The question of visual literacy and the ways in which that
literacy is acquired are two of the most important cultural
questions in the present media saturated society. What was once
elite knowledge - to understand and make films - is now available
in Universities, specialist schools, evening classes and
self-help courses. The most profound change in the last 50 years
has been the rise of educational access to moving images, and the
integration of that knowledge into a broader cultural education.
More than special effects or global delivery systems, the
individual and group education about images has made the film and
media industries the 'hottest' points on the cultural landscape.
The most powerful challenge to the ubiquitous control of the
movie market is film education. To know and understand the
workings of moving images in sequences is to be literate in the
most appropriate way for this age. Film education over-rides the
power of publicity and gives audiences genuine choice at the box
office because of their intellectual understanding of cinema.
Film education which started out as 'appreciation' and is now
at the centre of progressive academic work has only really been
around for 25 years. I took my first course in 1972, in England.
I was an English major student and needed a fourth course to fill
my load, so I enrolled in Understanding Film, taught by David
In the first class, he screened Un Chien Andalou followed by
Fritz Lang's M and Godard's Alphaville. To a student of D.H.
Lawrence, and T. S Elliott, this was all a revelation. In a
matter of days I had abandoned my interest in image-less
narrative and with the fervour of conversion, became a film
student: I even took a work study job as the course
The secret was, that I was taught to see rather than watch.
Cinema was unlocked, as an understanding of the past and
comprehension of the present. This twinned perspective is under
threat in the current educational climate, and much of film
education today is contemporary - and for immediate use.
It is not seen as
intellectually necessary to have seen everything
This is also reflected in the low standard to film criticism
from writers who have not, literally, seen films made before
1960. For those of us lucky enough to have studied early with
teachers as rigorous as Thomson, we have engaged the complete
oeuvres of, say 20 major directors rather than their greatest
hits. Thomson's classes ran from just after lunch often until
late at night. Try scheduling that number of hours in a higher
education institution today, or worse, try getting a
projectionist after 6pm.
There is great pressure in film courses now not to provide
such coverage, such depth of history. There are two reasons for
this: firstly, it is not seen as intellectually necessary to have
seen everything; and secondly, there is a clear division emerging
between film and media courses on the one hand and specialist
academic research in particular areas of film on the other.
In extreme cases this can be research about criticism which
does not require the watching of any movies. It is debatable
whether graduates from such courses are cinematically literate in
any sense of the word but rather experts in a form of linguistics
which might as well not be about movies.
The first generation film students are now out in the cultural
industries and their knowledge is filtering into everything,
making another division between formal and informal education. By
this I mean that so much of film (and media) is self-referential
that viewers of say, The Simpsons, need to have seen the top 10
of the last year's current releases in order to understand some
The recent interest in remaking ‘noir’ films comes
not only from an existential assessment of current social
conditions, but studies in earlier adaptations of pulp fiction
undertaken in film courses. These remakes have an educated
audience which understands the aesthetics of ‘noir’ and
the codes used.
This cinema is at the
centre of contemporary culture
This double pleasure is what sustains the art house despite
the bombardment by mainstream 'product'. The audience is
attracted to the values of these particular films because they
have encountered them in another, educational, context. This
discerning audience is not seriously considered, I believe, by
the marketers of mainstream cinema, except where they see the art
house as another 'segment'; a boutique dollar.
This is a great mistake: the art house, intelligent cinema
lets call it, is more than a segment - it's a way of thinking and
seeing, the delivery of ideas, social and political attitudes,
for an entire generation of viewers. This cinema is at the centre
of contemporary culture, and often aligned with, yet sometimes
counter to, the global momentum of music, magazines, televisions
One way this happens is by the informal film school created by
the exhibition of films in niche markets such as festivals,
Cinémathèque seasons, and the art house (in the broadest sense)
supported by a plethora of magazines, radio and TV slots. The
downside to all this opportunity is
that it's presentation is unstructured and beyond an overt
educational context. Most of my students know who Bertolucci is,
for example, but have never seen or heard of The Spiders
Stratagem. They know Godard directed Breathless but have never
seen Two or Three Things I Know About Her. The end of history
means there is little depth to cultural experience, and the role
of film schools should be to provide a complex level of
To understand the moving
image is now seen as one of the major planks of social
Context is everything in this cultural climate. What is good
about the expansion of film education is that it is no longer
seen as a privileged area of study: when the New Wave soon-to-be
directors were studying film they sat in the dark at the
Cinematheque and watched, debated movies collected by Henri
Langlois. When Roman Polanski decided he wanted to be a director
he was lucky enough to be chosen as a student at Lodz Film School
(and made a wonderful graduating film, Two Men and A Wardrobe).
The change is that now film, media and popular culture courses
reach from primary school to doctorate level at University. There
are few other subjects which have made such rapid progress
through all layers of education. To understand the moving image
is now seen as one of the major planks of social survival.
On the local scene the nationally positioned Australian Film
Television and Radio School is one of the key components to the
creation of a bona fide Australian film industry. It is supported
by undergraduate courses in film and television at most major
Australian universities plus a vibrant art college scene which is
producing many of the more innovative short film and video
Visual literacy empowers
its owners and protects them from exploitation in a
dominantly visual society.
The result has been not only the kick-starting of many careers
but the more fundamental notion that such careers are valid and
available to a wide number of people.
Critics of the system would say, however, that the question of
access is not as 'open' as it pretends to be. Visual literacy
empowers its owners and protects them from exploitation in a
dominantly visual society. Access programs are inadequate for
aboriginal students, students from a disadvantaged (and often
multi-cultural) background, and an often neglected group - the
Whilst the funding threat to the maintenance of national film
archives does not threaten the future of film education, it is
compromised into sectional and often generalised offerings. My
hope is that this trend can be reversed and the key to that is
the dissemination of low cost, sophisticated technology which
provides access in a more democratic way.