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Category Archives: Media/Film studies

“Sylvia” (2004)

sylvia

star30 star30star30star30star30a  I watched this partly out of HSC-related duty, but also out of interest. I have to say I was very impressed by its accuracy and fairness. The lead review (at the moment) on IMDb pretty much sums up my reaction.

In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister’s husband, the movie said nothing about the couple’s meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia’s underlying emotional instability followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman…

Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia’s supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent – loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig’s film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let’s not omit that…

"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman – mother as well as poet – who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record – and chance – to give his side, it’s an impressive work. And "Ariel’s Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets’ relationship through the prism of Hughes’s writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended…

The movie is M15+ in Australia.

It would also perhaps be a good supplementary for “Belonging”.

Adapted from a post on my personal blog.

 

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Looking at a visual text

This is something I prepared to help a student in Year 11 ESL, but I find it is also helpful for others. I am indebted to Paul Grover’s excellent Visual Texts (2004), part of the Australian Heinemann English Project.

sshjune

 

Writing about a text

An old way is to ask: WHO is saying WHAT to/for WHOM, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW?

Here is a different version of that.

1. WHAT? – content, text type. You should mention the composer too.

2. WHO? (Could be different from the composer)

3. HOW?

4. To or for WHOM? WHY? WHEN? WHERE? – questions about the composer and responder relationship, and purpose and context.

5. AND SO…? Interpretation and evaluation.

Example: Leunig cartoon on bullying

The text is a cartoon by Michael Leunig. At the top are four lines of text in handwriting. The bottom half of the cartoon has two people. One is at a desk and the other is standing. The seated person is identified as a school principal. The other person is an angry parent.

The speaker in the cartoon is the person standing on the right. We know this because he is drawn with his mouth open and his finger pointing at the principal on the left.

The words spoken are centred at the top of the cartoon. This makes sure readers begin with the words, because the whole point of the cartoon is in these words. The speaker is using bullying language which is unlikely for a parent talking to a principal: “I’m going to drag your fat, stupid backside into court…” People are usually polite and respectful when they talk to a principal. It is ironic that someone complaining about bullying is being a bully himself.

The drawing underlines the dialogue. The principal is drawn seated behind his desk. Leunig usually suggests people’s age and job or status by caricature, and the principal is drawn with glasses and a bald head. His suit and tie are neat. The parent is drawn leaning forward with his finger jabbing. The movement of the finger is represented by a couple of curved lines. His eyes seem angry and his coat and tie are untidy.

This cartoon would not really interest children. It is for adults, possibly around the same age as the people in the drawing. A responder needs to have cultural knowledge about the way people usually behave when a parent speaks to a school principal. The humour comes because what we see is not what we usually expect in this situation. It is possible the cartoon appeared at a time when problems of school bullying were in the news.

The cartoon is about two things. First it is about bullying. It seems to be saying that adults who are themselves bullies set an example which school bullies follow. Second, it is about power relations. Usually it is the principal who has power in situations like this, and the parent who is requesting something. In both cases the role reversal shown in the cartoon makes the message humorously rather than heavily, but because the cartoon is making a serious point about a social problem it could be called a satirical cartoon. Making us smile may be a more effective way of getting us to think about the problem.

Typical HSC questions

For the Year 11 ESL course I have imagined an area study on POWER.

ESL Paper 1 Question 1 example 1

1. What is the purpose of this text? (1 mark)

2. Describe TWO techniques used to achieve that purpose? (2 marks)

ESL Paper 1 Question 1 example 2

1. Explain ONE idea about power in this cartoon? (1 mark)

2. How do visual features and dialogue create humour in the cartoon? (2 marks)

 

Visualising new media

Pretty, eh! Not the new template, but this.

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It’s called “Conversation in the digital age”.

Hat tip: The Tubes are Diverse and Crowded (Reverend Jeremy Smith).

 

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NSW Module A English HSC Advanced: on not seeing the wood for the trees…

My coachee was unfamiliar with the expression “can’t see the wood for the trees”, so I explained that it means losing sight of the whole pattern because details grow and grow at an alarming rate. This is a state many HSC students find themselves in. So how to guard against it?

darlingharbour 025

Photo by Neil Whitfield 2008: artificial forest at the Sydney Chinese Garden

Make sure you read and understand the course description. My coachee and I are working on the Frankenstein and Blade Runner pair. The first thing to note is that the module is called TEXTS IN TIME: TEXTS AND CONTEXTS. That is the wood.

This module requires students to COMPARE TEXTS in order to EXPLORE THEM IN RELATION TO THEIR CONTEXTS. It develops students’ understanding of THE EFFECTS OF CONTEXT and QUESTIONS OF VALUE…

Students examine ways in which social, cultural and historical context influences aspects of texts, or the ways in which changes of context lead to changed values being reflected in texts. This includes study and use of the language of texts, consideration of purposes and audiences, and analysis of the content values and attitudes being conveyed…

OK, that means:

1. You need to know what issues or themes of interest each text embodies. In our two, for example, one can think of: the moral/ethical issues in science and technology; the need for companionship or love; what it is to be human; what is “natural”… And so on. It does not greatly matter what the issues are, so long as they are important ones and are major issues in both Frankenstein and Blade Runner. Your teacher and your class will no doubt determine perhaps two or three big ideas to hang your readings on.

2. You need to appreciate what was being thought, said and done around the time each text was composed: 1818 in one case, and 1982 in the other. Consider also where each text was composed. How does what you discover about this explain why each text may have been composed? Be careful here. It can be tempting to write history or philosophy and forget about the actual texts. Not a good idea.

3. Having found an issue, explore where and how it is presented in each text. Don’t forget to be specific rather than general. Find key passages or scenes. Look closely at the techniques used in their making. Then ask “Why is this passage/scene like this?” What in the context may have shaped the way it has been done? What in the context made this issue of sufficient interest to the composer and his/her readers and viewers? Where does the composer stand on it? What does the composer regard as important, or troubling, or worth arguing for or against on this issue? Now you will be exploring values and attitudes.

4. There are also genre issues to think about: The Gothic, science fiction, dystopias, film noir… Why have these genres thrived at various points in history? Why have they persisted? What is the relation of our two texts to these genres?

It really is hard to coordinate all this thinking. Anyone who tells you the HSC has been dumbed down is just plain dumb! I know that I never had to do anything half as difficult in my final year of high school in 1959! The good thing is that the issues raised in these texts really are interesting – and important!

So, good luck. Also, any suggestions about how to organise the material in an exam-friendly way will no doubt be appreciated by others. You may use the comment space here for that, if you care to.

The truth is out there

Yes, you are also lucky. There is so much good material to explore, some of it suggested on my previous post on this.

Here’s another, and very recent. This week an article appeared in The Times in London: Lynda Pratt, “Who wrote the original Frankenstein?”

Frankenstein – that most resonant and enduring of early nineteenth-century fictions – was born in the febrile atmosphere of the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816. Bored by the unseasonably cold, wet weather, the Villa’s residents, Byron, John Polidori, Percy Shelley and the eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin, amused themselves by writing ghost stories. The other female member of the party – the pregnant Claire Clairmont – did not take part. Surrounded by three competitive males to whose conversations on “the nature of the principle of life” she was a “devout but nearly silent listener”, frustrated by her inability to “think of a story” (and perhaps also by her future husband’s determination that she should “obtain literary reputation”), one night Mary had a dreadful “waking dream”…

As Marilyn Butler so acutely observed, Frankenstein is “famously reinterpretable. It can be a late version of the Faust myth, or an early version of the modern myth of the mad scientist; the id on the rampage, the proletariat running amok, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby without a woman”.

Yet the very familiarity of Frankenstein means that its complex pre- and post-publication textual history is often overlooked, and the actual process of composition of a fiction so centrally concerned with creation ignored. The novel’s textual instability is explored in the impressive introduction to Charles Robinson’s new edition. His honourable aim is not to give us another text of the novel we know – or think we know – but to strip away nearly two centuries of revision and appropriation in order to return to what he describes as the “original” Frankenstein. Or rather, since the “transcript of grim terrors” and the short versions of July and August 1816 do not survive, to reinstate the earliest recoverable version of the novel: the manuscript first draft composed between autumn 1816 and March-April 1817, which is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Robinson’s volume is the first ever edition of this manuscript (a facsimile, by the same editor, was published in 1996)…

The image, vividly evoked in Robinson’s introduction, of Mary and Percy passing the manuscript draft between them, each responding to the ideas of the other, is a powerful reminder that the popular myth of the Romantic author as an isolated, creative genius is just that – a myth. The Shelleys were part of a complex cultural network, involved in literary collaborations and (as the connections between Frankenstein and early nineteenth-century scientific debates illustrate) responsive to contemporary issues.

Frankenstein – in whatever form we choose to encounter it – is not alone in this. Other works central to British Romanticism, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (also first published anonymously), were brought into being by the creative interactions of their authors both with one another and with the political and intellectual climate of their age….

My next HSC post will introduce the concept of BELONGING and make a few suggestions…

 

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Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein” — and “Blade Runner”

Henry Fuseli "Dream of Belinda"

Henry Fuseli: Dream of Belinda

There is no lack of material on the Internet about this famous novel. Those of you doing the 2009-2012 HSC in NSW must compare it with Scott Ridley’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, which you will also find on this site. You must attend especially to the context in which each work emerged, issues of genre, and issues of language and technique, as well as of course forming ideas about the great themes each work embodies.

Look at this essay: Frankenstein as Lucy (PDF).

friedrich

Here is a beautiful site to look at: Nature, Beauty, and Power: The Romantics (Pitt State University). Another US university, Washington State, offers a plain no-nonsense introduction to Romanticism.

There is also Romanticism: an Overview on The Victorian Web. See especially Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) — A Summary of Modern Criticism.

Two YouTube videos follow; if you are at school these may just be blank spaces! Try at home.

Kenneth Branagh 1994

Opening of Blade Runner

See also Studying the Gothic, or Emily Bronte?.

UPDATES

  1. The course material for this unit prepared by Melpomene Dixon for the English Teachers’ Association NSW is really excellent!
  2. I have since done a follow-up post.
 

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Check the VodPod; do the poll

Go down the side bar to find the Pod. Then —

 

My own views

I wasn’t going to say anything, but on reflection decided I would.

The three videos interpret and recreate something of William Golding’s much-studied novel Lord of the Flies. Each was done by students working in different contexts and for different purposes. Two of them take the “facts” of the novel and seek to present them in cinematic terms; one is the result of an alternative ending exercise, a “what if?” question. Two of them are highly imaginative; one is not. In fact one is everything I was afraid a YouTube video might be and is, from an English teaching perspective, a total waste of space. Two I would give “A”; one I would give “F”. In one case I would also want to send the students to some kind of course in water safety or surf life saving!

Now you decide. 🙂

 

Future journalism? The paper or the blog?

Most English students here in NSW spend part of their time studying the mass media from various angles.

Last night ABC 1’s Media Watch had a special edition that will interest teachers and senior students:

 Wired for the Future

ABC Online Home

© 2008 ABC

 
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Posted by on May 6, 2008 in English studies, Media/Film studies