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Students view blockbuster movies to learn writing techniques

July 13, 2016

KOKOMO, Ind. — Imagine a college class that includes explosions, superheroes, birds that turn into bombs, genetically engineered dinosaurs, and a man eating shark, all accompanied by fresh buttered popcorn.

An auditorium in AMC Showplace Kokomo 12 served as the classroom for a class taught by Eva White, professor of English, during Indiana University Kokomo’s summer session. Each Tuesday, students watched a matinee of a current blockbuster movie, and then Thursday watched a Steven Spielberg summer classic on campus in Kresge Auditorium, before writing critiques and comparing and contrasting the films.

“We’re trying to mimic the role of the film critic, and expose them to the blockbuster phenomenon, from the first one with Jaws, to current releases,” White said. “We’re comparing five of Spielberg’s films to the present blockbusters in terms of narrative and spectacle, and how the myth of the American frontier is transported to the blockbuster.”

The class included current blockbusters Captain America: Civil War, Angry Birds, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, and Warcraft: The Beginning. Spielberg blockbusters in addition to Jaws were Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan.

White received an applied learning grant from IU Kokomo’s Office of Academic Affairs that covered the cost of the students’ movie tickets. She was thankful for cooperation from theater management, which provided the class its own auditorium and showings of the current movies.

These were not mindless afternoons of movie viewing— there were weekly writing assignments, discussions, required reading, and writing their own blockbuster movie pitch. Many of the discussions centered around spectacle — the visual impact of special effects sequences — versus narrative — the storytelling of the movie.

White said students were surprised to first read about, and then see for themselves, how the theme of the frontier appears in the blockbuster movies, and how blockbusters have evolved to not sacrifice as much of the story in favor of special effects and explosions.

“They noticed, for example, that Captain America was lacking in storyline for those who had not seen previous movies in the series. They felt X-Men was better as a sequel, if you had not seen the earlier movies,” she said “Like the earlier westerns, blockbusters have the elements of the lone hero, always being on the frontier, always pushing the boundaries. They might not be riding horses, they might be riding bikes, or other things.”

All of this made Trevor Larkin a more critical movie viewer.

“I just thought we were going to watch movies and write papers about them,” said Larkin, Kokomo. “This class has opened my eyes. When I watched movies before, I didn’t necessarily think of them in the way we thought about them in class, in terms of spectacle versus narrative. I used to just watch, now I critique.”

For John Bowman, a “huge movie buff” from Kokomo, who worked several years in a video store and enjoys critiquing movies, the class required a shift in focus.

“I used to focus my reviews on character and story exclusively,” he said. “This class was more focused on the broad strokes of spectacle, and how the movie functions as a movie, and less as a story. It gives people a voice to ideas they already had. Most of us recognize a bad movie when we see it, but can’t vocalize why it is a bad movie. Now we know the term for why a movie is awful, or why it is good.”

As an aspiring writer, the class gave Tom Cassidy, Logansport, a chance to experiment with a form of writing he had not previously attempted. He especially liked discussion about how the myth of the American frontier permeates the blockbuster film.

“We gained a better understanding of how blockbuster movies are put together, and how they relate to one another,” he said. “Everyone likes going to the movies, and maybe now in the future you can explain to someone how they’re put together, and how narrative and spectacle intertwine.”

Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.

Last updated: 07/13/2016