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					Reflections of Society in Film:
 From Citizen Kane to Erin

        Jane Nickerson
       National Council of
      Teachers of English
  Friday, November 21, 2008
      San Antonio, Texas
Objectives of this lesson
   This lesson focuses on two films that
    provide perspectives on society –
    Citizen Kane and Erin Brockovich
   This lesson helps students -
       learn to analyze scenes from various films and
        relate the ideas to contemporary society
       compare and contrast scenes in films and
        analyze how directors portray social issues,
       demonstrate their abilities to write critically
        about films.
NCTE/IRA standards addressed
   1. Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of
    themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to
    respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment.
    Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
   3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate
    texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their
    knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their
    understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context,
   5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process
    elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
   6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and
    punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss
    print and non-print texts.
   9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and
    dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
   11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety
    of literacy communities.
   12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for
    learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Before we watch Citizen Kane
 Before  we watch
  Citizen Kane, I
  tell my students
  about the plot of
  the film.
 Orson Welles
  used many
  techniques in
The plot of Citizen Kane
   This film chronicles the life of Charles
    Foster Kane after he dies. Newspaper
    reporters create a newsreel about his life
    and want to find out what Kane meant by
    his last word, Rosebud. As the reporter
    searches for clues about Rosebud, he
    interviews people who knew Kane. The
    reporter never finds out what Rosebud is;
    however, the camera reveals to audience
    members that it was his sled from his
Background information for Citizen Kane
   I love to discuss Citizen Kane in class
    because it allows me to share ideas about
    history and society in the 1930s.
       Kane’s character was modeled after William Randolph
        Hearst who ran The San Francisco Examiner.
       I provide background about Hearst and media in the
        1930s. My students often have to stop and think about
        when televisions were used widely in the United States.
        The newsreel - News on the March reflects how
        members of society focused on news during this time.
Interesting information about the film
 The main character’s death is at the
  beginning of the film (Citizen Kane
  was the first film to do this)
 The reporter searches for the
  meaning of Rosebud by interviewing
  people who were close to Kane
 The interviews often show flashbacks
  of Kane’s life
 Film techniques
As we watch the film –
Techniques in Citizen Kane
 Various  lighting
 create light and
 dark contrasts
 between images
 and this film
 includes many
 scenes in which
 characters are
 left in the dark.
Another example of dramatic lighting
          used in the film
Camera angles vary
Deep focus photography was used
                    In this scene, viewers
                     can see a young
                     Charles in the
                     background playing in
                     the snow, while his
                     parents talk to Mr.
                     Thatcher, who would
                     become Charles’s
                    A wide-angle lens is
                     used to show
                     everyone or
                     everything in focus at
                     the same time.
The Breakfast Montage condenses time

   Young and in love         Older
   Clothes and hair          Clothes and hair
   Shots are shorter         Shots are longer
   Lighting is high key      Lighting is more low
   Communication              key
                              Breakdown in
Themes in Citizen Kane
   The cinematic techniques as well as the
    dialogue emphasize these themes for
    students -
      The American Dream
      Money can’t buy happiness or love
      Loneliness and depression
      Politics
      Childhood
      Power
Discussing Citizen Kane
 How effective is the use of flashbacks in
  this film?
 How does the newsreel, News on the
  March, develop character and set tone?
 Which scenes present the “money doesn’t
  buy happiness” theme in Kane’s life?
 What themes in this film are still relevant
  in today’s society?
 How has this film influenced other films?
Citizen Kane
 This  film encourages students to
  think about society – the similarities
  and differences in society from the
  1930s to now.
 This film helps students understand
  film techniques that they can watch
  for in other films such as Erin
Erin Brockovich
Another  film
 that focuses
 on issues in
 society is
The plot of Erin Brockovich
                    Erin Brockovich shows how
                     a determined single
                     mother of three children
                     was able to stand up and
                     fight a corporate giant –
                     the Pacific Gas and Electric
                     Company when this
                     company was
                     contaminating water that
                     made people ill. Erin is
                     inspirational to many
                     people as she fought for
                     the citizens of Hinkley,
                     California and she won!
Before we watch Erin Brockovich
 We discuss mise-en-scène – the French
  term for the whole composition of the
  shot, which includes the space actors
  inhabit, the movement within the shot,
  the lighting and the set/décor.
 Colors in the film reflect moods of the
  characters or situations
 Makeup, costumes, and hairstyles create
  character traits
As we watch the film –
Techniques in Erin Brockovich
                   These shots
                   show viewers an
                   important issue
                   in society –
                   The colors and
                   settings help
                   with the tone of
                   the film.
As we watch the film –
Techniques in Erin Brockovich
   In this shot, viewers
    see Erin who is upset
    with her lawyer, Ed
    Masry, since they lost
    her court case (after
    she is injured in a car
    accident). The clothes
    and her language in
    this scene do not help
    her with the case.
Colors used in this film
                     During this scene,
                      Erin is in the
                      courtroom when
                      the judge is
                      discussing PG & E.
                      Green tones are
                      used for scenes in
                      court. Blue tones
                      are used for scenes
                      at night.
Colors used in this film
   Orange and brown
    tones are used for
    scenes such as
    these which
    emphasize her role
    as a single mother
    driving an old car
    and for hot
    California desert
Clothes and make up
                  Asviewers can
                  notice, clothes
                  and makeup are
                  important to
Bright lighting is also used when
Erin is -
Collecting evidence   Discussing the case
Cameo role
   The real Erin
    Brockovich has a
    cameo role in the
    film when she
    plays a waitress at
    the beginning. The
    real Ed Masry is
    reading a
    newspaper in the
    booth behind
Themes in Erin Brockovich
 One person’s fight
  against corporate
 A wealthy company
  against citizens in
  a small town
 Health issues
 Single motherhood
 Divorce
Discussing Erin Brockovich
 How was Erin able to fight against a multi-
  billion dollar corporation?
 What evidence did Erin find that enabled
  her to put the pieces together about how
  the company was contaminating water in
  the area?
 Which scenes in this film suggest Erin’s
  growing determination to win the case?
 Which scenes present the difficulties of
  being a working mother?
Discussing Erin Brockovich
 How do Erin’s clothes, makeup, and
  hairstyles express her self-concept?
 How does the décor in this film reflect the
  social status of individuals and
 How did Steven Soderbergh, the director,
  use colors in this film?
 What is a “whistle blower?” What other
  companies have produced “whistle-
  blowers” in the last few years?
A good resource for this film

   This website provides lots of background
    information about what happened to the
    residents in Hinkley, California.

Other resources include -


   Screenplay – Erin Brockovich by Susannah

   Erin’s book – (fun reading) Take It From
    Me: Life’s a Struggle but You Can Win
Assessment strategies that can be used
for all films -

Students   can be assessed
 in different ways -
   Class discussion as they make
    connections among various
    themes presented in the films
   Film critiques
Film Critiques
   Students should write critiques for each
    film. When writing critiques, students
    should be able to –
       Describe the film briefly
       Write their reactions to the film
       Discuss film techniques that made the film
        more interesting, such as flashbacks, camera
        angles, lighting, makeup, clothes, and others.
       Describe any parts of the film that are
       Explain important themes in the film and relate
        them to issues found in contemporary society.
Another possible assignment
 Students can also write essays that
 compare the two films by examining
 the American dream and what that
 meant to people in the 1930s and
 1940s compared to people in the
 1990s. What are some similarities
 and differences between these two
 films? How did the characters in
 these films achieve the American
Connections and Adaptations
 Many films include themes which focus on
  issues found in contemporary society,
  such as family life, economic situations,
  and others.
 Students can find cinematic techniques
  that spotlight various issues.
Additional Films
   If your students are reading any of these
    novels, you may want to include the film
    version so that students can compare and
    contrast them –
       The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
       The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
       Cool Hand Luke by Don Pearce
       To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
       Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Important film websites
   The Internet Movie Database –

   Rotten Tomatoes –
Any Questions? Free free to contact me at