The Tesla Coil

February 28, 2010

Does Hitchcock direct your lessons?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 9:37 am

What, Pascal Bonitzer wonders, is ‘required to turn a Lumière  brothers’ sketch into a Hitchcockian fiction?’  What is the difference between the innocence of early cinema and the paranoiac, crime-stained universe of Hitchcock?

Taking as his example a short film depicting a soldier courting a nanny engaged in pushing a pram around a park, he concludes that it is enough merely to inform the audience ‘a priori that the nanny has decided to drown the baby’. This surplus knowledge then undermines the meaning of the whole sequence even if everything is filmed as before:

When one sees the baby babbling in its pram, the soldier clowning around in an attempt to seduce the nanny, and the latter simpering and shaking her rear, an underlying sense of horror serves to destroy the apparent meaning – what semiologists would call the ‘denotated’ meaning – of the scene, and distorts all its signs….  The first ‘impression of reality’ shifts to a secondary level, that of connotation.  For the camera is no longer saying to us: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is’, but rather: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is, it has only a few minutes to live, unless the soldier understands what is going on’.

What is required in filmic terms to produce this effect is merely the juxtaposition of two shots: one where we learn of the nanny’s murderous intent and another where we see the apparently innocent scene armed with the knowledge gleaned from the first shot.  The first scene is, then, a kind of surplus knowledge – the materialization of that knowledge, in fact – which stains the second scene.  It inhabits the second scene as a blot or anamorphosis, skewing our vision and instituting a condition of suspense.  What, we wonder, will happen?

Hitchcock's first film: Holbein's The AmbassadorsHitchcock’s first film: Holbein’s Ambassadors complete with anamorphic skull

What happens, of course, is that we become interested.  Interested both in the sense that we want to know what happens next, and also in the more fundamental sense of having an interest in, or rather being subjectivised by the anamorphosis.  We are therefore unable to remain neutral or objective; we are in the grip of the point of view created for us by the juxtaposition of the scenes, or the Hitchockian stain.

If Hitchcock was able to construct the place of his viewer in this manner, it might perhaps be instructive to consider how ELT subjectivises its students through its own, hopefully less sinister, juxtapositions.   At an everyday practical level, for example, what kind of student do we create when we ask a question to which we already know the answer?  The first scene here, the one with the teacher holding a lustrous blade, is the teacher telling the answer, and the second one is the teacher asking the question.  The only suspense such a scenario is likely to generate is a private suspension of interest.

When a more precious set of intimacies, such as the aspirations and ambitions of individual realisation, are tested in reality, what juxtaposition of scenes plays itself out in the mind of each student as they embark upon a course of study?  In the very first scene of their particular film, do they find their teacher enthusiastically extolling the glories of independent language learning, or is the stain of their initial lesson a series of mindless gap-fills while the pedagogue they entrusted their dreams to listlessly picks his fingernails in a semi-crapulous fug?  If it was the latter option, then no doubt the second lesson, or scene of their film, will bear witness to an atrophy of the student’s will and/or presence; if it is the former, then perhaps it may resemble a kind of Hitchcockian joy most obviously manifest in eagerness, or that strange phenomenon known as the student who happily does their homework.



  1. So often the debate seems to boil down to the same question: Is the class there to facilitate learning through communication or learning through non-communication? Doubtless nobody would like to admit to the latter.

    Comment by Glennie — February 28, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  2. Hi Glennie – perhaps this man might admit to the latter, and proudly too.

    Comment by theteslacoil — February 28, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

  3. Hi teslacoil and Glennie.

    I think you’re right that the first lesson (or first few lessons) are crucial. It can affect student response to you for the rest of the year. I think Dogme would be a good approach for the first lesson: turn up without a lesson plan, and just talk to the students about their lives and aspirations on the course (taking into account their limited English).

    In answer to Glennie, maybe there is room for a bit of both: you need some passive as well as active learning. And to an extent ALL classroom communication is a bit false, and is teaching somebody how to speak actually possible? That comes from applying the passive knowledge previously learnt Surely all we can do in a classroom is *practice* speaking?

    Imaginative article, and good that it takes the learner’s point of view. What are their hopes, aspirations and expectations at the beginning of a course?

    Comment by 26 Letters — February 28, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

  4. Hi 26 Letters – maybe if we knew our students’ hopes, aspirations and expectations at the beginning of the course it would make for some radical revision of the homework load.

    Comment by Sputnik — February 28, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  5. I agree you need a bit of both, but I definitely favor more active learning versus passive. Unfortunately, in many classes there is much more passive learning where the teacher provides the answer. I think this especially occurs with lower proficiency struggle who need to learn how to figure out processes themselves, yet also need to improve their skills quickly. When I thought beginners they were always years behind everyone else and I think at first I believed we went through things so quickly we didn’t have as much time for active learning. However, I quickly learned that the students remembered the active learning more than the passive so instead I focused on this.

    Comment by shellterrell — March 3, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

  6. Hi Shelly – it’s definitely more fun having an active classroom and, maybe because of that, we intuitively think it’s more useful, engaging our students both in the material we study in individual lessons and over the long term. Hopefully, that engagement leads them to learn the language more effectively but only if, in tandem with it, they have sufficient motivation to pursue their studies and therefore their exposure to a wider range of input outside of lessons. I guess that also partly comes down to us teaching our students how to learn too.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 3, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  7. I love this post. I’ve always been entranced by that Hitchcockian technique of tell ’em what’s going to happen and have them watch in horror while it unfolds. It hadn’t struck me before, but it’d be great way to build some drama and suspense into classes and get folks on the edge of their seats. And great for highlighting the intentions that lie behind words as well – after all the same words can have entirely different meanings in different contexts.
    Bravo Sputnik!

    Comment by vicki hollett — March 4, 2010 @ 11:58 am

  8. Hi Vicki – many thanks for the kind words. I was reading a blog the other day about quite how much English is a contextualised language in comparison to others. Whatever the truth of that, I’ve noticed that my best students always ask for words and phrases to be contextualised so they can understand them better.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 4, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  9. Could we possibly extend this Hitchcockian metaphor further?? I’m thinking about a long take where you set something up in the classroom (presentation, roleplay, etc.) and just see what happens versus the editing technique where you are constantly switching between viewpoints (possibly feeding knowledge in as you go).

    Comment by Mike Harrison — March 7, 2010 @ 9:54 am

  10. I like your thinking Mike, although I must admit many of my classroom experiences would be better represented by a multi-view montage where different students are doing different things albeit that they occupy the same space and time.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 7, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  11. We recently decided that a good young learner lesson was like an episode of The A Team- unpredictable only within the routine.

    Comment by alexcase — March 14, 2010 @ 4:34 pm

  12. That’s not a bad idea for a blog right there: which 1980s TV programme does your classroom most resemble? ‘Cheers’ would be the ideal, but ‘The Krypton Factor’ is probably the reality half the time…

    Comment by Sputnik — March 15, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    • That’s a different approach to classroom management/methodology, isn’t it? I can imagine different schools modeled on different programmes. I’m guessing Krypton Factor could be good for those tricky kinaesthetic learners…

      Comment by Mike Harrison — March 15, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

      • It might catch on, you know. If it were widened to films, I can imagine more men signing up to, say, The Die Hard School, or English Fight Club. Actually, maybe that’s a bad idea.
        Going back to Alex’s comment, I have to confess that I think most of my young learner lessons ended up like Tiswas.

        Comment by Sputnik — March 15, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

  13. Switching metaphors a bit. I think of teaching EFL in Japan as something along the lines of fiction writing and method acting. Most of the scripts we use to teach conversation are really about as interesting as the dialogue in a Pinter play. And because I teach mostly indifferent EFL students, at least at the beginning of each class, while still in character of a ‘language teacher’ I also pretend to be more interested in the material than the students are.

    Comment by Charles Jannuzi — April 16, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

  14. Hi there

    I found your “Hidden Gem” of a post and have linked to it recently as a “homework” task. I love the way you have linked Hitchcock to lesson scenes. Great post. Thank you

    Comment by Janet Bianchini — May 25, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

  15. Does your site have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to shoot you an email.
    I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.

    Comment by Esther — May 9, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

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