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    It’s Not the Blockbuster Bug—there’s an academic method in our DVD madness!
    by Jeff Clark, Media Resources Director/Resident Film Guru

    If you’ve been to the Media Resources Center lately, in the basement of Carrier Library,  you may have gotten the idea that we’re trying to compete with video rental stores in town.  DVD movie titles are piling up with a vengeance on our shelves.  And since everyone seems to be getting a player these days, it’s awfully easy to adopt the habit of borrowing a bunch, then kicking back at home or dorm while the stadium seating at the local multiplex takes a rest. 

    Is this incredible expanding DVD collection the movie equivalent of the library’s Browsing Collection for books—recreational viewing and an escape from study chores?

    Not quite. Believe it or not, there is academic value in the feature films on DVD, and videocassette, in our collection.  And I should also note in passing that non-feature film programming is now being released on the DVD format, too.  For example, you might check out Red Planet Mars (DVD 83), an interesting non-movie program with images in 3D.  It’s only a matter of time before this part of the DVD collection becomes more obvious as the format continues to grow in popularity with educational program publishers.

    But let’s return to feature films, and begin with their most logical use first: film studies.  JMU has a cluster of film-related courses, now comprising a minor, offered through English, Media Arts and Design, and Theatre and Dance.  The film studies courses all look at feature films for various artistic qualities: as adaptations of literature, the work of major directors (as film “authors”), and for styles and genres of storytelling, etc.  Because of the quality of a DVD’s picture and audio, the random access to its content, and the supplementary materials about a film it often provides, the format is close to ideal for film studies. 

    In fact, the most substantial funding support for our DVD collection is currently the JMU Foundation.  Before his recent retirement as its director, Dr. Ray Sonner--something of a movie buff himself--made a decision to help develop our collection to benefit film studies.  This is how we’ve been able to grow our DVD titles to nearly 500 in not much more than a year.  In the future, we’ll be scanning new releases to fill every nook and cranny with films that are classic, contemporary, in foreign languages or none at all (Hollywood’s silent film heritage), and representative of genres both American (film noir, screwball comedies, westerns, etc.) and foreign (martial arts and Hong Kong action cinema, Indian “Bollywood” musicals, and whatever else of significance may be released).   

    In the meantime, we’re also expanding the capability to play the new DVD format in the media center and in our campus classrooms.  We hope to have DVDs usable in most  classroom locations by fall of 2002. Because of the quality of a DVD’s picture and audio, the random access to its content, and the supplementary materials about a film it often provides, the format is close to ideal for film studies.  But as the collection and playback becomes fully available, this wealth of movie content increases in potential for other academic uses besides film studies. 

    What sort of uses?  This one is easier to answer than you may think.  Remember, movies are a reflection of society and culture, capturing how we see ourselves—or would like to see ourselves—and how we live, along the timeline of our own history and their creation.  This makes them rich artifacts for study and rich tools for illustration.  Here’s just a short list of non-obvious academic uses already:

    • Developing foreign language skills.  Many foreign language movies on DVD have features suitable for language study—either the original language soundtrack with optional subtitles, or an English language version with optional subtitles in the native language, and sometimes both.  For French there’s Diabolique (DVD 13) and Dreamlife of Angels (DVD 42), for Spanish there’s Central Station (DVD 65), and for Italian there’s Amarcord (DVD 15) among others.


    • Dramatizing significant events in history.  Obviously, few feature films are an adequate substitute for historical sources—unless they’re documentaries, such as The Sorrow and the Pity (DVD 430-31)—but they can help historical sources and their discussion come dramatically alive.  Lawrence of Arabia (DVD 452-53) and Patton (DVD 47-48) deal with important figures and wars in the early Twentieth Century.  Glory (DVD 225) deals with our Civil War, Quiz Show (DVD 284) focuses on the American TV game show scandals of the 1950s, and The Right Stuff (DVD 349) on the pioneering days of U.S. space exploration.  And if you want to get a pretty good idea of what really happened in the tragic fate of the ship Titanic—while Leo and Kate were falling for each other—then watch instead A Night to Remember (DVD 18).


    • Dramatizing social issues in worldwide cultures.  Of course, many foreign language movies, because of their settings in other societies, can be useful in this way.  But some go beyond this incidental virtue, by dealing pointedly with sometimes controversial people and events.  For example, The Bandit Queen (DVD 463) recounts the life of Phoolan Devi, the low-caste Indian woman who struggled—both militarily and politically--against a class-based, male-dominated culture until her assassination earlier this very year. 


    • Dramatizing religious or philosophical issues.  For provocative takes on Western religious ideas, there’s The Last Temptation of Christ (DVD 117)  and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (DVD 27).  For Eastern religion, there are the Buddhist illuminations of Kundun (DVD 354) and the Hindu of Mahabbarat (DVD 376-91).  And reaching into popular philosophical ideas on the influence of media on our consciousness and on the nature of reality, there’s Videodrome (DVD 102) and Existenz (DVD 228), to name but two eerie, speculative films.  In fact, put Existenz together with The Matrix (we’ll have this one in the collection soon), and some reading in the philosophy of mind and knowledge… and you may have the makings of an essay.


    • Furnishing ideas for costumes and dramatic staging.  In the theater arts, many films can provide a wealth of such illustrations from distant and recent history.  Of course, for the Roman empire we’ve just witnessed Gladiator (DVD 175) this past year—but for things Roman there’s also the BBC TV’s miniseries I, Claudius (DVD 208-12).  Moving into the Nineteenth Century, there’s Lola Montes (DVD 105), Topsy-Turvy (DVD 246), An Ideal Husband (DVD 117), The Bostonians (DVD 313) and even My Fair Lady (DVD 11).  If you want to get historically fanciful, there’s also Bram Stoker’s Dracula (DVD 164).  For mid-Twentieth Century American costuming, there are the real 1940s with The Big Sleep (DVD 206), the 40s viewed from the mid-1970s in Farewell, My Lovely (DVD 199), the 1930s viewed from the 1970s in Chinatown (DVD 152) and the 1950s viewed from the 1990s in L.A. Confidential (DVD 189).  And we haven’t even gotten to more contemporary periods.  Films that use costuming not just realistically but as visual décor, may be especially useful for this purpose.


    • Depicting how scientists and science have been viewed in popular culture.  This sort of usage, of course, could apply to other disciplines as well.  General education science courses can make (and have made) imaginative use especially of science fiction films for this purpose.  Here, the DVD collection itself is often lacking, but as more movies are released in the format this condition won’t remain for long.  Sci-fi movies of the 1950s, currently on videotape—such as The Incredible Shrinking Man (Videotape no. 6172) and The Fly (Videotape no. 6169)—are especially useful for this purpose.  (The depiction of genetic recombination in The Fly could also be compared with its 1980s version, Videotape no. 6232.)   In the 1990s, DVD does offer pop scientific views on cloning in Jurassic Park (DVD 339) and a rather serious view of the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence, from a scientist himself (the late Carl Sagan), in Contact (DVD 324).  Such films may help us not only understand scientific issues and activities, but also how we view them through the cultural lens of our social fears and desires.

    All of the foregoing are just a few possibilities.  But they indicate why a movie need not be “just a movie”--when its viewing is put in an academic context. So use the media center’s DVD collection for pleasure when it suits you, but realize that its first purpose is for study… in just about any imaginative way that faculty and students can think of. 

    Next time, we’ll explore DVDs from a different angle: how to handle them, and why they sometimes won’t play in your DVD player. 

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