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Cinematic Magic: Using Film in Class

Movies can make your class come alive


By Melinda Barlow

Some days, teaching is thrilling: ideas abound and everyone talks. Others seem lackluster by comparison. Conversation wanes and attention wanders. How to spark interest and energize the room?

Try a clip from a movie, or even a complete film.

The effect can be electrifying. Look around during a screening and you will see everything from nods of recognition to traces of agitation, and hear gasps of fear or delight. Reactions to films are often involuntary, and verbal responses are just as visceral.

Films can overwhelm the emotions and influence perspective. Music, editing, and the hallucinatory quality of the darkened theater in which a dreamlike world unwinds before our eyes, these are the ingredients of a vicarious pleasure inflected by personal and cultural differences.

Narrative filmmaking encourages our tendency to identify, the need to perceive ourselves in what we see on screen. When it is successful, we laugh and cry, exclaim and recoil.

Of all the attitudes associated with film viewing, the assumption that narrative films should be “realistic” is by far the most challenging and pedagogically useful. “I really identified with that character” is a common refrain following a screening, as is its negative counterpart, “I hated him/her.” Each catalyzes conversation.

Choosing and using a film clip

Choosing the right clip is a challenge. Pick a short, captivating scene and show it as an opener, when class energy is high, or use it to revitalize conversation later on. A clip provides a concrete focal point for discussion and encourages interaction, especially when framed with a thought-provoking question or a pertinent quotation drawn from an assigned reading. If your subject is contemporary American history, try a clip from The Graduate (1967). If you want to talk about racial relations, show a film by Spike Lee. A reference to Inception is guaranteed to get students going.  

Clips utilized for traditional illustrative purposes usually work well. All the President’s Men (1976) dramatizes the discovery of the Watergate break-in, and An Inconvenient Truth (2006) sheds light on global warming. But imaginative programming can be even more successful. A colleague in humanities screens an episode of The Twilight Zone (“Living Doll,” 1962) to introduce his students to the psychoanalytic concept of projection. Used creatively, film clips always stir things up!

Film is an exceptionally good conversation starter because most people have strong opinions about what they have seen. Tell a friend about a favorite film and your impassioned recommendation may turn into a heated debate. Ask how they understand an open-ended film and you may wonder if you watched the same thing. What one person finds emotionally manipulative is for someone else genuinely moving. What strikes some as authentic is for others implausible. And any praise of documentary objectivity is likely to be met with criticism of bias.

What if emotions get out of hand?

Arguments are tidy, emotions unruly. When you show a film, a wide range of feelings may come your way: anger, enthusiasm, sorrow, frustration, ambivalence, empathy, desire. If students dislike what you screen (and they may), invite debate. In fact, examples of documentary bias and clips from bewildering or provocative narrative films are great choices precisely because they spawn vehement disagreement. A little controversy is a good thing.

Lessons from Rear Window

No film has taught me more about how to guide students from emotions to ideas—and make segues to assigned readings—than Rear Window (1954), which Alfred Hitchcock described as his most “purely cinematic” work.

The premise is simple, the parallel clear: Confined by a broken leg to a wheelchair, L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) peers into his neighbors’ apartments, while we watch him through the “window” of the screen. His reactions to various scenarios of desire reflect his ambivalence about Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and hers reveal mixed feelings about him. Their surreptitious interest in a possible murder mirrors our deepening involvement in their activities as detectives.

This symmetrical investment is set up in a dinner scene. After Jeff toasts “Miss Lonelyhearts,” who pours a drink for an imaginary date, he and Lisa debate the prospects for “Miss Torso.” Jeff calls her a “queen bee with her pick of the drones;” Lisa contends “she is doing a woman’s hardest job, juggling wolves.”

“Men and women usually identify with their own gender,” a student said in response to this scene. “But Jeff also identifies with Miss Lonelyhearts,” added another, “and we feel it because we see him in close up.” Both were right. Identification here is differentiated by gender, but when Jeff raises his glass, his own loneliness is apparent.

By inter-cutting close-ups of Jeff with increasingly tighter shots of the people he finds intriguing, the film aligns us with his illicit point of view—one Lisa exposes when she is attacked. “Jeff feels helpless when he sees her in danger, and we feel helpless when Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr) attacks him,” another student ventured, “but thankfully Thorvald can’t climb through the screen!” All true.

Then the clincher: “We have more power than he does, because he can’t see us. I like that feeling. It beats identifying with Miss Lonelyhearts.” Pause. “I’d like to be in love.” With this remark, the room fell silent. “Maybe that’s TMI (too much information), but that’s how the film made me feel.”

What a vulnerable thing to say, what a risk to take! It paid off; we were with him. I responded with a passage by Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood: “We tend to select from a film and stress, quite unconsciously, those aspects that are most relevant to us, to our own problems and our own attitude to life, and ignore or minimize the rest.”

“That’s what I was doing,” my student said, “that guy got it right.”

A revelation to him and a teaching moment for me. This, I learned, is what teaching with film could be: A humane integration of intellect and emotion that makes the classroom a place of compassion, especially when someone says “I really identified with that character.”

Melinda Barlow is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she received the Boulder Faculty Assembly Excellence in Teaching Award and two other teaching awards. This article is excerpted from her piece in the NEA’s Higher Education Advocate, April, 2010.

Illustrations by Alan King




Using Movies in Class

Movies or film clips can be a great way to capture students' interest, foster discussion, and liven up a lesson. Do you use movies in class? Which ones? Share your ideas with your colleagues.

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