungen aus Wissenschaft und Praxis 46 (1993), pp. 244-250, reprinted in: Englisch betrifft uns, Heft 3 (1997), pp. 22-30.

Wolfgang Liebelt (Hrsg.), Der Film 'Dead Poets Society' im Englischunterricht. Arbeitshilfen, Filmkritiken, Aufsätze. Hannover: Niedersächsisches Landesinstitut für Fortbildung und Weiterbildung im Schulwesen, 1996. [In this volume the above article by Grindhammer was again reprinted in a slightly revised form: cf. pp. 61-19 and pp. 36-37.]


One has to realize that Grindhammer's article first appeared almost 15 years ago. In 1993 it was still the custom to use full-length films as a supplement to textual analysis and for entertainment rather than for serious language learning purposes. In this contribution the author develops a form of classroom procedure which resembles the successive reading and discussion of a novel. She suggests dividing each film into 15-minute segments, which means that Dead Poets Society (length: 124 minutes) is divided into eight segments. One 45-minute-lesson is devoted to each segment.

Of course, this is a procedure which is not the same as film viewing as a leisure activity, but it takes into account the fact that film comprehension is complicated for foreign language learners even if Dead Poets Society is without difficult regional dialects. In order to facilitate the comprehension of this film in the target language, Grindhammer pleads for the pre-teaching of key vocabulary. Besides, she recommends pair work, group work, and the groups' reporting back to the class.

Moreover, Grindhammer differentiates between listing, describing, analysing, and assessing activities. As to classroom procedure in general, then, she aims at a high degree of variety. From the fact that this article has been reprinted twice, it may be concluded that it has been quite influential.


Liebelt's publication starts from quite a different assumption: first of all the author's students have four weeks' time in order to pre-read the novel. In doing so they are recommended to use the Vokabularien published by Aschendorff (editor: Hans Georg Krapf, 2nd edition, 2002). After that the film is shown by using a kind of stop-and-go procedure: film segments of 10-15 minutes are presented to the learners which are dealt with immediately afterwards in class. Thus listening to and viewing the film is preceded by reading the text, which certainly makes film comprehension easier.

Still Liebelt points out that the presentation of the film took about 10 lessons since many scenes had to be shown twice. Ultimately this project, which was tried out in form 11, entailed a systematic comparison of the book and the film and lasted about thirty lessons. It included not only a discussion of the content of the film but also a discussion of the film as film, that is, it also dealt with an introduction of selected technical terms for analysis.

Besides, Liebelt comments upon the literary allusions to Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, Thoreau, etc., which occur both in the film and in the book and which are not mentioned in Thaler's teaching model. Moreover, he mentions that Keating has a model in reality: his figure was inspired by the unorthodox teacher Sam Pickering. As a whole, this volume, then, offers interesting and valuable material.



3. Muriel's Wedding (1994)

Australia is a country which unfortunately still plays a minor role in Foreign Language Teaching (FLT). However, similar to South African literature, some Australian novels have been edited for teaching purposes, for example Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (Langenscheidt-Longman), Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi (Klett) or Garry Disher's The Apostle Bird (Reclam) or The Divine Wind (Diesterweg). Summaries of them all may be found on this homepage (cf. "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 10").

Günter Burger has taken many pains to pave the way for the use of feature films in advanced FLT. He published a general article on the subject in 1995 (cf. note below). Apart from that, he has recommended at least four films from different countries for teaching purposes. He has suggested a famous Hollywood blockbuster, namely Chinatown (1974), a British film about the conflict in Northern Ireland, namely The Crying Game (1992), a film belonging to the so-called Independent American Cinema, entitled Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995; cf. below). In his most recent contribution, he writes about an Australian film, entitled Muriel's Wedding, which, in his opinion, represents the most important film by director P.J. Hogan so far (p. 38).

To my mind, it is very important for the foreign language learners not to see Hollywood productions only, which are often full of clichés and usually possess predictable plots with a happy ending. Maltby/Craven point out that things defining Hollywood's function as entertainment are musical routines, car chases, screen kisses, the spectacular, the star presence, etc. It is small wonder that such scenes "become the greatest obstacles to dealing critically with the movies themselves" (p. 28). Elsewhere the authors state that "Hollywood has ... remained the same ... producing the maximum pleasure for the maximum number for the maximum profit" (p. 6). Hollywood, then, is a profit-seeking industry: its aesthetic is a commercial one (p. 7).

The film Muriel's Wedding is different in several respects. It was released in 1994 and immediately became very successful. The title hero Muriel Heslop is an outsider who has escaped into her own world. Considering herself as "stupid, fat, and useless", she is dreaming of getting married in order to overcome this status. In this respect, Muriel may be compared to the protagonist in Bridget Jones's Diary or to young Angela in American Beauty. (Both films are also discussed on this homepage.) Ultimately she gets married, but this becomes a mere business affair for her, nothing but a bargain. In general, the protagonist and her family are no models of virtue: once Muriel is arrested for stealing, her father is an influential, but corrupt politician, who cheats his wife. Other characters in the film are Muriel's friends, her group.

She starts her self-finding process with the help of music when she takes part in a musical contest and becomes the winner by interpreting an ABBA hit (namely "Waterloo" by the famous Swedish pop singers, who are also successful as "oldies"). This is her first rewarding experience, which ushers in a long and complicated process of self-discovery. In a sense, this production is an Australian film about initiation.

As to classroom procedure, Burger starts with an interesting thesis. Again he pleads for a successive presentation of the film in class by dividing it into several segments (p. 39); but this time he recommends a different kind of stop-and-go procedure since - in contrast to the above mentioned papers - the teacher is not expected to make a combined use of film and filmscript (i.e. of the so-called "sandwich method"). This is perhaps due to the fact that Muriel's Wedding is now available on the rather new medium DVD, which means that the teacher may add L 2 subtitles to the film presentation whenver he thinks it necessary to ease comprehension. Moroever, in the reception of the film, L 2 subtitles are said to increase memorization of vocabulary (p. 37). In other words, according to Burger's standpoint, the multi-layered perception of film and text intensifies the acquisition of new vocabulary.

However, technological progress is one thing and methodological effectiveness another. First of all, in practice the reading of subtitles may be rather disturbing since they are shown as textual fragments which often do not correspond to sense units. Secondly, the danger is that the text is very likely to capture learner attention. The situation is reminiscent of the audio-visual method in the late 1960s and 1970s when the pupils had to listen to an audiotape with their books open, in which they could read the text of the dialogues and see their illustrations simultaneously. At that time, as a rule, the class concentrated on reading.

Therefore I think that the learners should concentrate on either the film or the text. If both of them are shown, the demands on the perceptual level are extremely high, and as a result, listening is neglected. Therefore subtitles may ease comprehension but the double burden on the visual channel means that the recipients concentrate on reading at the expense of the most basic of all four skills, namely listening comprehension. (Thaler, p. 207; cf. note below). Using L 2 subtitles may be appropriate in cases of emergency whenever scenes are very difficult, perhaps because of the Australian accent. As a regular or permanent procedure it is not acceptable.

Nevertheless vocabulary acquisition has to play an important role in film teaching, and this does not concern film terminology only. Thus Burger would like the teacher to choose keywords from the film which are meant to become integral parts of the learners' active vocabulary (p. 41). He also recommends that the pupils guess the meaning of unknown words from the context and that inference is followed by a checking of the result in a defining dictionary (p. 42). This may imply interruptions in the reception of the film, but, without any doubt, such a procedure will improve the memorization of hitherto unknown lexical items.

Comprehension has to be followed by tasks which promote the productive skills. In order to make these fruitful Burger wants the teacher to give tasks before the viewing of the film segments (p. 39). In this case, he argues it is possible to discuss either the film in terms of itself or put it into a context about "wedding culture" (p. 39). In addition, the learners might do research work about the Australian school system and/or about tourism in Australia (p. 41). With such an approach some intercultural aspects become relevant.

Moreover, Burger recommends analysing the role of music (p. 40). In the film, several ABBA songs are played, and therefore it may be attractive for the students to find out in which way they relate to the film. In order to encourage written comments, according to the author, the course members might consult the internet: some quotations by the director or by reviewers of the film might serve as meaningful stimuli. In his article, Burger offers such material in different tables (p. 40 and p. 41). Creative tasks also represent an opportunity for text production, for which the author gives some examples only (p. 40).

As a pre-viewing task, he advises the teacher to show an advert or a poster to the learners and to have them describe possible expectations of the audience. As a post-viewing task, the students could be asked to continue the film story in a follow-up text. Another recommendation is to transform some scenes of the film into a typical Hollywood production (with Julia Roberts as Muriel for example; cf. p. 39).

To conclude: there is a rich gamut of methodological suggestions which refer both to the content of the film and to vocabulary acquisition. Since feature films have become part of some new curricula, their use will increase in importance in class where video or large TV screens have turned out to be very useful. Burger's is an excellent article which might help teachers a great deal.


Günter Burger, "Fiktionale Filme im fortgeschrittenen Englischunterricht", Die Neueren Sprachen 94:6 (1995), pp. 592-608.

Günter Burger, "White wedding fantasies. Der Spielfilm Muriel's Wedding", Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht 1 (2007), pp. 37-42.

Richard Maltby/Ian Craven. Hollywood Cinema. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Engelbert Thaler, "Film-based Language Learning", Praxis Fremdsprachenunterricht 4:1 (2007), pp. 9-14.




4. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

This film, directed by Todd Solondz, was released in 1995 and is now available both on VHS video and on DVD (its running time being 87 minutes). Although it is about the problems of a 12-year-old girl in school and at home, it is very funny and has been classified as a dark comedy. Since the learners are only some years older than the protagonist and since they have to face similar problems in growing up, it is easy for them to identify with her. In other words, any initiation process is combined with problems of identity formation.

This film was recommended for FLT by Günter Burger in 2001. Rather than being a typical Hollywood production, according to the author, "Welcome to the Dollhouse", is a so-called "US Independent Film" (p. 107), which has no happy ending. In his article, he pleads for the use of feature films without a literary basis which, however, should be quality products (p. 111). At the same time, he argues, films chosen for FLT should not be too difficult in linguistic respect. In this case, he recommends the combined use of the film script and the film in order to facilitate comprehension, which means that difficult scenes are prepared at home by silent reading before they are shown in class. This kind of pre-teaching is characteristic of what Burger has called the "sandwich method": it is a particular kind of stop-and-go procedure concerning the reception of a film in which reading some scenes from the script and viewing the same scenes in the film are meant to supplement each other (p. 108).

The presentation of individual scenes is to be followed by open classroom discussions during which the students are expected to voice opinions of their own: classroom work, then, focuses on personal responses rather than on analytical categories. Apart from oral work, Burger also recommends tasks for text production. For example, the students may be expected to fulfil many creative tasks, such as to write a review or a script consisting of a different outcome of the film. And they are also asked to work independently in small groups or teams, i.e. to do some research work on the internet concerning the director and the actors/actresses of the film, possible interviews and other relevant material about which they have to report back to the class. Burger concludes his contribution by listing many practical steps for classroom procedure, which refer to as many as 18 lessons (pp. 110-111). And it is only in the end that the students will be given an opportunity to view the whole film at one sitting (p. 110).


Günter Burger, "Die Leiden eines junior high school misfit. Vorschläge für den Einsatz des Spielfilms 'Welcome to the Dollhouse'", in: Fremdsprachenunterricht 54 (2001), pp. 107-112.




5. Billy Elliot (2000)

There is only one recently published teaching guide on the market:


Sabine Struß. 'Billy Elliot'. Film Studies in the Classroom. With copymasters. Berlin: Cornelsen, 2006. Including a CD-ROM "At the Cutting Edge. An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis."


The following review was written by Graham Wilson in 2007.

This attractive teaching aid is one volume in the growing Cornelsen series in the area of film studies in the foreign language classroom. As with all the volumes in the series, it is accompanied by a CD-ROM ("At the Cutting Edge – An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis"), which will also be discussed below.

The volume begins with a brief introduction as to why this particular British social realism film is worth considering in the classroom (p. 4), although the reasons given could apply to almost any film. It also includes a list of the cast of the Stephen Daldry film which unfortunately fails to include the characters Billy Elliot and his dance teacher, Mrs Wilkinson, two of the most important characters. A brief but succinct account of the plot (p. 5) is followed by a useful overview and short discussion of the themes (coming of age, gender roles, social class, the background of the miners’ strike in 1984, the language/dialect in the film) (pp. 5-6).

There is a very thorough index of the film sequences (pp. 10-16) with time settings, location/chapter descriptions, characters/action and cinematic devices.

The main part of the volume is taken up with the 10 suggested modules for use in class, namely: pre-viewing, presentation of the film, questions on the film, content check, characters, analysis and interpretation, clash of values, cinematic devices, background: the strike, post-viewing. In other words, after a series of pre-viewing activities, the film is to be presented as a whole before it is split into scenes for closer analysis. There is a very clear flow-chart of the sequence and the modules on page 9, and we are also assured that these ideas have all been tried and tested (p. 4).

There is one suggestion for a written test (pp. 64-65) based on the audition scene in the film (of 5-6 minutes). The pupils are required to a) summarize the sequence, b) describe how Billy feels (quoting examples), c) analyse how Billy’s emotional state is conveyed in a given still, and d) imagine they are Billy. Alternative scenes from the film are cited which would also serve as a possibility for a test.

The fairly extensive bibliography (pp. 66-67) is split into four sections: "The Film", "The Socio-cultural Background", "Basic Film Analysis", and "Film in the EFL Classroom". There are a total of 27 books, internet sources and journal articles.

The volume ends with "selected terms for film analysis" (which seems to be common to all the volumes in the series) – an illustrated list of vocabulary and definitions for camera angles, perspectives, etc., plus editing and other relevant terms (pp. 68-72).

Struß stresses the importance of the use of the DVD version in contrast to the video version, as the teacher and pupils can jump freely and easily to the chapters and scenes for closer analysis. She also recommends the use of subtitles. This is, of course, a controversial matter in itself as subtitles often detract from the visual and linguistic effects of the film. In this case, however, the argument is that of comprehension in scenes which have a stronger (northern) accent than pupils might be used to. Struß’s idea of using of English subtitles (which might detract from the images but would at least keep the focus on the English language) is therefore a very good compromise. I suppose it is better to use subtitles rather than shy away from an infinitely suitable film for pupils which might otherwise be considered "too difficult".

Struß’s main didactic principle is to create an understanding of film as a multisensory production, "ein plurimedialer Text", using a combination of text, music, images, scenes and (in this particular film) dance as self-expression. For example, Billy’s first clandestine encounters with dance and the music which accompanies them portray a new form of self-expression on the one hand, but also a departure from the northern English, working-class, mining-community situation of his family ("Ballet is for girls, not for lads. Lads do football or boxing or wrestling, not frigging ballet"). To achieve the pupils’ understanding of this important concept in (critical) media literacy, Struß suggests a "building block" system which leads to a sequence of 10 modules (with a total of 21 worksheets which can be used in varying combinations).

All of the modules with their integral parts and worksheets are discussed thoroughly (cf. pp. 17-32) before the worksheets themselves are presented. This is a good idea. Some teaching guides try to integrate the didactic/pedagogical discussion of the sequence/modules at hand and give the worksheets straight away. This can lead to a failure to truly comprehend why the author has employed a specific worksheet or teaching technique and its place in the overall development of a sequence of lessons. Here they are all discussed with the didactic principles behind them, plus interesting alternatives in some cases with useful internet sources, and often with expectations on the part of the teacher.

The 21 worksheets themselves, which can of course all be photocopied, are given on pages 33-63, usually with photographs (stills from the film) or other attractive visual devices. Some of them can be used in more than one module. Examples here will suffice to give the reader an impression concerning the diversity of tasks and materials offered.

Pre-viewing activities include reading a review, looking at a poster and a mind-map to predict what the film might be about and whether the individual pupil might like to see it. One worksheet (WS 4) is devoted to comprehension questions on the text after the whole film has been watched (ideally in one sitting); here content but also impressions and emotions are covered. As a further section, the content is examined again in worksheets 5 and 6; in these worksheets (which are probably intended more as while-watching tasks) important quotations have to be put into context and matched with film stills.

Other highlights in the worksheets include those for characterization (worksheets 7, 8 and 15), in which groups fill in attractive sheets for Billy, Billy’s father Jacky, his brother Tony, and his dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson. Further tasks include making sociograms for character constellations. Other worksheets demand writing interior monologues to match images and music, creative writing from different perspectives, analysing the film music and the emotions it evokes, or gap filling of dialogue episodes. There is even language analysis ("the way they talk" in WS 14) in terms of choice of words, sentence structure and pronunciation, which gives the pupils an impression of language and its relation to social class. Many worksheets have relevant language help, such as vocabulary for debate, for comparison and contrast, or for camera techniques.

Weaknesses in the worksheets are, firstly, the somewhat unimaginative "standard" tasks for post-watching (dialogues, letters, mindmaps, haikus), although one interesting task asks the pupils to decide whether they think it is a "feel-good movie" (thinking about, in part, music and its influence on perception and mood).

Secondly, the module on the background of the coal miners’ strike in 1984 is flat and uninteresting (dry texts and tables on the decline of the coal mining industry in the north of England) – it would have been much more important to give the pupils an impression of the community- and family-splitting consequences of the strike and Thatcher’s stand against it (plus allegations of police brutality) by including newspaper reports of the time. This would have been relevant as some of the consequences are seen in the film when Billy’s brother has a vicious argument with his father or when Billy’s father decides to break the picket lines and become a strike breaker to be able to pay for Billy’s journey to London to be able to attend an audition. This is particularly important since the pupils are expected (on WS 18) to debate the pros and cons of the strike.
Although it is suggested that the pupils find material on the internet beforehand, I ask myself in how far 18-year-old German pupils can be expected to do this when they a) have only very little idea of the importance of mining for the north of England, b) have only background information on the geographical decline of the coal industry and c) did not experience at least some of the vehemence, violence and hate it generated. Some families and communities were split down the middle and have still not recovered to this day. This is not primarily a film about such struggles (unlike, perhaps a film such as Brassed Off), but if it is to be included as relevant, then it should convince.

A further criticism I would like to make could also cause some controversy: I also ask myself why so much of the volume has to be in German (the introductory sections for the teacher pp. 1-32) – a problem in "Fachdidaktik der englischen Sprache" in general.

One the whole, though, this volume does justice to its aims. I get the impression that the pupils will indeed understand film as a multisensory production, using a combination of text, music, images, scenes; and I get the impression that they will be in a position to critically evaluate the film and its production techniques in correct and adequate English.

Finally, I would like to include a few remarks about the CD-ROM "At the Cutting Edge – An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis", which accompanies all the volumes in this series. This self-access disk is intended to give the user a full understanding of films, their production and their cinematic devices in a personalised study programme. The content is divided into manageable and interesting units and makes use of text, images, video and audio sequences from a variety of films (e.g. Billy Elliot, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, Much Ado about Nothing).

The project can be worked on by several pupils (each user logs in and stores his/her own work) and each individual can work in the order he/she finds best. There is a very extensive glossary with helpful (and understandable!) definitions, often with cross references to film material. The programme also includes sections on study help (e.g. writing summaries, mind-mapping, note-taking), or the user can go online directly to the Cornelsen film studies website, and even import material from other programmes and projects. If taken seriously by the pupils, the CD offers a comprehensive aid to film studies.

However, there are one or two aspects I would like to criticise. This programme has to be made available to all pupils, and one presumes that all pupils possess a PC of their own or have at least almost unlimited access to one at school – which is not always the case. Secondly, it would, in my opinion, be useful for the pupils to use this CD before they watch a film such as Billy Elliot, otherwise the learning effect would be more limited – but, when? There is no mention or use of the CD in the volume discussed, and the impression is really that the publishers have added the CD without giving much indication as to its relevance and use for this particular film. Furthermore, the pupils are asked to write and listen and watch, and they can store their own personal results on the harddrive – but who is to check them and when? This is a comment which could be applied to all computer material in foreign language teaching. It is certainly a useful tool, but pupils (and teachers) might need more help to make optimum usage of it.


Graham Wilson



6. Finding Forrester (2000)

At present there is only one teaching model available for this film:


Horst Mühlmann/Werner Schneider, Film Studies in the Classroom. 'Finding Forrester'. A film by Gus van Sant. Analysis - Reflection - Evaluation. Berlin: Cornelsen, 2006. Including a CD-ROM "At the Cutting Edge. An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis."


The following review was again written by Graham Wilson in 2007.

This film studies guide at last draws teachers’ attention to an admirably suitable film for the German Oberstufe with its relevant themes of friendships between generations, honesty and integrity, interpersonal values, sports and achievements in general, American education, and American values. The authors have set themselves a demanding goal:


... bei der Filmanalyse sollen S[chülerInnen] nicht kleinschrittige Listen von Analyseaufgaben abarbeiten. Vielmehr möchten wir arbeitsmotivierende Impulse zur sachgerechten Analyse des Films anbieten – als Hilfe und Anregungen zu selbstständiger Schülerarbeit auf der Basis der vier textanalystischen Grundfragen unter Berücksichtigung der angebotenen Tools (p. 14).


This review will ask whether, in the opinion of the reviewer, this has been successful.


The book is split into manageable and meaningful sections: Basics, Tools, Practice (pre-analysis, analysis, post-analysis), Test Papers, Bibliography, and Film Studies Extra.


1. Basics
The first part of this section is devoted to "understanding how a film is made" and is a set of five worksheets (WS 1A-1E) concerning the most important people who make a film and exactly what they do: the director, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, and the actor. The aim is to make the pupils realize that a film is the result of teamwork (a "collaborative venture" to quote Sidney Lumet). The worksheets are a set of brief and understandable descriptions of these five jobs and the specific people for this particular film.

This is an interesting idea as pupils are all too often expected to talk about films without much of this very basic knowledge. It also helps to integrate an understanding of the opening credits, which are often neglected in classrooms. However, this is an activity which demands little of the pupils. What should the pupils do with this information? The authors suggest groups which could discuss and comment on this ("erläutern und erörtern" (p. 6), but without explaining how they think this should be done. Brief reference is made to extras on the DVD, but no real use is made of them and no tasks set.

The second part of "Basics" is about "analysing a feature film", centred around the four analytical basic questions mentioned above, namely:
i) What is the film about? (content),
ii) How is the text presented? (form),
iii) What does the text mean? (meaning),
iv) What significance does the film have for me, the viewer? (significance). This is a frame of reference also used by Mühlmann in his article about the use of the film Erin Brockovich in FLT; cf. "Films critical of society", review no. 6. The basic premise is that analysing a film is like analysing any printed text, except that the film is much more multifaceted. This is defined and explained by the authors.

Unfortunately, the pupils have still not been given any concrete task. Vague reference is made to one of the scenes (with no DVD time reference), and the authors suggest the teacher might like to talk about the relevance of this scene.


2. Tools
This section (including worksheets 3-6) introduces the pupils to relevant vocabulary for film analysis. WS3 deals with camerawork, using explanations with the relevant vocabulary highlighted and with good illustrative stills from the film. WS4 gives vocabulary "in context", in other words, referring directly to this film and with complete phrases – the danger of which should be clear to most teachers: we do not want to produce a generation of pupils who learn these phrases by heart and can then use them in all contexts. WS5 gives relevant general vocabulary from the film in English and German translation; there are only 37 items, but in my opinion, pupils should already know many of them (e.g. dare, DVD time reference, facial expression, neighborhood, peer, prep school, rap, test scores, etc.) WS6 gives references of "places and names" mentioned in the film (e.g. Babe Ruth, Edgar Allan Poe, Madison Square Garden, etc.)

This is certainly a useful set of worksheets with some necessary vocabulary, although one could argue about the phrases. But it would surely have been more practical for the learning process if the pupils had researched most of these names and places themselves or had produced their own vocabulary and phrase lists. Of course, the teacher can do this and has a ready-made checking system in the worksheets produced in the book.


3. Practice
i. Pre-analysis
Now that the preliminary tools have been given, the pupils should be expected to apply that knowledge to some practical analysis of the film. WS7 (pp. 21-23) gives the detailed analysis of the 28 DVD chapters of the film ("The story of the film in 28 chapters"). This is a useful and necessary help for all, especially for the teacher as a quick reference, and has become a feature of teachers’ guides dealing with films.

The next section deals with the characters, an important section as the film is defined as being character-driven. The section concentrates mainly on the four main characters (Forrester, Jamal, Robert Crawford and Claire Spence), and it is suggested that pupils can examine these characters with a view to themes such as the American Dream, friendship, education, peer pressure, etc.
Exactly how (or even why) the pupils should do this is not indicated, and no specific tasks are suggested by the authors. Instead, they write of different forms of classroom procedure ("unterschiedliche Arbeitsformen"), or selected film sequences of particular thematic significance ("ausgewählte Filmsequenzen von besonderer thematischer Bedeutung") or transferable examples ("transferfähige Beispiele") (p. 24). The idea is clearly autonomous group work, but the teacher must guide the pupils in some way, and one wonders why he has bought this book if it is of little help in that matter.

Nevertheless, very detailed analyses are given (pp. 25-31) which are presumably the transferable examples mentioned, but such precise and complete detail could only be expected from exceptional pupils in my opinion.
In other words, we have now reached page 32 (the exact middle of the book) and have seen 7 worksheets, and the pupils have as yet been given no specific task. The final section in the "pre-analysis" stage: WS8 is a good viewing log grid, which can be photocopied for the pupils; WS9 has a very detailed analysis of the opening credits of the film (the first three and a half minutes of the film, based on the four basic analytical questions of the book); WS10 does the same for the next 60 seconds of the film ("Introducing Jamal Wallace"); and WS11 for "teaching basketball", a three-minute sequence which occurs well into the film. These are only suggestions on the part of the authors, and pupils and teacher together have to pick their own sequences to analyse. Again, the examples given would need extremely competent pupils. Further, I find it unusual to put such material in the pre-analytical section. The pupils are already analysing as they go along.

ii. Analysis
At last (on page 41), the authors begin to give some concrete suggestions for work on the film in the form of what they call "impulses". Pupils can discuss characters, using mind maps such as the example on page 41 to express relationships between the characters, and other concrete suggestions for work with mind maps are given on page 42. WS12 deals with aspects of the American Dream, with a grid for pupils to fill in. The next section, entitled "Writing Creatively" deals with the topic of creative writing in the film, and pupils are expected to find scenes/chapters under headings such as "prerequisites of writing", "writing autonomously", etc. (the answers to which are given to the teacher on p. 45).
As I had hoped, the pupils are then encouraged to apply the knowledge gained from the film to undertake their own practice in creative writing. Suggestions are given in WS13 (pp. 46-47) and include letter writing and essay topics on "topics, symbols, leitmotifs". I do find it disappointing, though, that analyses and essay topics such as Claire’s relationship with Jamal or an analysis of the sound track should be under the heading of creative writing. Many of the topics suggested are in fact of traditional analytical mode. The next section deals with the language styles of the main characters, and the authors give a very observant summary for the teacher, plus a grid to help the pupils with an analysis. Then "quotations worth thinking about" draws the pupils’ attention to various scenes or character traits of the main characters. They are also encouraged to find their own quotations from the film and say why they think they are important. Finally in this part, "working with stills" applies the four basic questions used throughout the book to analysis of stills from the film. Three are given as a example.

iii. Post-analysis
The authors give impulses for possible tasks: "judging and writing a film review" with guidelines in the form of WS16 (a fairly conventional task); "comparing the film with the novelization", which appeared after the film - as the film script was an original work and not a literary adaptation, with one or two suggestions of what the pupils could look for (a more demanding task); "performing a film scene in class", or even writing an alternative scene to the film version (a very interesting task to make the pupils aware of how emotion can be created by the actors); and finally "evaluating a sequence of lessons on film analysis" with guidelines, which is in fact intended as a critique of teaching/classroom work on the film in question.


4. Test papers
The authors take the differing state guidelines and curricula into account and, rather than giving a sample test paper, suggest a series of chapters which could be analysed under the usual aspects of comprehension, analysis, comment. The authors also give an extract from Willy Russell’s introduction to the 1983 edition of Educating Rita, which deals with the problem of his criticism of the critics. The pupils are then encouraged to relate this to Finding Forrester.


5. Bibliography and internet addresses
This is a disappointing collection of six titles and a further five websites (of a very general nature, such as www.film.com), and no mention is given to many of the standard works such as those by James Monaco, Knut Hickethier or Werner Faulstich.


6. Selected terms for film analysis
The volume ends with "selected terms for film analysis" (which seems to be common to all the volumes in the series) – an illustrated list of vocabulary and definitions for camera angles, perspectives, etc., plus editing and other relevant terms (pp. 60-64).

Have the authors been true to their aims (see above)? By the end of the book I had the feeling of "perhaps we’ve got there in the end after all", although the lack of concrete tasks at the beginning (which the authors would no doubt justify by saying they are imparting the tools and skills needed later) does mean that an awful lot of possibilities for the pupils to really learn by doing are wasted. The opposite of slow step-by-step procedure ("kleinschrittige Analyse") which the authors wanted to avoid should not be a nebulous walk through vocabulary and possibilities, nor would this necessarily lead to the desired autonmous students' activity ("selbstständige Schülerarbeit") if the pupils have not had practice with the tools beforehand. I admit that we can sometimes underestimate the pupils’ ability to find what is really necessary and useful to them in any work process at school, in this case film analysis, but this really only works if they are used to working absolutely autonomously. Perhaps the majority of pupils are (unfortunately) simply not ready to take their learning into their own hands to this extent, a fact which becomes apparent when many of these pupils go on to university or some other form of higher education.

On the other hand, we have to begin somewhere, and if you are the teacher who wants ready-made worksheets to (almost mindlessly) give to your pupils for them to find fill in (perhaps with just as little understanding), then you should avoid this book, and perhaps even this film. This teachers’ guide and the film are both about learning processes, and as Forrester himself says in the film “I helped him [Jamal Wallace] to find his own words by starting with some of mine” can be a good idea. However, that should not mean that the pupils are passive recipients for much of the time, which was a feeling I got with much of this book.

As to the CD-ROM "At the Cutting Edge – An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis", which accompanies all the volumes in this series, cf. my review on the teaching model George Elliot above (no. 5 in this file).


Graham Wilson



7. About a Boy (2002)


Jens Hildebrand, A LESSON IN MOVIES: 'Stand by me'/'Bend it like Beckham'/'About a Boy'. Köln: Aulis, 2005. ('About a Boy': pp. 90-130)



The third section of Hildebrand's monograph consists of the same formal parts as the two preceding ones. After a brief introduction, there is a characterization of the major figures and a survey on the film's sequences: the author distinguishes between 11 of them and 19 DVD chapters (the running time of the film is 1:32:22). This is once again followed by a section entitled "Synopsis and Interpretation".

The film is based on Nick Hornby's third novel by the same title, which became a beststeller; for a brief summary, cf. "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 4". The production was directed by the American brothers Chris and Paul Weitz and came out in 2002. In contrast to what may be expected from the title, both the book and the film deal with the problems of two persons, namely with those of the bachelor Will Freeman, who has many social deficiencies, and with those of a 12-year-old boy called Marcus Brewer. The film in particular is a combination of humour and seriousness.

On the one hand, Marcus is educated by a depressive single mother, who once tried to commit suicide. Therefore it is understandable that her son is worried about her and that at the same time he is on his search for a father substitute. On the other hand, Will Freeman may learn a lot of things from Marcus so that in the end he gives up the principle that gave shape to his life before, namely that all men are islands. Hildebrand points out that this idea, in a negative form, goes back to John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" (p. 93). Later on the students may learn that John Donne was an English poet and writer, who lived from 1572-1631 (p. 122). Hildebrand might have added that the quotation comes from his "Meditation XVII". [It is interesting to know that the statement in its original form also occurs twice in Ken Kesey's comprehensive narrative Sometimes a Great Notion (Methuen Paperbacks, 1966), p. 454 and p. 455.]

The author's "Synopsis and Interpretation" is meant to pave the way for classroom procedure. In this chapter, he gives a detailed account of the events in the film, commenting upon the feelings, the psychological problems and the development of the individual characters in the appropriate context. There can be no doubt about the fact that he possesses a good knowledge of the decisive aspects: the insights he arrives at in this chapter result from a close viewing of the film. Only once does he go beyond this approach when he points out that Will Freeman has not yet reached maturity and advises the reader to consult chapter 5 about the hero's journey in popular films (cf. below). On the whole I would say that this is the best interpretation of the three films, perhaps because of the fact that About a Boy is the most complex and most ambiguous one discussed in this book.

Unfortunately the author's language is disturbing again. For one thing, many English expressions creep into his German. To quote a few examples only:

1a) Sie leben allein, so dass seine Mutter als "music therapist" arbeiten muss (p. 93)
2a) Beide bilden in ihrem ... "coolen" Outfit ... einen deutlichen Kontrast (p. 94).
3a) Will ... wollte ... ein Date mit Suzie, einer ... "single mum" (p. 95).
4a) Er hält sie für "nuts" (p. 96).
5a) Es wird deutlich, dass Marcus ... in der Schule wie ein "loser" wirkt (p. 98).

In all these cases it is easy to use German expressions:
1b) Sie leben allein, so dass seine Mutter als Musiktherapeutin arbeiten muss.
2) Beide bilden in ihrem ... 'flotten' Äußeren ... einen deutlichen Kontrast.
3) Will ... wollte ... eine Verabredung mit Suzie, einer ... alleinerziehenden Mutter.
4) Er hält sie für verrückt/übergeschnappt.
5) Es wird deutlich, dass Marcus ... in der Schule wie ein Versager wirkt.

Similarly, in a German text, one may replace
charity by Nächstenliebe, soup kitchen by Suppenküche, deal by Abmachung, serious questions by ernsthafte Fragen, strange by seltsam.

In addition, the spelling "revangieren" (rather than "revanchieren") even according to the latest edition of Duden is not acceptable (p. 102); some pages later there is a "d" missing: rather than "wir er deutlicher" the text should run: "wird er deutlicher" (p. 105). Moroever, the separation A-bout a Boy (p. 90) is not possible in English, and the s-genitive of Marcus in English should be Marcus's (p. 97); its correct form is used later (cf. p. 117).

The next chapter deals with a selection of key sequences and their mise-en-scène. The basic procedure by the author is the same as before: this time, above all, he deals with voice-over commentaries, their effects for conveying information and irony, perspective and different elements of editing. Sometimes Hildebrand quotes from the directors' commentary on the film, unfortunately he does not give the bibliographical details of it.

The remaining parts are very similar to the first two sections of the book, too. There is an annotated review of the film, there are assignments for the whole film: this means the author offers some questions for each sequence (up to 8-9 in number), and the characters are also to be discussed in the same way. Again there is a grid (worksheet) which is to be filled in: the categories are the same as in section 2, but now the names of Jess and Jules have been replaced by Will and Marcus. This is followed by a few ideas on formal analysis, on written tests, and on reception while the vocabulary section for the film's content completes this part of the study. It is striking that the patterns used for all three films in the monograph are very similar, some textual passages are even identical.

Evaluation
All in all, the book has serious limitations. In didactic respect, there is neither a discussion of criteria for selection nor a discussion of teaching objectives. The author may have a lot of experience in teaching films, and there can be no doubt about the fact that his suggestions for classroom procedure are plausible, realistic and close to practice. However, more variety and rhythmicality would be desirable. After testing comprehension the learners are asked to verbalize the visual impressions produced by a scene, to contextualize it, to summarize the events, to answer questions concerning content and film language, to compare one scene to another scene, etc. And there is no distinction between pre-, while- and post-reading activities. Apart from a few film reviews, no additional texts are offered. Thus the imaginative scope concerning methodological devices is rather small.

Apart from his suggestions for three individual novels (cf. title), the monograph has three sections of a more general nature.

Chapter 4: Technical terms of film analysis (German and English)
There is a similar list in Film: Ratgeber für Lehrer by the same author, though in the earlier monograph the list is considerably longer. It is meant to be a reference section for the teachers that they may consult if unexpected questions by the students come up. This one is of a more basic nature: there are English terms and German explanations, sometimes illustrated by stills from the films discussed before. Among other things these terms include the different shots, camera perspectives, camera movements and problems of editing/montage. In my view, it would be best for the teachers to make themselves familiar with the whole chapter.

Chapter 5: Popular film structure: the hero's journey
All three films discussed by Hildebrand belong to the genre of initiation. This chapter, which is written in English, is based on two studies, namely:
Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (London, 2nd edition, 1988);
Joseph Campbell, Der Heros in tausend Gestalten (Frankfurt, 1999).
However, initiation cannot only be traced in myths and fairy tales as the author points out, but also in innumerable short stories and other works of fiction. The concept, originally developed in anthropology, was first transferred to literature by Peter Freese in his study:
Die Initiationsreise: Studien zum jugendlichen Helden im modernen amerikanischen Roman, first published in 1971, reprinted in 1998. Like Campbell and Vogler, he also distinguishes between three acts in the process of initiation: a) the decision to act, b) the transition stage, c) the consequences of the action. And there are other parallels with literary texts of this genre, for example the function of the mentor as a helper, some trials to be stood, the hero/ine overcoming his/her own fear, and in spite of serious losses, the hero/oine may save himself/herself and possibly mankind.

For further reading
This section consists of four books only, one of which is written by Hildebrand himself. According to my experience, in many teaching models it becomes an annoying habit of authors and publishing houses first of all to list their own productions. Perhaps some contributions to be found on the internet are quoted as well, yet the reader will hardly find any secondary sources, such as anthologies, books and articles. Very often teaching models are based on the personal experiences of one or two people only, thus they are impressionistic and subjective. So the reader may wonder whether these achieve an academic and a satisfactory standard.
In my opinion, the strength of the book lies in its vocabulary aids, its annotations for film content and its glossary concerning the basic terms of film analysis: they will certainly help to expand the students' receptive and productive skills in the target language.


Hildebrand's contribution to the teaching of About a Boy is not the only one. It was recommended for classroom use by Marion Gymnich in an article which also appeared in 2004:


Marion Gymnich, "A commitment phobic, a 12-year-old, and a dead duck. 'About a Boy'", in: Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht - Englisch 38, Heft 68 (2004), pp. 20-26.


The author draws attention to the fact that Hornby has become a cult author, that his characters often have social deficiencies which are depicted in a rather humourous way. Thus his 36-year-old protagonist Will Freeman is a commitment phobic, which is also expressed by the irony of his name. According to Gymnich, there are at least three excellent reasons for dealing with the film in FLT. Firstly, it contains a course of events which is easy to grasp. Secondly, the film builds a bridge to the students' life experience, and thirdly, it is interesting concerning the use of certain cinematographic devices (p. 20). The author deliberately avoids comparing the film and the literary text (p. 20).

Her suggestions for classroom procedure, which are based on the DVD version, consist of pre-, while- and post-viewing activities. As a pre-viewing activity the students may discuss the poster of the film/the cover of the DVD, the cast of actors, or the trailer of the film (pp. 20-21). In the latter case, they may make use of a worksheet (p. 23) in order to write down their expectations and to compare them later to their actual impressions during and after the reception of the film.

The production itself is presented in successive steps : it is divided into 15-minute segments so that it is shown in six parts (p. 21). Concerning while-activities, an analysis of the main characters and film technique is recommended (pp. 24-25). Sometimes several viewing processes are necessary: after describing the directors' devices, a discussion of their effects has to occur. Thus the progression is from extensive viewing to close viewing.

The latter also implies the use of creative writing tasks, e.g. some letters to help Marcus, changes of perspective in order to improve empathy, and diary entries. Sometimes silent viewing is recommended (vision minus sound) so that the learners first concentrate on the facial expressions, gestures and the body language of the actors and actresses.

As post-viewing tasks, the students may write a summary, which may also be part of a review, which would offer room for advancing personal opinions (p. 26). The bonus material contains more potential for discussion and text production and would make possible work in pairs and in groups. Thus the author, with good reason, comes to the conclusion that this film may be used in FLT with considerable gain. And there can be no doubt about the fact that her article is interesting and attractive for teachers and students.


In autumn 2007, the following teaching model was published:


Hansalek, Tanja and Erik, 'About a Boy'. Film Studies in the Classroom. With copymasters. Berlin: Cornelsen, 2007. Including a CD-ROM "At the Cutting Edge. An Interactive Introduction to Film Analysis."


Introduction
This teaching guide shows several characteristic features of the Cornelsen film studies. It starts with a brief appeal to the "dear colleagues", which functions as an introduction (pp. 4-5). Here the film About a Boy is classified as a "comedy-drama", whatever this nice label may mean. In addition, the reader is told that the film got an Academy Award nomination for "best writing based on material previously published". Even if the production did not actually get such an award, it won several other prizes and thus became very successful. This is evidence enough for the authors to conclude that in the film there is a combination of depth and cinematographic variety with methodological easiness and elegance (p. 4).

Moreover, they claim that About a Boy may be successfully used in FLT since

This programme undoubtedly sounds very promising and leads to rather high expectations on the part of the users.

The introduction is followed by a survey of possible lesson plans (pp. 6-7), a summary of the plot (in German; p. 8), a rather detailed scene index in the English language (pp. 9-13) and a number of questions on the film (p. 14). Undoubtedly, these parts are helpful for orientation. Besides, for practical classroom procedure, the teacher is offered several options: he may either concentrate on Will's development or the Marcus-Fiona relationship and/or the relationship between the three major characters: it is possible to concentrate on each of these aspects in isolation or to concentrate on the combination of the different aspects right from the beginning. In each case, classroom procedure is supposed to follow the chronological order of the film.
And there are many photocopiable worksheets, that is, 25 pages of so-called copymasters (pp. 38-63), there are also more worksheets online as free downloads, and there is the CD-Rom for film analysis which is attached to each of the Cornelsen film studies. Thus at first sight, everything is done for the teacher's convenience and the students' motivation.

Classroom procedure
The teaching sequence itself is introduced by several suggestions for previewing activities (pp. 15-16). Again there are several options including four different worksheets (in the following called WS for short) so that a selection will probably be indispensable if the teacher does not want to lose too much time right in the beginning. As a rule, the authors recommend coming back to certain suggestions in the end of the teaching model again; so there are a number of links between pre-viewing and post-viewing activities, which is quite a sensible procedure.
This warming-up phase is followed by a description of possible lesson plans for the different units. Later it becomes obvious that, in doing so, the authors make use of the DVD by Universal Pictures (cf. bibliography, p. 64).

Will's development and the Fiona-Marcus relationship
The major part of the teaching guide deals with the relationship of Marcus-Will and that of Marcus and his mother Fiona: these two sequences consist of 13 units each.
In the first lesson Will and Marcus are introduced; the corresponding scene from the film is presented twice, first sound minus vision, then sound plus vision. There are links to the WS 4A and WS 5B. At this stage it is Will's conviction that every man is an island - a standpoint which goes back to a poetical statement by John Donne. The students are expected to work out the relationship between this conviction and the two literary characters.
Unfortunately the authors do not offer any information about this poet and the source the quotation is taken from. Not every teacher and hardly any student will know that John Donne was an English poet, who lived from 1572-1631, who in his "Meditation XVII" maintained that "no man is an island". On the contrary, Donne was of the opinion that every man is connected to the whole world, which implies for him that human existence in isolation is meaningless. In such cases brief bio-bibliographical references might be helpful for the users of a teaching guide.

In the units 2, 3, 4, a non-stop presentation of the whole film in class is supposed to take place - if possible in a double period (cf. p.19). This is a decision which may have serious consequences. As a matter of fact, it is not examined whether the language level of the film is appropriate to the students' command of English. Perhaps the procedure may work if the students are very well familiar with the book or the German version of the film. Yet neither the book nor the film in the English language have specifically been produced with (German) language learners in mind. As a result, in all likelihood, the linguistic demands placed on the students will be too high in class 10 because at this stage the students can hardly be expected to be experienced viewers of full-length films in the English language.
As the students' knowledge may vary from class to class, to my mind, it is a serious gap that the authors do not discuss possible comprehension problems of the film: there is no analysis of linguistic accessibility, there is no offer of any annotations either, no detailed word lists like in Hildebrand's monograph for example (cf. above). Neither is there any discussion of the use of (German) subtitles nor a recommendation of the sandwich method. It must be concluded, then, that the authors underestimate the difficulties of listening and viewing a film in a foreign language, which is a very complex activity already.

In addition, the reception of the film is directed by certain while viewing tasks (cf. WS 6): in order to check listening comprehension the students have to put scrambled stills from the film into the correct order. This procedure is characteristic of the Hansaleks' teaching guide as a whole: the authors describe their teaching suggestions accurately, yet they do not give any reasons why they take certain decisions. And the option for a non-stop or a stop-and-go presentation of the film under consideration is a highly controversial question.

The same procedure is practiced concerning the Marcus-Fiona sequence: once again there is a non-stop presentation of the whole film. If the students have to see the whole film a second time, the task may be easier for them, yet again the authors do not say anything about the assumptions underlying this activity. Apart from that, there are many similarities in these two sequences. The development of the story in both parts of the film is illustrated by a tension diagram (cf. WS 7), which makes use of basic terms for drama criticism such as exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, dénouement. It is obvious that Will and Marcus are gradually getting closer: in the episode of the dead duck (unit 5, WS 8), Will uses a white lie in order to save Marcus from being punished, which shows the beginning of his involvement. Later on (unit 7), watching TV becomes a means of bonding of the two.

In a similar way, the relationship between Marcus and Fiona is gradually improving. At the beginning, Fiona is responsible for the fact that her son is an outsider at school as he is completely dependent on her. It takes her some time to realize that she has to respect and to accept her son as an individual person. In both sequences, the role of music is examined (unit 8), but, like in the case of the English poet John Donne, any biographical comments on the American singer Roberta Flack ("Killing me softly") and the rapper Mystikal ( "Shake ya ass"), whose real name is Michael L. Tyler, are missing.

In either sequence the students have to prepare an interview: one with Will, another one with Fiona, which means that they collect questions and practice group work in order to find possible answers so that the interviews may be acted out in class (units 9/10 and unit 9). The last three units (11-13) are meant to deal with an evaluation of the film. This means that the students have to realize that Will and Marcus are round characters because they undergo a basic transformation. Again the authors seem to assume that the distinction between flat and round characters is familiar from literary analysis so that a transfer to filmed fiction is possible. Yet it is questionable to use this concept for classification as a criterion for value judgments. Probably there would be a different situation if the pupils had to find out whether the development of two major characters in the film were convincing or not.

This is followed by a gamut of eight creative tasks, such as writing a letter to the directors of the film, preparing an interview with different actors, to plan a poster for the film or to develop a quiz. Thus in this part of the teaching unit, some kind of independent learning by the students may occur. However, there is only one task which has a link to the delicate problem of evaluation, namely writing a review. This is a standard task you will practically find in every guide on film teaching, which is also very popular for written tests: a reviewer may pass a personal judgment on the strengths and weaknesses of a film. And there are some practical tips for writing such reviews. In the second sequence the problem of evaluating the film is dealt with in a talkshow. For both sequences, about 15 worksheets are at the teacher's disposal.
Moreover, the publication has an attractive lay-out as it includes stills from the film in order to illustrate some tasks. It also encourages the use of visual aids such as tables, pictures, transparencies as graphic organizers. And there are many aids in order to make the students familiar with basic technical terms of film analysis.

Further elements
Four chapters still follow in this teaching model:

The booklet is concluded by an extensive bibliography and internet addresses (pp. 64-65) and a collection of selected terms for film analysis (pp. 66-70). The list of works cited contains more than 20 bibliographical items and almost as many references to websites, but it does not contain the two above-mentioned works on the filmed version of About a Boy, which were published before this teacher's guide (Gymnich, Hildebrand). As to the collection of film terms, there are identical pages in other Cornelsen film studies (e.g. in Bend it like Beckham or East is East).

As to the CD-Rom "At the Cutting Edge", cf. Graham Wilson's review on the teaching model Billy Elliot (no. 5 above).

Critical evaluation
Most parts of this teaching guide have been written in German, but as the authors use many English technical terms, innumerable examples of code switching occur, which is somewhat disturbing.

On the other hand, I have found a few errors only. The spellings chan-ge (p. 14) and exa-mple (p. 29) can hardly be justified. Besides, native speakers of English are said to be very careful about the use of the plural; rather than saying unit 9, 10, the plural units 9 and 10 should be used. This mistake occurs in the text several times (p. 2, p. 7, p. 25, p. 26, p. 27).

When looking back on the teaching guide as a whole, one cannot but conclude that it consists of a collection of statements and hypotheses rather than of a coherent argumentation where paragraphs function as idea units. Most of the authors' claims put forward in the introduction are familiar labels for which they offer little evidence only so that their booklet is descriptive rather than analytical. Moroever, I wonder why the authors do not make use of any background material. For example,

To conclude: the teaching guide under consideration, like many literary interpretations in the past, focuses on the plot, the characters and their development. This is reminiscent of twentieth-century new criticism which concentrated on the literary text only. In the same way, the Hansaleks deal with cinematographic aspects exclusively. It goes without saying that such an approach implies serious limitations. Many promises and expectations raised by the authors in their introduction are not fulfilled in the course of the book. At second sight - unfortunately - this is a poor achievement which calls for many improvements.


Last Updated by Dr. Willi Real on Tuesday, 8 January, 2008 at 5:15 PM.

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