Our lives are awash in images, from televisions and magazines, newspapers and billboards, movie and computer screens. But many of us are ill-equipped to understand what those images really mean, or how they affect our view of the world.
With an eye toward deepening that understanding, the Philadelphia Free Library is expected today to announce One Film, a citywide film education program running Feb. 21 through March 6, designed for high school students and adults. It's thought to be the first U.S. program of its kind.
Conceived by Philadelphia film scholar Ruth Perlmutter and Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey, in partnership with One Book One Philadelphia, the program will feature dozens of free screenings, discussions, lectures, workshops - even Quizzo tournaments - focused on Steven Spielberg's 1987 World War II epic, Empire of the Sun.
Philadelphia Library Foundation CEO Linda Johnson said that while One Book, now in its sixth year, addresses traditional notions of literacy, "One Film expands that idea to include current thinking on the importance of visual literacy."
Johnson said those interested in participating can attend free screenings of Empire - many followed by discussion sessions - or check out Empire DVDs at any of the Free Library's 54 branches. She said 200 DVDs were sent to every high school in the city, which have been provided with teaching guides.
Perlmutter, who has taught film for more than 20 years at Temple University, the University of the Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania, said that by its very nature, film tends to elicit a passive attitude in viewers. "There's far more distance between a reader and a novel, since it takes longer to read and absorb a written story," she said. Visual media can affect us in a direct, visceral way, which bypasses the intellect and appeals directly to emotions.
Even many die-hard movie buffs, she said, "focus on following the story and overidentify with the characters" to the point where they "miss the film's underlying meanings . . . and any ideological message."
Perlmutter said improving film literacy not only unlocks new layers of meaning for viewers, it also leads to a more enjoyable movie experience. She said that the ability to view films critically is a form of cultural empowerment.
For Perlmutter, One Film is also the perfect way to pay homage to her husband of 56 years, Archie Perlmutter, who died in 2004 at 81.
Ruth Perlmutter said Archie, who cofounded the Jewish Film Festival at the Gershman Y in 1981, wasn't much of film enthusiast - when she first met him.
"It hit him like a ton of bricks as soon as I embarked on my career," she said of his new-found enthusiasm for all things film. "I was like a Frankenstein creating a monster."
Empire of the Sun, adapted from J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel by playwright Tom Stoppard, is set in Shanghai during Japan's 1941 invasion of China. It presents war from the perspective of a young British boy (Christian Bale), who is imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp.
Johnson said that a committee of film experts and educators decided to go with Spielberg's film because it best answered the program's various needs.
"We decided that the film should be accessible to everyone with an 11th grade education," she said. "Empire's a great selection because it's not only a great film, it's not an intimidating film. And since this is our first year, we were anxious to begin with something which was more approachable."
Johnson said Empire is a good fit because its themes resonate with those of this year's One Book selection, Dave Eggers' What Is the What, a novel about children who were displaced in refugee camps during Sudan's civil war.
"Like Eggers' book, the film's main theme is how war impacts children," she said. "But since the book and film are about different cultures, the stories can be compared on a more sophisticated level."
Johnson said Spielberg wrote to say he was pleased with the renewed attention to Empire, which received mixed reviews on its release.
Penn film professor Timothy Corrigan, who served on the selection committee, said even though some cineastes might be disappointed by the choice of such a mainstream director, Empire contains a level of complexity which might be missing in some of Spielberg's other films.
"I think it's one of Spielberg's more interesting films," Corrigan said. "Visually, it is one of his best, and it nicely balances a kind of historical realism versus the sort of [cartoonish] spectacle that you find in most of Spielberg's films."
Most important, he said, since it's about the experience of a Western family in Asia, the film exposes students to different cultural perspectives, one of the best services One Book and One Film can provide.
Temple film professor Chris Cagle, who specializes in the history of post-WWII Hollywood, said Empire was one of Spielberg's first attempts to engage more complex material. Cagle, who is to lead a Feb. 23 discussion, said films can be read on multiple levels.
He said this is especially pertinent to Empire. Since it deals with an actual historical event, scholars can ask whether it tries to provide viewers with an accurate history, or whether it's a more fanciful, metaphorical or symbolic look at the era.
Cagle said viewers must be aware that, "often, historical films really are more about the time in which they are made . . . which means they use the historical material to comment on the present." On another level, he said, scholars might look at how differently the film portrays Westerners, as opposed to the Chinese or the Japanese.