Life on one of our evening courses

Ever wondered what it was like on one of our evening courses? Michael Lyons shares his experience…

I’m a cinephile and proud. For those who don’t know what that means, it’s someone who is obsessed with films. So, when browsing through the Cornerhouse website back in August, and finding an ‘Introduction to Film Studies‘ course was being organised, I signed myself up straight away. I’ve got my very own film blog on the net, so like to believe my opinions carry a bit of weight, but without any background in film I may be lacking a trick or two. Therefore, with the course, I hoped to build up my critical analysis skills and increase my vocabulary with film terminology. Basically though, I’m just someone who wanted to learn.

Week 1: Cinematography

I arrived at the Annexe to find a welcome pack on my seat in which there was an overview of the course, cinema tickets for Singin’ in the Rain and Goodfellas and a page with technical terms relating to ‘the camera’. I was excited already and nobody had even said a word. I started reading my handout on ‘the camera’, trying to absorb the knowledge quickly so I could shout out some jargon when the discussion started up. With my head buried in the reading, I didn’t realise the person at the front was talking, better start listening. Andy Moor, a reader and tutor of Cinema History in the English Department at MMU, began by introducing himself and the course content. Without any hesitation, he started talking about the first week’s topic of ‘what the camera does’. We went through a checklist of terminology, and learnt about camera position, height, movement, focus, duration, and the point of view of the camera. When you break it down and consider all the factors the cinematographer must think of, it makes you appreciate their work exponentially. After recently watching Drive, I came out ranting and raving about how visually amazing it was, and this week’s discussion really made me respect it even more. That is the great thing about this course, people may assume that being critical would kill the enjoyment of cinema, but in fact it makes you appreciate everything more. Discovering how the camera works in telling the story was really insightful. Great way to start the course!

Week 2: Mise-en-scene

This week’s topic was all about the ‘mise-en-scene’, meaning everything visible within the frame of a shot. This encompasses setting, location, props, lighting, makeup, and (of course) acting. They are all aids which help to tell the story, but sometimes can be distractions that over-power the narrative. Andy Moor mentioned famous directors who have renowned styles, people like Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tim Burton. We watched the trailer for Edward Scissorhands, and de-constructed the scenes bit by bit. We discussed the look of Edward Scissorhands, pointing out his black clothing, pale white face and long black hair which makes him look quite gothic, which seems to be a theme for Tim Burton. Next, we focused on the question of location or set? If it is a set, then who designs and makes the set? Notable designers like Alfred Junge and Hein Heckroth were talked about. Lighting was mentioned as key to the film’s ambience, and finally we concluded by thinking about costumes and make-up. There is surely no better example than Charlie Chaplin, I mean “why on earth did he dress like that”? Good question, and you had to be there to find out. Right at the end, Andy proclaimed his love for Singin in the Rain and expressed his anticipation for next week’s film. So with that, we all went off in our separate directions quietly excited about next week.

Week 3: Screening of Singin’ in the Rain

Just another boring monotonous October day, eh? Not for me, I walked into Screen 2 at Cornerhouse, and watched Singin’ in the Rain for the first time in my life. Undoubtedly a classic in cinema history, most say it’s the best musical of all time, but I could not pass comment up until now. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect; this film was made in 1952 and most of the audience were much older than me. Was I really going to enjoy this film? Well, I was completely won over by the end and left the cinema feeling warm and fuzzy. It was undeniable, and I’m not a fan of musicals. 
The dance scenes were elaborate and must have taken a long time to choreograph. The tune ‘Gotta Dance’ seemed to go on forever, but not in a bad way.  The varied shots and changing sets kept your attention. Our teacher Andy said it lasted 14 minutes in total; a lot of work for Gene Kelly and he didn’t even seem to break a sweat. Gene Kelly had to be highlighted, his enthusiasm and energy was intoxicating, he never seems to stop moving. The best tune and the only song I knew prior to watching the film was ‘Singin in the Rain’, and when you see it in the context of the film it doesn’t actually add anything to the narrative. But who cares! So I never thought I would say this, but I really enjoyed the dance sequences, but what really endeared me to the film was the fact it made me laugh. Slapstick humour if done well, will literally make my sides split. Daniel O’Connor jumping about all over the place in the song ‘Make Em Laugh’ was very funny. I also enjoyed the subject matter; a film about a film being made in Hollywood. It is never afraid to mock itself.
So I left a changed man, I still wouldn’t call myself a fan of musicals, but maybe it’s time to give The Sound of Music a chance!

Week 4: Sound!

The session burst into life with a big discussion on Singin in the Rain. Everybody was given a chance to voice their opinion and say why or what they liked about it. Despite the large diversity of the group, it was a  unanimous decision that the film was a winner. Andy started his presentation by talking about the Hollywood Musical Genre through the lens of academia. At the time when musicals were popular, America was in bad economic times, so when someone went to the cinema they wanted some escapism and musicals provided them with utopian feelings of a better society. Another interesting insight!
 Andy continued onto the next constituent part of film…Sound!! Did you not hear me? I said SOUND. I guess that joke doesn’t work in written form. Anyway, after learning the terminology associated with sound like pitch, loudness, and quality, Andy mentioned the source of sound. Is the sound coming from the interior film world or the exterior in terms of the musical score/soundtrack? This is something I had never really thought about, and was a cool angle in which to look at film. Is there a narrator for the film? Can the characters hear the narrator? After that, we watch the beginning of The Shining and analysed the effect of the soundtrack on the viewer’s emotion. I left this session contemplating how sound is a forgotten art, and how sound editors are completely forgotten about by the audience. So, prick up your ears and let’s start appreciating sound in films!

Week 5: Screening of Goodfellas 

Is Goodfellas Martin Scorcese’s best film? I haven’t seen his whole repertoire, but I’ve enjoyed his recent work – Shutter Island, The Departed, Boardwalk Empire. With the exception of Shutter Island, it appears Scorcese likes to focus on gangsters as subjects. Goodfellas is no different; it centres on the rise and fall of Henry Hill, as he becomes embroiled into mob lifestyle. Ray Liotta was an unorthodox choice as the lead, considering the strength of the support cast – Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci – but he excels. Despite this, Joe Pesci almost stole the show. His character Tommy DeVito had me quaking in my boots, his edgy flippant character was incredibly unnerving. This certainly is a classic gangster film, but unlike The Godfather, it  doesn’t play on the mythology of gangster. The film tries to be as realistic as possible, in fact Scorcese described it as, “a staged documentary”. A great film to watch, and brilliant to see it on the big screen.

Week 6: Editing

Goodfellas was at the centre of discussion when week 6 kicked off. Is Goodfellas the greatest gangster film of all time? Everybody joined in and offered their insights and opinions. People suggested other great gangster films which could possibly top it (of course The Godfather was mentioned), we examined the historical roots of the genre, which started with ‘film noir’ back in 1930s. Next, we delved into the realm of editing. Due to the conventions of Western commercial cinema, editing is an invisible style which shouldn’t be noticed. It is something which washes over us, but it is another key element of film. Different types of edits were presented, we discussed how film as a medium allows us to play with time. Finally, we finished by chatting about general patterns of editing in Hollywood cinema. Do your grandparents ever complain about the speed of modern films? Research does show, the average film today is cut faster, which means shot length is shorter. Peoples’ attention spans must be contracting, but surely not to the extent Transformers would have us believe (average shot length being a millisecond), watching that film ranks as the most nauseating experience of my life. All thanks to the editing – actually other reasons too.

Week 7: Narrative

We started with the fundamental question of ‘What is a narrative?’, before distinguishing between story and plot. The ordering of narrative can be mashed up, films don’t always play out chronologically. Next, we looked at narrators as a story-telling tool. It is interesting to question who is the narrator and how do they relate to the story. Are they an objective or subjective character? Alfred Hitchcock’s North by North West (1959) was used as a case study to examine the narrative. What is the story? A question I kept asking myself whilst watching Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life. Another interesting week.

Week 8: Acting

Sadly, all good things come to an end. The course had flown by, and there was a tinge of sadness when we kicked off the last week by discussing what is good acting? It was hard to agree on a set definition, but realism seems to be a key factor. How realistic is the performance? We looked at the big stars of Hollywood, how does our awareness of actors as real people and characters affect their performance? To finish, we looked at method acting, and watched examples of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Daniel Day Lewis strutting their stuff. This capped off a brilliant course, and with that, it was all over. We left arguing about whether method acting gives a more authentic performance or in fact detracts from the overall narrative. My, my, we’ve come a long way. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole course, and will be recommending it to my friends.

Fancy getting stuck into one of our evening courses? If you fancy learning something new this month there are still a few places left on our Introduction to Contemporary Art: Beyond the Counterculture which starts on Mon 16 January.