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A few years ago, one of my students said, “I use to love movies, but then I made the mistake of taking a film class. Now I can’t watch them any more.” And, just last week, a similar incident occurred.

We were coming off a module on rhetorical analysis. As usual, I had used movies as a language that could be read and analyzed. We went over the Rule of Thirds, and discussed film scores, especially the move away from the brassy fanfares of John Williams, to the dramatic strings, Carmina Burana choirs, and big, tribal drumming of, e.g., Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky:


Then, out of perversity, I suppose, I introduced them to the Wilhelm Scream, and then to the practice of counting shot lengths, which I first learned from an article called “Quicker, Faster, Darker: Changes in Hollywood Film Over 75 Years,” by Cutting et al., from the Department of Psychology at Cornell. According to the study,

short shots likely increase viewer response to films and film segments, forcing observer eye movements to quickly reevaluate each new visual depiction and increasing heart rate and other bodily responses…Adding more motion to these short shots is likely to increase viewer response all the more. We suggest that this increasing correlation may help to couple attention to broader physiological responses.

Here’s the example I used in class, one of my favs: the central battle scene from the first Avengers movie, with the incredible 30-second tracking shot (!!!) that Joss Whedon manages to squeeze into the middle of an explosion of choppy chaos. (I love the arrow, in particular.)

Anyway, when the module was over, a few students admitted that they had started compulsively counting shot lengths when watching movies, and listening for the Wilhelm Scream, which should have been an epic win for me, right? But one student seemed more annoyed than anything else, almost disconsolate. I tried to make it better by saying, “But now that you’re aware of these things you should be able to ENJOY THE MOVIE EVEN MORE! And, anyway, there’s no going back now.”

The force of what I’d said struck me immediately, and it kept barging into my mind as I tried to move the class forward.

There’s no going back. You can’t go home again. “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.” (Oates.)  A necessary threshold to cross, certainly, and I had assumed that everything would be better once I’d led the students over it with a slight sense of gleeful superiority. Plus, as I made sure to tell them, it’s best to know when, and how, one is being manipulated by rhetoric. But still…

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps. But when class was over for the day, and the students were filing out, I couldn’t help but recall the end of Paradise Lost:

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

With apologies to Milton. And, of course, to the students.

*****

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