Vol. 3. No. 3 R-8 September 1998
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Film is Content: A Study Guide for the Advanced ESL Classroom

Julia A. Williamson and Jill C. Vincent (1996)
Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. viii + 215
ISBN 0-472-08330-9 (paper)
US $16.95


The movies--especially "Hollywood-style"--are ubiquitous; small American towns have their downtown one-screen movie houses, and large cities their "multi-plexes" with up to a dozen blockbusters showing at the same time. In other westernized countries around the world, American films are readily available at movie theaters, on television, or on video. In many neighborhoods, video rental outlets are as common as the corner grocery store. In some smaller towns, the corner store or gas station is the video store. New technology, such as the home satellite dish or pay-per-view movies, promises to make movie watching even more frequent. In short, it is the rare student who has never had the experience of the movies in some form.

With this in mind, it is no surprise that teachers often turn to the subject of film for discussion in the ESL classroom. From their usually vast experience of filmgoing, students can describe their favorite (or least favorite) film, narrate the plot, and compare or contrast two films of the same genre or with the same theme. While most teachers are competent to lead such discussions or generate activities based on film, it is not every teacher who has a theoretical background in film analysis. After all, film is a medium which, like literature, can be analyzed according to a number of theoretical approaches. Film Is Content: A Study Guide for the Advanced ESL Classroom provides a guide for teachers who have seen a large number of movies, as most people have, but who may not have the critical vocabulary to describe them. Its purpose is to give both the teacher and the students a framework within which to discuss various aspects of American films.


The book opens with a teacher's guide which is designed to help the teacher and the students "read" the film. The authors describe previewing tasks (discussions about title, characters, plot, and so forth) and postviewing activities (such as role-playing, journal writing, acting out a scene, reading film reviews). They also carefully explain elements of film structure--plot, character, setting, theme--in terms students can easily understand. Approaches to film terminology are briefly explained, and wherever a difficult or unfamiliar word appears, the authors provide a synonym to [-1-] facilitate students' comprehension, as in this example: "Medium shot. Shows only the upper body of the actor. It is useful for making expository <introductory> scenes" (p. 8). The authors also introduce a number of approaches to film criticism, and the teacher or student who wishes to learn more is invited to consult the extensive bibliography. Six thematic chapters with four films each make up the main part of the textbook: classic films, feminism and the feminist film, discrimination in film, aspects of the romantic comedy, Hitchcock films, and suspense films. Additional units for consideration suggest examining remakes (Father of the Bride 1950/1991, The Postman Always Rings Twice 1946/1981); parodies of the Blazing Saddles or Airplane type; or fairy tales. The authors also include a lengthy list of novels, plays and short stories which have been made into film adaptations. At the end of the book, the reader can find quizzes on each of the films studied.


All of the chapters begin with an introduction explaining the various aspects of the genre(s) discussed. Chapter 2, "Classic Films," studies the horror film (King Kong), film noir(Laura ), and the western (High Noon). The chapters which follow (with the exception of chapter 6, "Hitchcock Films") each concentrate on one particular theme or genre in films. For example, chapter 3, "Feminism and the Feminist Film," looks at the following four films: Pat and Mike (1952); 9 to 5 (1980); Working Girl (1988); and Thelma and Louise (1991). A brief outline of the rise of feminism in the United States helps the students situate these films in their socio-historical context. As they do throughout the book, the authors are careful to provide synonyms for difficult vocabulary items, as in the following example: "For a while prior to and during World War Two droves <thousands> of women entered the work force" (pp. 40-41). The various representations of women in film are explained, along with historical reasons for the roles women have played in certain films.

Each of the four films is presented separately. Previewing questions, both general and specific, precede more detailed descriptions of the film, such as the film's stars, length, director, and date of release. The authors introduce the characters and provide a summary of the plot. The section on each film ends with notes about things such as other films by the same director, or more detailed explanations about the characters or themes. In a number of cases, students are asked to draw parallels between two of the films in the same unit, for example 9 to 5 and Working Girl, two films which deal with the role of women in the business world. The quizzes for each of the films are included together at the back of the book on tear-away sheets printed on one side only; in this way, the teacher can collect and evaluate them individually if he or she desires. [-2-]


There are many positive aspects to this book which would make it both a useful classroom tool as well as a valuable addition to a teacher's personal library. For those teachers and students who love film but haven't had the opportunity to study film criticism, it provides a brief introduction to the field written in highly accessible, but never condescending, language. The book also serves as an introduction to American popular culture, in that it induces students to think about the cultural products which a society creates. It helps students to think critically, using skills of both analysis and synthesis, in which they make the leap from the specific (studying a number of related films) to the general (understanding common themes and concepts). Finally, the use of the whole language approach works well for an advanced class, in which students' problems of grammar or vocabulary can be dealt with by the teacher as the need arises.

The teacher who decides to adopt this textbook could also expand the repertoire of films suggested by including a number of foreign-made films, either with subtitles or dubbed into English. Students from various parts of the world could also be asked to present to their classmates some of the films from their own countries, using the terminology of analysis provided by the textbook. All told, Film Is Content: A Study Guide for the Advanced ESL Classroom lives up to the comments found on its back cover. It is, indeed, "a unique guide to the study of English as a second language."

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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