Art in the city: Experimental learning through film comments

Experiential learning is the process of learning by doing, where the learners are directly in touch with the reality being studied, is essential for a profound educational experience. George Santayana’s quote, “The great difficulty of education is to get experience out of ideas,” emphasizes the challenge of translating theoretical knowledge into practical understanding. In other words, people tend to connect new information with personal meaning or past experiences. The question arises: must one undergo every situation personally to gain experience, or are there “shortcuts” that allow people to acquire experience vicariously?

The cover of Film Comments

The affirmative answer lies in the power of film. Film at Lincoln Center, established in 1963, is a community dedicated to showcasing global cinema and supporting filmmakers. It strives to make the discussion and appreciation of cinema accessible to a broader audience, as well as to ensure that it will remain an essential art form for years to come. Through events like the annual New York Film Festival and publications like Film Comment, the organization introduces films and directors to American audiences.

Film Comment, founded in 1962 under the editorship of Gordon Hitchens, is one of the longest-standing film magazines. Its mission it is bringing the best in film criticism back to the publication’s devoted audience around the world, supporting film culture and delving into cinema to enhance the audience’s experiences. The magazine emerged from the vibrant early-Sixties New York film scene, navigating ideological tensions of the era, such as white elephants versus termites, underground films versus commercial ones, and filmmakers versus censors, while avoiding alignment with any particular school of thought.

Emerged from the over-stimulating atmosphere of the early-Sixties New York film scene, Film Comments absorbed all of its era’s ideological tensions, such as white elephants versus termites, underground films versus commercial ones, filmmakers versus censors, but it refused to range with any particular school of critical thought. It provided a platform for young filmmakers to become participants in the world of film. In the first issue of Film Comments, 18-year-old critic Gretchen Weinberg wrote a report on “The Teen-Age Box Office” to show the determination of Film Comments. In the first few volumes of Film Comments, articles about the role of film in society, the dismaying on-screen treatment of race, the staid on-screen treatment of sex, and the business of film production. Making a connection between film and social problems, such as the assassination of JFK and the Vietnam war, Film Comments takes criticism as a kind of journalism, an act of reportage. The founder Gordon Hitchens said, “while Critic A in Magazine B froths at the mouth about Truth and Artistic Integrity, we demonstrate in dry, factual detail that American tax-payers are sponsoring a fake battle film that promotes the war in Vietnam. Readers can then make up what their sense of ethics requires of them if anything. We’re simply the catalyst.”

The cover of Film Comments

In addition, showing different concepts in different film scenes can show the application of these concepts in different situations. In other words, film scenes can offer visual portrayal of abstract theories and concepts, and provide a visual example for concepts. This is how films are different from other types of media, such as books. Films make the imagined scenarios that can only be depicted in audiences’ minds by reading become real, which specifies the image and make it more real. Audiences, therefore, virtually experience ‘reality’ through films. 

Renowned filmmaker Steven Soderbergh notes, “Film Comment connects me to a time when films and filmmakers actually mattered and were treated as being worthy of serious discussion. There’s no other cinema magazine remotely like it.” The film production process involves encoding and decoding, where directors encode the film’s meaning, and audiences subsequently decode it within the parameters established during encoding. By offering a professional understanding of films, Film Comment equips audiences with better tools for decoding, bringing them closer to the filmmakers’ intended message. This enhances the audience’s ability to draw diverse conclusions and glean varied perspectives from the films.

How do Film Comments analyse films that provide “false reality” to audiences? The analysis of cinematography plays an important role, employing camera and sound techniques to put the audience “physically” in the movie. The Point of view shot and the over-shoulder shot indicate a certain character’s perspective; long wide takes simulate audiences being in the room and watching from a distance; Long extreme close-ups of a character allow audiences to ponder a situation or decision along with the character. The editing would connect each designed shot into a sequence and thus produce meaning to separated shots. 

In films, audiences not only experience ‘reality’ but also have the opportunity to gain experiences beyond reality. Some films adopt a third-person perspective, allowing audiences to observe without direct involvement, creating a superior position for the audience. Films often provide information from both sides, offering audiences a broader understanding than real-life scenarios allow. By employing unrestricted narration, films empower audiences with an ‘unreal’ level of knowledge compared to reality. Consequently, viewers can attempt to approach real-life issues with a similar objectivity by adopting a third-person perspective, standing in others’ shoes, or detaching themselves from the situation.

Film at Lincoln Center, through its publication Film Comment, provides virtual experiences for audiences by introducing more films and filmmakers. This engagement encourages more people to participate in films and film production, applying film processes to real-life situations. Whether audiences utilize films as experiences or as a method to gain perspective on their own issues, they become more aware of situations and can address them more objectively and appropriately.


This piece was edited by Rafael De Alba as part of Professor Kelley Crawford’s Digital Civic Engagement course at Tulane University. 


You must login to post a comment. Need a ViaNolaVie account? Click here to signup.