Recently, Turner Classic Movies devoted seven nights to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, interspersed with documentaries about the master and his works, and, though we’d seen all the movies and some of the documentaries before, seeing them through the TCM lens was as enlightening as it was exciting.
Great movies are revelations.
Since the so-called Golden Age of movies in the 1930s, they have been America’s most influential, most persuasive and pervasive art, and, not incidentally, its most popular and successful export.
In the 1930s, 82 percent of everyone in America went to the movies every week. The Great Depression had broken America. The old truths no longer applied. Everything was in motion. The movies were the one thing everyone, whatever his station and circumstances, had in common, and they were not only fresh and bold, they were solace and escape, church and school.
Today, 70 million American households subscribe to Turner Classic Movies, which runs commercial-free, uncut films 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Though a smaller percentage of the population goes out to the movies now, TCM and the other movie channels, tapes, DVDs and streaming video make movies accessible to virtually everyone.
Quantity is not synonymous with quality, of course, and an awful lot of really awful movies are made every year, but, over time, a remarkable number of outstanding movies have been made, and, every year, memorable new films are added to the ever-lengthening list of great films.
One of the abiding movie paradoxes is that they fold all the other arts – literature, music, theater, acting, dance, the visual arts – into one surpassing art, but they are now and always been big business – because, unlike all the other arts, they cannot be made by one person alone in a room, but require the talents of hundreds of people: directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, set and costume designers, composers, make-up artists, gaffers, and so on, all of whom are remarkably good at what they do.
It is the sublimest collaboration – and, in the right hands, it is magical. Transcendent. Transforming.
Stories are as vital to us as air, and there is no better or more profound form of story-telling than movies. Good movies have extraordinary power. Even as they mesmerize and enchant, they instruct, telling us things we need to know about ourselves, chronicling the world and its people in all eras, all guises.
In effect, after the Depression killed traditional America, Los Angeles invented modern America. In the 1930s, rockets were being built in Pasadena. Aviation pioneers were harnessing the sky. A band of brilliant architects – Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler and Irving Gill, among them, was remaking the townscape. Television was being developed in the Fairfax District. Shattering stereotypes, Angelenos were bolder, freer. And the movies recorded all of that, and more, and showed people everywhere how to be in this new, modern, free-spirited America.
And a portion of America has never forgiven Los Angeles for turning the national melodrama into a screwball comedy.
Nearly everyone has been transformed by certain movies. We go into the theater as one person, and emerge two hours later as someone else – the spell may last an hour, or forever. Such movies become integral to our lives, as vital as great books and music and paintings, as vital, in fact, as real life.
It is a measure of the signal importance of movies that Washington periodically tries to shut Hollywood down, or shut it up.
Though movies have been in our heads, on our minds, part of the landscape, the surround, for more than 100 years, many educators of all stripes, at all levels, persist in dismissing them as a passing fad or just another commercial product, or trash, or vulgar…anything but art, and have not given them their academic due.
Relatively few universities and far fewer secondary schools offer substantive courses on the movies, though they reside at the very center of the cultural/social landscape and are embedded in the collective unconscious, and an ever-increasing number of movies, for good or ill, target the very young.
Now, in an unprecedented collaboration, Turner Classic Movies, the Film Foundation and IBM have filled the secondary school void and created a new program for middle school students, which they are offering to schools at no cost.
“The Story of Movies” is quite simply the first interdisciplinary school curriculum to teach the aesthetic, historical and cultural significance of film to young students.
“Movies are a door to knowledge – knowledge of society and its prejudices, knowledge of history, knowledge of art. ‘The Story of Movies’ opens the door, by teaching students to think critically about film and providing them with a deeper understanding of this uniquely exciting art form,” said Martin Scorsese, chair of The Film Foundation. “I am pleased to have both Turner Classic Movies and IBM’s generous support and hands-on involvement in helping us bring classic cinema to young people.”
“The Story of Movies” consists of lesson plans, student worksheets, an assessment package, a DVD featuring film clips and mini-documentaries, an interactive Web site which allows teachers to download supplementary materials and communicate with others using the program, as well as a DVD of the featured film. The curriculum was first made available nationwide to public and private middle schools in the winter of the 2004-2005 school year, featuring To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) directed by Robert Mulligan. To date, more than 9,000 copies of the program have been given to schools.
Programs featuring Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), are in the works and will be available next spring.
Each of these films focuses on different historical and social issues – from civil rights to citizen advocacy to political tolerance – in a way that reflects the relevance of these issues in today’s world.
The lesson plans are designed to support three fundamental principles: film as an art form to be appreciated and preserved, film as a cultural document through which we can explore values and social issues, and film as a collaborative art.
Overall, the program is designed to help students learn to “read” film and understand the unique language of the medium.
“This is a ground-breaking program, and we’re very pleased to be working with The Film Foundation to bring it to fruition,” said Tom Karsch, Executive Vice President and General Manager, TCM. “To use film in the classroom to teach across all disciplines is something that has never been done before, and will give educators a new medium to generate interest and excitement about learning among their students.”
The lessons and activities contained in “The Story of Movies” are based on National Film Study Standards developed by The Film Foundation, working closely with American filmmakers, scholars, national educational organizations, and teachers.
The collaboration of IBM, the Film Foundation and Turner Classic Movies on this extraordinary program is itself extraordinary, and unique.
IBM technology, along with IBM Research expertise, played an instrumental role in bringing this curriculum to the classroom. It has created an online portal, based on WebSphere Portal software, that will provide educators with access to a teachers’ manual, lesson plans, and tools that will enable teachers nationwide to communicate with their peers on the best teaching practices for “The Story of Movies” curriculum.
The Film Foundation was created in 1990 by Martin Scorsese and nine other eminent directors – Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg – to preserve and protect America’s cinematic heritage. Through educational programs, national campaigns and public events, the foundation is dedicated to fostering greater awareness of the urgent need to save our motion picture history.
The Film Foundation’s efforts have saved over 300 endangered films to date, including Hollywood features, silent films, independent, documentary and experimental films, as well as newsreels and other historical films whose titles may not be widely known but whose importance to our film heritage is no less significant.
Turner Classic Movies, another of the amazing Ted Turner’s creations, has the largest film library in the world, with films ranging from the 1920s through the 1980s. And, in fact, if everyone, of every age, spent several hours a day watching TCM, America would be a brighter, smarter, more promising country.
The Mirror ran a piece on “The Story of Movies” several months ago. TCM’s Hitchcock marathon reminded us again of how compelling, exciting and edifying a concentrated look at a film or film-maker can be.
“The Story of Movies” should be part of the curriculum in every public and private middle school in America, and should be mandatory in every L.A. area school.
The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has struggled to sustain and improve its arts curriculum in the face of continuing budget crises, but it has no film course. “The Story of Movies” is a first-rate course, complete and ready to go, and it’s free.
Given all that, and our students’ abiding interest in movies, we can think of no reason, beyond bureaucratic bobbling or plain ignorance, why “The Story of Movies” should not be immediately inserted in the middle school curriculum of every school – public and private – in Southern California. The students are ready and waiting, and so is “The Story of Movies.”
To their credit, teachers at both John Adams and Lincoln Middle Schools in Santa Monica have ordered the program. We hope more teachers and other schools follow their example, and take advantage of what is nothing less than a golden opportunity.Schools and/or teachers can find out more about “The Story of Movies” curriculum at www.storyofmovies.org.