I’ve been writing quite a bit about religion and film this summer, but I think it is time for a practical post. As folks begin teaching their fall courses with media items, the inevitable challenge is turning the viewing experience into a powerful learning moment. What are the tools necessary for that when we’re dealing with media?
We’d all like to assume that students are gifted consumers capable of dissecting and deconstructing critical scenes we examine with them. This is a dangerous assumption because it too easily lulls everyone into avoiding the detail-oriented work of scene analysis. It can be a slog to go through the many elements of a scene. Lighting, camera perspectives, color palette, dialogue, and a half-dozen other cinematic items are all fair game.
For a basic walkthrough, you might look at the e-how wiki, which is surprisingly helpful as a starting point. Before you begin, there are a few pedagogical concerns.
- Where does this film fit into your course’s learning goals?
- Where does this scene fit into your lesson’s learning goals?
- How experienced are your students with scene analysis?
Early in the term you may spend an entire class discussing a single scene point by point. Later on, however, you could have small-groups each searching the scene for a different element. If the learning goal is learning scene analysis, then it may be helpful to pick a scene entirely removed from the course material. Careful scene selection will not only speed up discussion of key themes, but it will also give unprepared students a chance to participate. (I know from experience that this can be a real problem in courses when media items are required viewing outside of class.)
I’m outlining a religion and film course on the Supernatural, and I’m looking for ways to use the opening scene of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t show the whole film to a class. I worry that there’s too much action and too little explanation of the supernatural elements of the plot to foster significant discussion. This is a common problem in supernatural action films (even in the cinema classic Raiders of the Lost Ark). By treating the opening sequence as an opportunity to lay significant themes on the table, we can see that Hellboy still has a lot to offer.
- Terminology Explosion
- One of the most significant issues when dealing with the supernatural is the abundance of terms that have competing, overlapping, and contradictory definitions. Des Vermis Mysteriis is a fictional grimorie or spellbook. Invented by Robert Bloch and popularized by H.P. Lovecraft, Des Vermis Mysteriis contains spells that summon horrific, ancient gods from other dimensions. This text, and others like it such as the Necronomicon, are fictional devices designed to give authority to esoteric or occult beliefs.
- Discuss with students the gradations and differences among occult, esoteric, supernatural, paranormal, and arcane. Brainstorm phenomena and then attempt to categorize and place these items taxonomically. Are ghosts both supernatural and paranormal? Was the ritual that summoned Hellboy paranormal? Occult? Esoteric? Arcane? All of the above?
- To what are these terms contrasted? What are their antonyms? What does this say about the way we construct natural or human? Why are we debating about these definitions? What about perception, experience, and the consequence of belief?
- Additional reading:
- Paul Stoller, “Rationality” in Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 239-255.
- Hellboy is chocked full of interesting items for discussion. A scene analysis could go on a long while, so I recommend reserving quite a bit of time for this.
- Go through the Shots on your own ahead of time. What is shown in each successive moment in this scene? 1) Quotation of Der Vermis Mysteriis; 2) Voice-over while flying through storm clouds to zoom on island; 3) American soldiers getting onto island; 3) “Are you a Catholic? Yes. Among other things.” at foot of Crucifix; 4) Nazis here for the sheep?; 5) “I grant you immortality”; 6)”What I do here tonight can never be undone.” 7) What’s on the other side of the portal? 8) Americans blow things up; 9) The discovery of Hellboy. How do we know when one scene ends and the next begins? Are there clues for continuity?
- At 13 minutes or so, I’d be the first to admit this is really several consecutive scenes. There’s a consistency, however, to these pre-credit moments. The color palette–cold blues and muted greens–lies in definite contrast to the post-credit colors. The preferred camera shot for major characters is fairly close-up, giving a persistent sense of intimacy for spoken dialogue. Material religion is rampant with crucifixes, rosaries, hellish bas-relief, sacred tomes, and so on. If you want a full list to work through, I recommend this one.
- Rather than spend significant time plotting the shots, I’d prepare a detailed list ahead of time. I’d stop after each one to allow students to write down their thoughts. Use the list of scene elements to begin picking apart the scenes. Which characters are being developed? What plot is being advanced? How is the mise-en-scene setting the tone and mood for the action? What is the audience expected to know by the end of this sequence? The key question is always two-fold: what do we know and how do we know it.
There are plenty of reasons I think Hellboy works as a starting point for this kind of analysis. It’s long enough to be substantive but short enough to be shown in class. It mixes conventional religious ideas and objects with unconventional fantastical items (rosaries and steampunk gauntlets that open portals to other works). It blends real esoteric religious knowledge (ley lines) with fictional concepts (Des Vermis Mysterii). It acknowledges history (there was Nazi interest in the occult) but mythologizes that history (it was working but the Americans stopped them)!
Above all, this is a strong cinematic opening. It requires no pre-knowledge or preparation. Most of the audience wouldn’t know the first thing about the Cthulhu mythos. Nor would they have read Mike Mignola‘s excellent comic series (upon which the film was based). While they may have heard of Nazi occultism, Rasputin, the paranormal, demons, ley lines, and hell, each of these concepts is framed internally to the sequences here. Part of getting comfortable talking about the supernatural is finding where the seams of knowledge are most frayed.
Look here in the future for more items as I continue to sketch the components of this course. I expect that Constantine (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), Drag Me to Hell (2009), and The Exorcist (1973) are all excellent candidates for inclusion. I’ll eventually turn to the softer side of things, too. That may be the moment to include Ghost (1990) or Spirited Away (2001). If you’ve got suggestions, I’m all ears.