Dr. Sandy Frieden, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Houston, spoke about the art of “diagnosing” the meanings and details behind movies for this month’s edition of the ongoing Arts & Resilience Program – a series of events designed to link the arts and humanities with medicine at McGovern Medical School.
Frieden’s presentation, titled “How to Watch a Film,” tackled certain techniques used by filmmakers to elicit responses from audiences, from creating tension and uncertainty to getting viewers to sympathize with characters on the screen. As a professor of German, Frieden used Fritz Lang’s classic thriller M from 1931 to demonstrate differences in camera placement and the use of both visual and audio motifs throughout the film. She spoke about the use of framing in Lang’s film, and how close-ups and angled shots can create feelings of fear, juxtaposition, and even sympathy for the film’s antagonist.
“When I’m talking to students about films, I ask them to put themselves in the place of that film,” Frieden said. “How do they feel about it? Do they feel comfortable identifying with the main character? There’s all kinds of things going on, and I think your best avenue to diagnose a film is to ask yourself how you feel about it.”
She emphasized the importance of identifying messages behind movies and demonstrated the differences between films on an artistic spectrum, from structured Hollywood to more experimental avant-garde productions. She contrasted the opening scene of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future with that of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Even from just the opening minutes of the former – shots of inventions that only slightly work, a haphazard room that has been empty for an indeterminate amount of time, Marty McFly’s comedic use of a guitar and giant speaker – an audience can assume they’re in for a comedy. The latter, however, opens with a wide, establishing shot of a misty mountain in South America, as Spanish conquistadors trek down a perilous trail set to a serious and understated musical score.
“Your brain is like a computer trying to figure out what’s going on and where things are headed,” Frieden said. “You’re immediately trying to figure out what this film is about.”
Understanding the language of film isn’t just a benefit for watching and grasping movies, Frieden said. Learning how to watch for subtle clues, small bits of information, and retaining that information are skills that can translate in either direction for medical students.
“[Med students] already have been learning skills about how to observe patients very carefully,” Frieden said. “They can pick up context cues and they have mysteries to solve and that’s what happens when a film starts. Students could enhance their own viewing literacy by applying those same skills to film-watching. They can maybe even train themselves to look more carefully at how people are interacting and apply it to how they help patients.”
The next event in the Arts & Resilience Program will be held at 4:30 p.m., May 16 in MSB 3.001. It will feature a conversation between two local artists – Gael Stack and David McGee – as they talk about their art and influences. The program is sponsored by the Dean’s Office in collaboration with the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics. For more information, visit the program’s website here.