I enjoy watching films but don’t always know what to look for to understand the director’s deeper meanings. My cinematic “critical eye” was sharpened during last Thursday evening’s Salon Series presentation, Hope & Resiliency in Film, led by Laura Winters, Professor of English at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morris Township.
Dr. Winters has taught literature, writing, and film for 30 years and has been one of the most popular Salon Series presenters. On April 26 she explored how film is unique in its ability to convey ways people can overcome suffering and loss to develop hope. I asked Dr. Winters several questions to gain a better understanding of film’s cathartic value.
1. What influenced you to select the topic of how film can provide hope and resiliency to those who are suffering?
For the past 10 years or so I have used poetry and film in my work with grief and bereavement groups, families of suicides, families of firefighters and first responders lost in the line of duty. I do not care how well these group members interpret the poems or films. I am interested in how these works of art serve as prompts for bearing witness and paying tribute to loved ones. Poems and films that matter and reward multiple readings and viewings can become a safe place for exploration of helplessness, loss, and resiliency.
2. How is film effective in helping people overcome their problems?
Because American popular film glorifies the impulse to revenge (various groups are allowed to suffer in popular American film with no need for audience empathy) and because we export these terrible messages and images around the world, hope in the midst of suffering is, for me, one of the most important aspects of film that can help all of us live our lives. There is no hope in film without genuine suffering. The audience for contemporary films that matter must be able to find beauty in brokenness and fragmentation.
3. Is it challenging to teach students about film?
My experience teaching film to undergraduates for 30 years suggests that for students born after a certain time--1970, 1975, 1980--films are, in their own way, sacred texts. Students are willing to explore moral, ethical, psychological, and spiritual issues in film. Part of this is because they are so visually literate. Students from certain cultures and backgrounds are very comfortable speaking back to the screen; they are in profound conversation with what is going on and what is seen.
4. How is film ‘art?’
Films that matter and are works of "art" or approach the level of "art" encourage or force the viewer to do challenging and painful work. In films that matter, there is a large percentage of frames that matter--not merely scenes or sequences. But frame-by-frame-by-frame, the filmmakers reveal that "What it looks like IS what it means." The composition of the frame conveys the deepest concerns, meaning, and mystery of the film. The audience must actively participate in the creation of meaning.
During the presentation Dr. Winters showed scenes from Get Low: A True Tall Tale; Lars and the Real Girl; and Of Gods and Men. We all wished there had been more time to screen other movies but felt we got a great introduction to the subject.