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SubText

September, 1982. I was 18, about to turn 19 in moments. A kid off the farm, starting undergrad in a decidedly urban discipline (theatre) and being completely and utterly naive about everything, including myself.

I attended one of those small Ontario universities that sprang up in the 60’s as an almost counter-culture response to the staid, traditional schools like U of T, Western or Queen’s. Permanent buildings were not funded until the mid-70’s and, as such, had that horrid 70’s concrete slab look to them. Garbage receptacles were concrete. Even the “furniture” in the halls were concrete – I kid you not. Between classes, students lounged about on concrete slabs covered with naugahyde cushions in varying shades of purple, orange, and amber. The lecture halls themselves were decked out in orange and amber plastic “chairs” and were steeply raked, so that the instructor stared up at what appeared to be a near-vertical wall of students. There was even a slightly theatrical element to the design that was, wisely, rarely used by professors. You really could enter stage right, or left. Most profs just came in the huge double doors way up in the “theatre” and picked their way down the stairs with the rest of us. In any case, the buildings had vaulted high ceilings supported by vast grey walls, and were the antithesis of “welcoming”.

As with most majors, there was a selection of mandatory courses and a handful of electives. I had to take one science and, like most of my science-fearing confreres, I picked Astronomy as being, possibly, the easiest to swing. I wonder if the very sweet, stereotypically corduroy-jacketed prof ever clued into the little troupe of Fine Arts majors that wound up in his intro class every year?

One other popular elective was Intro to Film. I mean, really, how hard can that be? Watch movies and write about what you liked or didn’t like, right? If there was popcorn, I was “in” for sure.

I’ll never forget the first class in Intro to Film. Students were assembling in the mid-sized lecture hall that seated, perhaps, 250 people. Minutes before class was to begin, a person entered the class. I didn’t notice her until she was receding away from where I was sitting, appearing to float regally down the wide concrete “stairs” that led to the lecture area. She seemed to have layers of diaphanous material that floated around and behind her … I realize now that this was some kind of scarf or pashmina or some such. She walked slowly and deliberately, carefully muss-coiffed reddish hair and this purposeful gait drawing our eyes, collectively, to her. She may have been wearing some kind of designer boots or something – I remember, eventually, tuning into the sounds her footfalls were making. It took her some time to get to the lecture space at the bottom/front of the room, by which time the room was effectively silenced. I’m not sure if anyone in the room had seen any person like this person – I certainly hadn’t, and I hadn’t even seen her face yet.

These lecture halls were outfitted with portable blackboards on wooden frames with wheels. Still not facing us, Professor picked up a piece of chalk and slowly, deliberately, with care, wrote the following on the blackboard.

B – I – R – D

She put the chalk down and wheeled to face the now quite attentive room. Quietly, firmly, she said, “If anyone here has signed up for this course anticipating that it is a ‘bird’ course, please leave now.”

And then, she just stood there, staring at us. Inspecting us. Maybe daring us. We were all frozen in our seats, of course. No one dared move or scarcely even breathe. After what seemed like an interminably long time, she gave a quick nod and began to talk about what this course meant. Thus began my journey into visual literacy, and my connection to Professor.

Professor is, of course, a real and intensely private person whom I’ve had the pleasure of being connected to, on and off, ever since that first day of Film Studies. If she allows, I may be able to publish her real name here but, until then, Professor will do.

Is it sacrilegious to suggest that, of all the courses I took in my four years in the snug embrace of fine arts academia, Intro to Film was the most valuable and has had the longest-lasting effect? I often wish I’d followed my gut at the time and switched my major to Film Studies, but I was too well-trained to finish what I’d started. Also, Film Studies majors had an air of elitist intelligentsia about them. Pale-skinned (perhaps from a lack of natural light 🙂 ), always wearing black, sitting in outdoor cafes, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and morosely debating the use of chiaroscuro effects in German Expressionist films of the early 20th century. The pre-goth goths. The Visu-Goths. Only other Film Studies majors understood what the hell they might be talking about and I guess I’m just too proletariat for that.

Actually, as I think about it, I’m a huge hypocrite. I remember wearing a lot of denim and getting into screaming fights over nachos at the London Arms about Brecht as a precursor to the Open Theatre Movement in Argentina. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that I revelled in where Intro to Film, and Professor’s insistence on disciplined critical thinking, took me.

Off we went, on a journey through D.W. Griffith, Potemkin, Caligari, Fritz Lang … later, Truffaut, Godard (often shortened to GOD) … eventually Canadians like Snow and Wieland. We were challenged to observe the relationship between how a message was conveyed and what the message was. How does this communication really work? What are the conventions, the signifiers? Can we identify the language? How do our brains, and our varied cultural perspectives, interpret the visual? What does dark “mean”? What does light “mean? Why? How does cultural context change meaning, especially meaning we take for granted? What does movement, gesture, positioning do to our interpretation? What can a shifting camera angle do to these very things? Who are we, the viewer, beside the camera? Who are we intended to be? What is our perspective?

We looked at print and television advertising. This is not, strictly speaking, “film”, but incredibly accessible as a way of teaching visual literacy. Tableau, shape, positioning, colour, gesture. Who are we, the intended partakers of the images? How do the creators’ assumptions about us, the viewers, drive their decisions? At what point is the advertiser’s understanding of the viewer so profound that the use of image, text and subtext becomes manipulation?

Professor was the first seriously smart person who reassured me I could write, and think critically. I remember one of my first submissions in this course. We were given a strict page/word limit and, try as I might, I couldn’t stay within it. I edited, cropped, trimmed … I was really worried about this. Frankly, Professor scared the bejesus out of me. I don’t recall how far over the limit I went, but I recall adding a hand-written note apologizing for the excess length. The paper was returned, with a B+ or an A- or thereabouts and a hand-written message, saying, “I don’t mind reading over-limit papers when they are of such calibre.” Whoa. This woman, who took this discipline of study so seriously, who clearly took her own intellect and intelligence seriously, was prepared to take me seriously, too. That was astounding to me.

Learning from Professor didn’t end after this particular course, I’m thankful to say. Although she wasn’t formally my instructor for any further courses, she was part of a circle of creative types that I was also grateful, over time, to find myself part of. Her bearing and clarity of purpose, always confident and almost regal in nature, still inspires me. I recall her repeating some advice she received when it was her turn to take over the quasi-management role of Department Chair for two years. She was told to “always respond – never react”. I can see this fitting her perfectly and, I must admit, it has served me well, too, in many scenarios.

Understanding subtext, and context, and, for that matter, text are Professor’s main gifts to me, and no doubt to hundreds of other students who signed up for her B-I-R-D course. Dig deeper … look inside the messaging … ask questions … analyze the “how” of the message being conveyed with as much, if not more, rigour than the “what”. View from all perspectives. I now teach communications, and work directly with communications tools and techniques in my consulting work. I really don’t think I’d be doing any of this, at least not doing it with any level of applicable understanding, without Professor’s incisive insistence that visual literacy is Important and Useful.

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2 comments to “SubText”

  1. nice — I hope you send it to her 😉

  2. I imagine that one of your students will someday, if they have not already, be writing a blog somewhere about the impact you have made in their life as well 🙂

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