Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Film and Literature

One of the requirements for my Master's degree is that I complete a research project that focuses on a question I have about the practice of teaching. I've chosen film and literature as my topic, and I've been doing an awful lot of thinking about if - and if so, how - film in the classroom helps support literature learning in high school students.

Let me give you some background on this topic.

I am a child of popular culture. I was raised in a household where, on their best days, my parents were indifferent, so a good portion of my childhood was run not by a parent's prodding or the clock, but by the television. I was sending myself to school in kindergarten and knew it was time to leave when Scooby-Doo was over. My bedtime came after the Jeffersons. In between, the days were marked off in half-hour increments of fare like "I Dream of Jeanie," "Hogan's Heroes," "The Munsters," and "Good Times." TVLand is a catalogue of a good portion of my youth.

I may sound bitter, but I'm really not. I believe that a lot of value was learned in front of the television. I learned a lot about racism and bigotry from the likes of "All in the Family" and "Chico and the Man." I watched people whose lives seemed very different from mine cope with some of the same problems I saw in my own life. I was able to follow how one person’s choices led to certain outcomes. I watched as people sought advice from others and I learned to integrate other experiences into my own. I learned a lot about the intersection of reality and drama in front of the television. While I may have preferred to spend that time interacting with real people, I don't think that those countless hours of TV viewing were necessarily wasted.

As an adult, I still think that there's a great deal of value to be gleaned from drama in its many forms (though I have to admit to making sure my own daughters have more human interaction than I had as a kid). I’ve said before that, for me, education is really all about making connections, about being able to see something in a new or more complex way as a result of having had a previous experience. Education is about giving us a common vocabulary and set of experiences which we can use to make our communications deeper and more meaningful. While a great many erudite academics would scoff at the idea, I'm sure, I don't think there are many places where the possibility of learning something new is excluded. Pretty much everything is fair game - video games, rap music, television, movies, plays, comic books - everything has something to offer.

This is the angle from which I am approaching this research question. Students may not realize it, but they have a wealth of experiences to bring to the discussion of literature. I’ve been thrilled to hear kids bring up seemingly unrelated topics and watch as they drew threads of connection - sometimes very thin and tenuous threads, but sometimes good, solid ones - between their culture and the reading. While teaching A Taste of Salt, I was bothered at first when a student kept bringing up the fact that “Forrest Gump” was on television the night before. When I finally asked her why she kept mentioning the movie, and what does it have to do with what we’re doing now, she quite rightly pointed out that “in the movie, that guy lost his leg. Just like this kid we’re reading about.” Tenuous connection? Maybe, but maybe not. Here is an example of how this student is using a known experience - the experience of watching Gary Sinise’s character lose his leg in war - to mediate an unknown experience - the experience of reading about Djo’s near-paralysis following the fire bombing of a Haitian homeless shelter.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we make those connections all the time, and there’s nothing that’s off-limits to us. A student in one of the freshman classes quoted a line that applied quite nicely to our class discussion about justice and forgiveness while we read The Sunflower by Simon Weisenthal. “Justice,” he said, “is not closing your enemy’s eyes, but forcing him to see through your eyes.” When I asked him where the line came from, he told me it was in the opening sequence to a martial arts video game. That’s the kind of active thinking I’m hoping to inspire when I introduce film into my English classroom.

One of my proudest moments in college was when I handed in a paper that connected Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness to an episode of Star Trek; Deep Space Nine. Because I’d been pretty well ensconced in the culture of academia by that point, I was horrified that I was turning in a serious piece of writing that connected a canonical work to a cult television show. I felt compelled to write the piece, though; the connection was too valid and well-supported and I was excited to have recognized it in the first place. My professor agreed, and encouraged me to continue to seek out literary references in unexpected places. I still have that paper, and am still proud of the work that I did in it.

I have a lot more to say about this, but I’m feeling a little like I’ve wandered off my point. Let me regroup, and I’ll come back with more thoughts about the ideas of artistic license, visual vs. linguistic imagery, and whether or not a film has to be faithful to the original text to be considered “good”.


Blogger vanx said...

I once heard Richard Price, the author of Clockers, a really great book, interviewed on the radio. The interviewer asked him how, since he was a consultant to Spike Lee on the film Clockers, the film came out so different from the movie. Price said, “The last thing you want to do is make [the film] Sophie’s Choice.” Clockers is a worse movie than Sophie’s choice, but I understand his point and I agree. Sophie’s choice was totally “by the book.” The filmmaker didn’t make something new. This wanders a bit off your point, but I though of it reading your entry here—the connection between film and literature cannot eliminate creativity on the part of the filmmaker (or book writer in the rare case where the film comes first). You stick with the theme and create.

I so agree with your ideas on education. Erudite academics often scoff at ideas, thus making themselves ridiculous!

March 30, 2006 11:36 PM  

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