Studying film

One of the things I love about my degree in English Language and Literature is its heterogeneity. I can go from attending a lecture on articulatory phonetics one day to one on Nietzsche and philosophy the next. It’s so eclectic. I enjoy the variation as it means I can dip in and out of lots of different academic fields that interest me and explore new areas that I might not have considered before. I’m often asked which I prefer out of the two subjects, but it’s hard to say really because there’s aspects of both that fascinate me equally as much. I also find it difficult sometimes to separate the two as they complement each other in so many ways. Despite the diversity, one area I’ve developed a particular interest in is film.

In my first year I took a module called ‘LIT181: An Introduction to Cinema’ and it was through this that I discovered an interest for analysing film. Prior to starting university, I hadn’t studied anything film related since I was about 15/16, at secondary school and completing my GCSE in Media Studies, so I was slightly apprehensive. I was quickly reassured, though, and couldn’t get enough of film after that. One of the assessments for this module was a close-reading exercise, in which we were asked to observe the use of a specific aesthetic device, such as lighting or maybe colour, for instance, in a film of our choice and write a short commentary on it. Close-reading was one of the hardest exercises – I just couldn’t seem to get my head around when I first started university and I found that the process of scrutinising and critiquing the use of cinematography enriched my analytic skills an awful lot.

It seems so trivial to say, but learning about cinema made me so appreciative of how complex and multifaceted the whole industry is. It’s easy to overlook the vast amount of work that goes on in the production of a film when you’re just mindlessly absorbing it all, but when you really start to unpack everything that’s going on in only one scene, you realise that everything has been carefully selected to produce a specific effect. I remember once spending over two hours meticulously examining the use of lighting in the opening sequence to the television feature film Skins ‘Pure’, and even then I felt like I’d barely only skimmed the periphery in my analysis. I couldn’t believe how nuanced everything was, how effortless it seemed. Incidentally, my friend Suzanne, who studies film and television production at the University of York, told me that it’s not uncommon to spend over two weeks editing a film. Mad! Then again, I suppose it’s not really ‘work’ if it’s something you love to do.

It was through this module that I also developed a liking for realism, a genre that seeks to represent ordinary life as it really is. Think Emmerdale, or Eastenders (some of the accents on Emmerdale are a bit iffy to be honest). In fact, I’d probably say something like Happy Valley would pass as a realist drama. How fantastic is Sarah Lancashire? I mean, usually I can’t sit still watching telly, but when that programme was on, I was hooked. If you haven’t watched it, please do! Sorry – I digress. Anyway…I’m currently studying a module entirely dedicated to social realist cinema, entitled ‘LIT260: Post-war British Realist Cinema’, which is perfect for me. I think it’s been my favourite module so far this year (closely followed by Phonetics). Coming from a smallish town not too far north of Sheffield, it’s been nice studying material that deals explicitly with issues I feel I can personally relate to. I’m not really a big fan of highly stylised, predictable films; documentaries are more my thing. I like the roughness, the authenticity. Exploring how British social realist directors have developed documentary-style techniques, then, to depict the lives of working-class individuals has been ace so far. I discovered Box of Broadcasts a few weeks ago, which is sort of like the higher-education version of Netflix. I’ve been able to watch so many documentaries and, ahem, the odd episode (series) of Happy Valley. Purely for research purposes, of course! Wider watching and all that, you know how it is…Students at Sheffield University can access it through MUSE 🙂

Recently we watched Kes, Ken Loach’s adaption of Barry Hines’ beautiful novel about a young boy from Barnsley who trains a kestrel, only for things to take a tragic turn. I love this film. Growing up in Rotherham, it was like a sin not to have watched it. Everyone had something to say about it and everyone talked about it with the utmost respect; it seemed to be the only piece of art that portrayed South Yorkshire seriously, as we knew it and not how it was traditionally, often callously, stereotyped. The film and, indeed, Hines himself, was a firmly established part of the fabric of everyday life. And so, it was absolutely heartbreaking to hear that Hines had passed away a few weeks ago. I visited the Barry Hines archive at Western Bank last week because I was curious to find out more about the process Hines went through to create the novel. I read handwritten manuscripts, letters Hines wrote and some reviews of the film at the time. It was strange, but nice. If you have some free time you might like to visit too.

Taking risks with your module choices is always a good idea. You might surprise yourself!


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