Tuesday, 23 August 2016

“The Wesleyan Critics:” A Film Analysis Program Premieres at North Carolina Wesleyan College


by Ian Boucher 

While Web 2.0 has brought out more voices, many others nevertheless remain spectators against the vast theater of bloggers whose posts are gospel, where deciphering experts from laypeople and all the biases and emotions in between is an afterthought.  Creativity begins with voice, and, whether through individual research or discussion, a library is the perfect place to incubate that.

Based on a survey I conducted at North Carolina Wesleyan College’s Pearsall Library in Spring 2016, I planned to start a book or movie discussion program in the fall.  Coincidentally, that spring was also the release of quite possibly the most debated movie of the year, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and with my curiously positive opinion of the film frequently perplexing students—although never in the black-and-white, vitriolic way the surface web would like our clicks to believe—I thought it was the perfect place to start.  In a world where critical discourse is severely lacking, I felt this blockbuster off the beaten path could serve as a gateway to engaging students’ critical thinking about art, allowing students to use specific examples and differentiate between personal taste and cinematic technique to reach their own understandings.  Engaging critical thinking encourages and informs the endeavors of stronger voices.

Engaging critical thinking encourages and informs the endeavors of stronger voices.

When I bought a copy of both the theatrical and extended cut, I asked our summer work-study students (as well as a recently-graduated work-study student) if they would be interested in watching and discussing the theatrical cut with objective questions in a safe, supportive environment.  None of them had seen the film due to the fiercely negative reviews, and most of them had also been puzzled by “the Internet” after seeing X-Men: Apocalypse (another of the many hotly-debated blockbusters this year) and liking it.  Three students and the recent graduate accepted.

These were the questions I distributed and moderated to bring out student ideas (special thanks to Ryan Krumm for his contributions):

Consider as you watch:

  1. What do you like and not like?
  2. What value does this movie contain beyond what you like and don’t like, if any?
  3. What does the film try to accomplish, as a film and/or as part of a franchise machine? What does it do well or not do well in achieving its goals? What cinematic techniques does it use?  What techniques should it have used? SUB QUESTION: What is it about? (Not what “happens”)
  4. Is this a kind of film that should be made for mass audiences? Why or why not?
  5. OTHER THOUGHTS/NOTES YOU MAY HAVE: ______________________________
  6. Does anything surprise you or not surprise you? (Or: Marketing/Reviews!)
  7. Who are the main characters and what do they want?  Do they achieve their goals?  How do they succeed or fail?

We had such a positive, active discussion, and when asked if they would be interested in watching the extended cut, the group immediately said yes, and in the days between cuts, several of the students sought me out to discuss their unique thoughts further.  From there, the group took on a life of its own and “became a thing,” meeting for the next seven weeks in a row, with a different member choosing each week’s film and writing truly superb discussion questions (I only made minor revisions).  After the extended cut of Batman v Superman, a student picked The Incredibles.  Next came Drishyam, The Artist, Orlando, and Good Bye, Lenin!, with each pick and set of questions reflecting a member’s individual voice inspiring and lifting those of its contemporaries, including my own.

I eventually included introductory film studies vocabulary with my questions, and encouraged students to use increasingly specific examples to support their points.  Our questions and arguments got better.  We learned from each other.  The greatest highlight was a trip to actually see the original Planet of the Apes in the theater, which culminated in a discussion over Chinese food.  We even got a nickname from campus security, who checked on us almost every night—the “Wesleyan Critics.”  For the last film of the summer, we had pizza to celebrate our experience together.

A program like this is easy to organize.  All you need is an inclusive atmosphere… and the critical thinking questions driving each program.

A program like this is easy to organize.  All you need is an inclusive atmosphere, a movie to watch, a way to comfortably show it, the time to screen and discuss it, and the critical thinking questions driving each program.  My only rule was to choose a film both entertaining and challenging, and to commit to questions that would bring that challenge out.  Snacks were frequent, some brought by the group, some from the library, but they were not the focus.  Movies screened were the library’s or owned by group members.  The most telling part about this program was the enthusiastic investment that these members of this library’s community put into it.

I’m going to try conducting this program biweekly or monthly in the fall, and opening it up to all students, faculty, and staff.  I may put caps on attendance, not for copyright reasons, since this is a librarian-moderated educational program about critically considering media, but due to space.  We met in the library’s small Media Production Lab, but I’m considering a conference room for the fall.

I became a librarian to help strengthen people’s voices with an enriching foundation so that they can achieve their potential in their interactions with the world, and this wonderful premiere was an experience I will always take with me.  It has had lasting benefits for everyone in the group, and I’m looking forward to what it will bring to the fall.  I’ve even gotten word that this program has inspired some friends of mine in other places to start their own small movie discussion groups!  Taking the time to speak thoughtfully with others never ceases to amaze me, over movies or otherwise.


Ian Boucher_Bio pictureIan Boucher has a background in television production, film studies, and communication theory, and earned his Master of Library and Information Science at Kent State University to become a librarian to advocate for information literacy. His primary research interests include the roles of motivation in information seeking behavior and the roles of film and superhero comic books in cultural discourse. Continue the conversation with him on Twitter @Ian_Boucher

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