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An Analytical Lens

Robert Spadoni and his students explore the art of film

By Elizabeth Weinstein

Fall | Winter 2016

In his introductory course, Robert Spadoni teaches his students how the basic components of a film, from editing to lighting to sound, “shape the viewing experience in moment-by-moment ways.” Photo by Mike Sands.

There’s nothing quite like watching a movie, uninterrupted, in a crowded, dark theater. Even Associate Professor Robert Spadoni, who spends his days reading, writing, thinking and talking about film, isn’t immune to the magic of the experience.

“When you come blinking out of a theater and you say, ‘Oh my gosh, is it day or night?’ it’s almost like you’re waking up from a dream.”

It’s an experience that Spadoni works to create every fall and spring semester in his Introduction to Film course, which is offered through Case Western Reserve’s English department. He has other objectives, too, of course. He wants his students to analyze the ways in which the elements of a film interact with one another to suggest meanings and elicit responses from viewers. But first, he asks them to encounter each film in the same way that audiences have for most of the medium’s history.

“I stress with my students the importance of undistracted viewing,” Spadoni explains. “I have them watch films in a screening room on a certain night—it’s required. No screens are allowed in the room other than the movie screen.” His approach may seem a bit rigid to students accustomed to a constant stream of on-demand digital viewing options on their portable devices. But they’re willing to give it a try.

Spadoni also wants his students to go into film screenings blind, so to speak. He asks them not to search the Internet Movie Database for background information, read Rotten Tomatoes reviews or watch movie trailers until after the class has met to discuss the film.

He says that’s because his courses “are really grounded in watching a film together and then looking at parts of it again—the sequences and shots. I ask questions and we have a conversation, develop some ideas and see where they go. Oftentimes they go in very unexpected directions, which keeps the experience of teaching a film I have taught before fresh and alive for me.”

Spadoni arrived at Case Western Reserve in 2003, after earning a master’s degree in cinema studies from New York University and a doctorate in English from the University of Chicago, where his course work and dissertation were devoted to film. He was hired to replace Louis Giannetti, a beloved professor who retired in 2001 after teaching at Case Western Reserve for 31 years (see sidebar). Spadoni helped create a film minor that was approved in 2008. “I knew that students were interested in credentialing themselves and creating a more formal representation of the work they were doing,” he explains. More recently, Spadoni developed a concentration in film, available to students earning a bachelor’s degree in English.

In addition to his introductory class, Spadoni has designed courses on the history of film, science fiction films, American cinema history and culture, films of Alfred Hitchcock, and storytelling and cinema. Faculty members in other disciplines have also expanded the college’s film studies offerings. The Department of Modern Languages and Literatures is home to several film scholars and teachers, including Associate Professor Linda Ehrlich (Japanese and Spanish cinema), Associate Professor Gabriela Copertari (Latin American cinema), Assistant Professor Haomin Gong (Chinese cinema) and Associate Professor Peter Yang (German cinema). In the Department of Religious Studies, students can take Black Religion and Film with Associate Professor Joy Bostic or The Jewish Image in Popular Film with Lecturer Judith Neulander. In the Department of Music, Professor Daniel Goldmark teaches a course on the Hollywood musical.

To Spadoni, the diversity of course offerings comes as no surprise. “Film studies has always drawn on the methods and approaches, and reflected the interests, of many other disciplines,” he says. “This is something you see here at Case Western Reserve, where film courses can be found in so many different places.”

Common Ground

One of the first things Spadoni does in his introductory course is try to get students out of the habit of giving a film a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” as moviegoers and critics often do. Whether they are looking at a Hollywood blockbuster or an experimental art film, he wants the students to examine it through an analytical, rather than evaluative, lens, taking into account the distinctive nature of film as an artistic medium.

“You have to be able to talk about a film in such a way that it’s clear you aren’t talking about a play or short story or popular song,” he explains. “The basic components of the film, from editing to lighting to sound, should constitute the material of your analysis.”

In looking at a famous scene from West Side Story (1961), for example, Spadoni would prompt his students to examine the combined effect of all the elements of the mise-en-scène—lighting, setting, staging, costume and makeup. When the scene begins, Tony has just killed Maria’s brother in a gang fight; he climbs into her bedroom through a window, and the two lovers sing a duet, “Somewhere,” imagining they will one day be together. But moody, expressive lighting and angled furniture split the frame in half, separating the couple and foreshadowing the film’s tragic ending.

Spadoni says that a class discussion would naturally deepen from there, tackling, for example, the historical and cultural questions that the film raises.

“We are building a common ground on which you can place anything you want,” he explains. “So if you want to turn around after my class and explore, for example, Japanese cinema, or issues of race in American silent films, you are going to have a set of tools for understanding how things like camera angles and lenses, and narrative processes like suspense, shape the viewing experience in moment-by-moment ways.”

Film studies students acquire tools for understanding movies in all genres. Clockwise from center left: lobby card for Forbidden Planet (1956), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Lowe’s Incorporated; publicity still for 12 Years a Slave (2013), Fox Searchlight Pictures; frame from All About Eve (1950), 20th Century Fox; lobby card for Breathless (1960), Films Around the World; frame from Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Flicker Alley, Blackhawk Films® Collection and Filmmakers Showcase.

Spadoni’s syllabi are carefully crafted to balance crowd pleasers—like the 1993 romantic comedy Groundhog Day or the 2011 science fiction thriller Source Code—with films that will be less familiar to students. He has a special interest in horror films (he published a book in 2007 entitled Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre) and takes particular delight in introducing his students to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), “a dreamlike film that is so extreme that it has never really been imitated, and remains to this day a singular work in the history of cinema.

His other favorites to teach include Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, a 1954 fantasy set in feudal Japan, which Spadoni says is “a ghost story that touches on profound themes,” and Meshes of the Afternoon, a 1943 short experimental film by Maya Deren, which he calls “a fascinating film, full of provocative imagery, that invariably spurs great discussions.”

Films that “go down so easy, like the latest Star Wars movie,” are as worthy of close study as the most challenging art film, Spadoni says. Especially in the midst of our current digital media boom, when it is possible to stream and watch just about anything, anytime, anywhere, he feels that students need to develop a critical vocabulary to make sense of all the content they consume.

“Movies are everywhere, and they have a big impact on our lives,” Spadoni adds. “To understand what you are seeing, and to develop an independent opinion about it that might be different from the opinion the movie wants you to have—that’s increasingly important.” The aims of film studies, then, are “compatible with the definition of humanities in general—to make people better citizens and members of the culture, who can grasp, with clarity and discernment, what’s going on around them.”

Lasting Impact

Carrie Reese (CWR ’11), who remembers watching Meshes of the Afternoon in Spadoni’s introductory class, says it was one of the first films she fell in love with. In fact, it inspired her to declare a concentration in film studies.

“Growing up, I was allowed to watch a half-hour of PBS every week,” the Cleveland native says. “I wasn’t really exposed to movies.” Spadoni’s class changed everything. Reese is currently in her third year of a doctoral program at the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and hopes to follow in Spadoni’s footsteps.

“One thing I really valued—and I still look back to this as I teach my own students—are the discussions that happened in the classrooms,” Reese says. “Spadoni was my advisor, and I think he is an absolutely fantastic teacher because he makes you talk.”

Alumna Samantha Flinn, who designed her own film studies major at CWRU, founded a talent management agency, Gold Frame Entertainment, earlier this year. Photo by Damon Peoples.

Spadoni’s class discussions have also had a lasting impact on Hollywood talent manager Samantha Flinn (CWR ’09). Before taking his introductory course, Flinn had no intention of studying or working in film. But one film class led to another, and eventually she obtained approval from Dean Cyrus C. Taylor to create her own major in film studies, which she completed along with a major in political science.

After graduating from Case Western Reserve, Flinn earned a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Producing from the Conservatory of Motion Pictures at Chapman University, in Orange, Calif. Since then, she has worked as a motion picture talent assistant at Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, as an assistant to the senior vice president of programming at HBO and as a talent assistant for United Talent Agency in Los Angeles.

In Hollywood, Flinn notes, “What’s your favorite film?” is a standard job interview question—and the pressure is on to have a “good” answer that is not too mainstream but also not too esoteric. Fortunately, Flinn has an immediate answer— All About Eve, an Academy Award-winning 1950 film starring Bette Davis, which she saw for the first time in Spadoni’s introductory class.

“You can’t be a producer, director or agent … unless you know where you are coming from and what your influences are,” Flinn says. “At every job interview I had, I always fell back on what I learned from the films I watched while I was studying at Case Western Reserve. I’m fully indebted to my professors and to the dean of Arts and Sciences, who worked with me and let me do what I wanted because they wanted me to succeed.”

Earlier this year, Flinn launched her own Los Angeles-based talent management agency, Gold Frame Entertainment, so that she could be more hands-on with her acting clients. In her office, above her desk, she keeps a vintage All About Eve poster. For her, it conjures the memory of what it’s like to fall in love at first sight with a film. It also reminds her why she got into this business—so that others can experience that same movie magic.

Elizabeth Weinstein is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.

A GODFATHER FIGURE

Louis Giannetti taught film classes in the English department for 31 years. Photo courtesy of Pearson.

Louis Giannetti taught film classes in the English department for 31 years. Photo courtesy of Pearson.

Professor Emeritus Louis Giannetti has always been a film buff. But when he was a student at Boston University in the late 1950s, and then in graduate school at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, film studies courses simply didn’t exist. He earned his undergraduate degree in English, followed by a master’s in drama and a doctorate in English, but when it came to his education in the art of cinema, he was self-taught.

After graduate school, Giannetti was hired to teach literature and drama at Emory University. “It was about that time, in the late ’60s, that a lot of colleges and universities across the country were initiating film courses,” he recalls. “It was one of those groundswell things that came mostly from the student body, rather than from academia itself.” Giannetti incorporated films into his drama course, and the students loved it so much that he was asked to develop a film course.

There was just one problem: There were few film studies textbooks on the market. So Giannetti wrote his own: Understanding Movies, which was published by Prentice-Hall in 1972. Now, 44 years later, the bestselling primer on how to view and analyze movies is going into its 14th edition, with an e-book version also in the works.

At Case Western Reserve, where he joined the English faculty in 1970, Giannetti taught a variety of film courses, including Literature and Film, Italian Cinema, Four Masters of Cinema (Godard, Bunuel, Kurosawa and Fellini), International Cinema Since 1940 and Images of Women in the American Cinema.

“The classes were very popular,” he says. “At one point, they were over 100 students strong—bigger than any other classes in the English department. I was amazed.” Eventually, he set an enrollment cap of 40 students, but there was always a waiting list.

Giannetti was particularly interested in exploring how films comment on social structures. And, like his students, his courses changed with the times. When students asked him to show more films that featured black actors, women in leading roles and LGBT characters, he updated his syllabi accordingly.

Jonathan Forman (left) took his first film studies class with Louis Giannetti (right) as a sophomore at Western Reserve College. Today, he is president of Cleveland Cinemas, which includes the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

Jonathan Forman (left) took his first film studies class with Louis Giannetti (right) as a sophomore at Western Reserve College. Today, he is president of Cleveland Cinemas, which includes the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

He considers himself “a godfather figure” to the CWRU Film Society, because he served as an advisor to the club and as a longtime mentor for its early members, including Stefan Czapsky (WRC ’73), now an acclaimed Hollywood cinematographer, and Jonathan Forman (WRC ’75), founder of the Cleveland International Film Festival in 1977 and founder and president of Cleveland Cinemas. Forman cites Giannetti’s “passion for film” as his inspiration for establishing the festival and bringing to his theaters “the kinds of films moviegoers can enjoy.”

Forman took his first film course as a sophomore and says he will never forget a remark Giannetti made as the term began, telling the students they were about to lose their movie virginity. “Watching a movie after that would never be the same,” Forman explains, “since you’d be aware of so many things you wouldn’t necessarily have paid attention to before.”

Fifteen years after Giannetti retired from the university, his influence as a teacher and author continues to be felt, Forman says. “Lou’s keen insights and knowledge about movies have had a profound effect on students at Case Western Reserve as well as around the world.”—EW

 

 

Page last modified: February 9, 2017