Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: One for the Road

This column has now run its course.  Before it ends, I would like to wring one final ounce of usefulness from our loyal readers.
At the end of the semester, I asked my Film Studies students to fill out a feedback survey so I could learn just how much they hated me and hated my class. Okay, that is clearly a joke. I am kidding.  Almost all of my students enjoy my film class and seem to enjoy the way I teach it. You should be so lucky to be in my class.

About every ten years or so, there is a specific comment that pops up with some regularity on the survey.  I would like to address this comment today, and ask readers to comment as well.

“Why don’t we screen more recent movies in class?”

My pessimistic side understands where this comment comes from -- many of my students have been brainwashed in various ways to think that everything contemporary is automatically the best and that anything created before they were born is either suspect or the product of dopes.

My more optimistic side thinks this comment comes as a compliment -- that the students have enjoyed exploring and discussing film history with me and would like to apply their new skill set to films with which they are much more familiar.

What is the balance between these two poles? Where do the “classics” come in?

The truth is, I feel that I have a responsibility to teach film history, the whole gamut, the whole 125 years, not just the past twenty. In fact, I take it as a matter of faith that my students will see films from the last twenty years on their own, so it is a waste of precious class time to screen them.

But there is a wrinkle -- my class is a senior elective and does not even carry an English credit anymore since my school district was nice enough to take that away a few years ago. (In neighboring school districts, students still earn an English credit for the same class.) My point is that if not enough students sign up, Film Study will go away, just like every other English elective at my school has done over the last ten years. (RIP, Creative Writing.)

Personally, I think it is IMPORTANT to have a high-school class devoted to the most IMPORTANT art form of the twentieth century.

Yet, I cannot be completely oblivious to student suggestions. I need to strike a balance between what they will eat and what I can successfully force-feed them.

I certainly do not want to go overboard in the opposite direction and pander. I remember a time maybe fifteen years ago when two of the schools in my district featured Film Study classes that consisted of 18 weeks of 1980s action films. I love Heavy Action as much as the next guy (well, maybe not as much as Patrick) but those instructors were so focused on the students liking the class (and so ill-equipped to teach film history) that the syllabus consisted of Lethal Weapon, Commando, Rambo, True Lies, or anything with a lot of explosions. The class discussions always focused on editing and special effects. I think that did students a disservice by never asking them to step out of their comfort zones… and by lowering their attention spans.

I know I could make the class more popular by screening more films that students year in and year out really like. Imagine a film studies class that only screens perennial teen favorites: The Boondock Saints, Fight Club, A Clockwork Orange, Requiem for a Dream, Scarface, and others of that ilk.  Think of the parent feedback I could expect to receive from some of those titles!

Students are always surprising me with their likes and dislikes. One thing I have gotten really good at is “taking the pulse of the room” during screenings. When young people are exposed to something for the first time and are digging it the most, there really is nothing else like it.

Students consistently love Rebel Without A Cause, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and The Searchers. The class that just graduated had a tremendous response to the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the loudest and most appreciative reaction that film has ever received in my class. I am actually surprised looking back at how little student reaction has changed in the last twenty-five years.  Students hate silent films, Shane, Help!, Eraserhead, and The Wild Bunch. Buster Keaton goes in and out of style. So does The Graduate. Chaplin’s The Kid always makes them cry.

I know that I have a responsibility to the past; to ignore the totality of film history is to do a disservice to my students. I also want to engage them. What is the right mix of old and new? I do not wish to shit on the classics by dumping them for a flavor of the month.

I arrange my class by genre. After spending three weeks on early film history and basic film grammar, we explore different genres through screenings, reading assignments, lectures, and discussions. We usually have time for comedy, horror, the American Western, and the Hollywood Musical. I have also experimented with units focusing on the Science-Fiction film, Film Noir, and the Hollywood Social Problem film.

In the next few weeks I will begin to construct my new syllabus. Any suggestions?

THANK YOU: It has been quite an experience taking certain films down a notch or two over the last 52 weeks. I appreciate those who came along on my shitty little road trip and especially love all the interesting feedback I have received. I now have tremendous respect for bloggers who post regularly. I originally wished to contribute to F This Movie! to begin a dialogue with other film fans. I was beginning to feel insular and isolated. Thanks to everyone at F This Movie! and our regulars, I no longer feel this way. Thanks. While I am sure that S#!tting on the Classics will reappear every now and then whenever something new gets my goat, next week will see the launch of a new weekly column and… A NEW LEASE ON LIFE.


  1. Congrats on finishing the column JB and I look forward to the next series you choose.

    I found your question to the readers very interesting as I have seen a similar “Why don’t we screen more recent movies in class?”
    point of view in high school and undergrad film classes I took. I think there are two reasons for this 1) People want to claim ownership of great movies from 'their generation.' There's more identification with something you experienced for the first time when it was new than something that was around before you were born and more immediate to a different generation. 2) Your students respect your opinion and are eager to hear about their new favorites from your frame of reference. It's a way to grow as film viewers since they have their bearings with the newer movie and are ready to view it from different angles.

    I always enjoyed my film classes more when my teacher/professor editorialized on the movies as opposed to making it more of a film history arguement. Analysis always drew me in more than fact checking.

    Lastly, I saw many movies in my film classes that I just didn't know what to make of at the time (e.g. Blade Runner, Brazil) but have grown affection for over time. Sometimes, it's best just to imprint these movies on young people first and let them come back to it when they're ready and more comfortable with what to expect.

    1. Adam, I think that you are right on the money with your first two points. I also think it is heartening that some of your film teachers attempted such challenging films as Blade Runner and Brazil. I am a little wary of this imprinting business though; I think it might lead to werewolves falling in love with babies.

  2. I totally agree with everything Adam said, especially the part about your class being interested in what YOU have to say about movies of their generation - I would guess that's a big part of it.

    As far as recommendations for your syllabus, I find it depressingly hard to get into the mind of a teenager and what they might consider great movies of their time. Inglourious Basterds or are they too young for that? Shark Boy and Lava Girl? Ugh, I hope not. I was talking with my wife's much younger brother (about 20) the other day and it came out that he'd never even heard of Pulp Fiction! Or The Big Lebowski! I'd hope the kind of kids taking your class would have, but perhaps they need more exposure to the 90s - movies that came out when they were way too young to notice, but aren't old enough to grab their attention as "classics". Fargo would be another one that springs to mind - it definitely made an impression on me when I saw it at 16/17.

    Anyway, JB, loved this column, but looking forward to whatever comes next!

    1. Speaking of the Coen brothers, I sometimes conclude the comedy unit with Raising Arizona. The students think it is a hoot, but cannot believe that is Nicholas Cage up on the screen, as they only know him as an action star.

    2. Ah, that's a great one too! And that's funny about Nicholas Cage - I remember how weird it seemed when he started becoming an action star! I still haven't entirely gotten used to it.

  3. First of all, thank YOU, JB, for the memories! Very hateful memories!

    Second - I think that if you don't want to create the new generation of hipsters who hate everything new and contemprorary and who identify themselves by that classic mantra "Everything was better when I was a kid!" or "I want my childhood back!" you should also CONSIDER contemporary movies. Don't be smug, and don't give in to the masses, but be open-minded.

    I know a lot of people who were studying film, and who were brainwashed by their teachers to like only boring and profound, trippy things (i.e, anything that can be described as "some kind of a beautiful dream, man!") Please, don't turn them into those....those things.

    And don't show them things just to get on their good side, like the Boondock Saints - you're a teacher, not Teen Choice Award.

    If you want contemporary, why not some Tarantino? How about Kill Bill? There's your crowd pleaser and a very good editing and action lesson, AND an influence from the old classics.

    Or how about showing them Shyamalan, to show how a big Hitchcock fanboy can take all the wrong influences?

    It's awesome that your students like James Dean, Chaplin and the Marx Brothers (BTW, just marathoned through the Marx' Paramount movies - really great stuff; now I can't get "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" out of my head). But teach them to also like the new blood. Cuz, they're gonna be exactly that too, some day.

    1. Glad to hear you motored through the Marxes! Did someone call me "Schnorrer?"

  4. It's early out here in California so excuse me if this seems nonsensical, but one thing that could blow their minds is to find a recent film that they know and love, then show them the film made previously that inspired it, then show the film made before that that influenced the filming techniques, and so on and so on.
    That way the students would see (and feel) that cinema is connected and constantly borrowing from itself.

  5. Reading these columns, it's like the class never ended... Keep 'em coming JB!

  6. In all my years of attending school, your Film Study class was by far the best. My only suggestion is to do away with the musicals. Maybe it's just me that doesn't enjoy them, but I would have rather seen something strange and different, some avant-garde possibly.

    Great column though. Never stop teaching!

    1. Thanks boys, but class never did end! You both have homework due on Thursday. Hop to it.

    2. When you retire, some years down the road, I think you should go to Harper and teach film study. You get 3 and a half hours to teach what you want and watch a film. I think you would dig it.

  7. I think Cameron has the right idea above, pairing a classic film with a contemporary one, ones that parallel each other in some way, and discuss with the students the ways that are similar or different. I know the METROPOLIS/BLADE RUNNER combo is popular among film students, as is the CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI/EDWARD SCISSORHANDS combo. There are bound to be all kinds of other pair-ups that might interest them. (Maybe Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY, followed by HANNA?) In college, I had a classic lit teacher who had a knack for drawing parralels between old-timey epic poems and modern stuff like Woody Allen films, and it made the class a lot of fun. That's my two beans.

    Looking forward to the new column!

  8. I'm sad this column is leaving us as a regular feature, but eager for whatever the future holds.

    As for your question, that's tough. My initial reaction was "well, new movies usually suck and teenagers refuse to watch anything older than Star Wars (the original) so you should make them watch those older classics because they're not going to find them on their own for quite some time, and some may never." But then I tried to be more open minded and admit that perhaps that's not necessarily true. They are signing up for it, after all, and they aren't getting an English credit anymore, so they're obviously making an attempt. However, I think there's a lot to be said for showing those old movies. I wish I'd had a class to open me up to some things that I had to find on my own, much later. Most people will find the Coen Brothers and Woody Allen movies on their own. But will they find the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and The Graduate? I think those are important, and I think that the students should be challenged and pushed outside their comfort zone. They may not all like everything that you screen, but I think it's important in a film studies class to point out the masterpieces that built the art form. They can see The King's Speech on cable, but some of them might not ever see Rebel Without A Cause. You have precious little time with them to cram it all in, as well. I guess I'm voting for the classics, but I see that the world is changing and that the average attention span is frightfully short. If the times dictate that newer movies be slipped into the rotation for the preservation of the class, it may be a necessary evil. But wouldn't that be a shame?

    Thank you for this column, sir. I have valued (and will continue to value) your film knowledge. You've had quite an influence on me, and I am in your debt.

  9. That is really nice of you to say, Heath. Thanks.

  10. Cameron Cloutier wrote:

    ...one thing that could blow their minds is to find a recent film that they know and love, then show them the film made previously that inspired it, then show the film made before that that influenced the filming techniques, and so on and so on.

    That way the students would see (and feel) that cinema is connected and constantly borrowing from itself.

    This is a wonderful idea, and if JB gets creative he can pick twofers that complement and/or enhance each other and the points of cinema he wants to get through to the class. Some examples off the top of my head:

    Zero Hour (1957)/Airplane! (1980):
    Yeah, they're both kind-of old by young people's standards but they're short (way under 3 hrs. combined) and it's the rare "remake" that actually is better than the original while the actors perform almost exactly the same line readings/scene blocking. Good showcase of how directorial tone approaching the exact same scene/material results in two wildly different/identical movies.

    Network (1976)/The Social Network (2010)
    Different approaches (satire vs. drama) at tackling the reach of the most powerful media of the day.

    Notorious (1946)/Mission: Impossible II (2000)
    Robert Towne has a lot of 'splaining to do about how the plot in Cruise/Woo's pic kind-of mirrors almost to a tee Hitch's classic.

    Billy Liar (1963)/Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
    How cinema tackles characters who are not typical cinema heroes (dreamer losers) as they use their imaginations to overcome daily lives of quiet but all-consuming desperation. Substitute either movie with "Taxi Driver" or "The King of Comedy" (or pair these two DeNiro bad boy vehicles for a two-fer of their own) and it's still a mother of 'it's all inside their head' showcase.

    Jaws (1975)/The Host (2006)
    Movies where the monster is both the hook and the McGuffin; ultimately it's the civilian characters whose lives the monster affects that makes these "monster" movies click.

    The Furies (1950)/Prometheus (2012)
    As I pointed during Barbara Stanwyck day last month, these movies have almost the exact same plot but one is set in space and the other in the New Mexico/Mexico frontier. Great showcase of two top-tier directors (Anthony Mann and Ridley Scott) tackling basically the same script except one is a B&W western noir and the other a sci-fi spectacle.

    Great column JB, will miss it for a week and then look forward to what else the teacher's got cookin'. ;-)

  11. It's funny because I had a great high school film teacher and he played a significant role in my decision to attend film school. The only suggestion I can come up with is adding Animation to the syllabus. In most cases these are the first films we ever watch and a good majority of these films were painstakingly drawn by hand. To watch the work of the Nine Old Men, Miyazaki, Fleischer, and Jones is a wonder to behold. I look forward to whatever musings JB has for the future.

    Vargas - Network and the Social Network? Other than the material being written by prolific television writers or the word network, these films have nothing in common. However, I'm sure you will provide a lengthy rant to explain yourself.

    1. I'll be brief.

      Payefski = genius!
      Sorkin = genius! There! :-P

      Seriously though, each decade has a defining "media" movie ("Ace in the Hole" for the 1940's, "Broadcast News" for the 80's, "Face in the Crowd" for the '50's, "Wag the Dog" for the 1990's, etc.) and I think any one of these teamed-up with "The Social Network" (the closest a movie has come to defining the recent Y2K years in regards to media) would provide context to HS film students of how movies have tackled celebrity/media in society. Personally I think "Network" is the best of the bunch, but that's just personal bias.

    2. Who the heck is Payefsky?

    3. CHAYEFSKY, Paddy Chayefsky! Fuck me! :-)

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  13. JB.

    As a former student of you films studies class from many years before.
    I would have to say that I at one time was a student who might has asked that question, but since having taken you class I would say that it helped open my world up and become more aware of the film world out there. I loved film but didn't have a true understanding and appreciation of film until I watched many of the films you screened. Some of the films we watched are still on my list of favorites and helped me find a world I would have never found by just watching the status quo. As I type this I look upon a photo of one of my favorite films that sits above my desk, were it not for your class I might have never seen "Eraserhead" and developed a great love for david lynch as well. Granted looking back a a high school student who loved film, the idea of sitting around for a semester and watching movies sounds like a dream. But the thing we didn't realize was we were going to learn something and I know I did. I knew you to be a strong willed individual and also very knowledgable about the subject at hand.
    So keep fighting the good fight, in the end some will want more modern films and some like me, will be better for the experience you give.

    1. Mike-- good to hear from you. Yes, I love Eraserhead as well. And that makes two of us.

  14. What the heck!? As soon as I get into reading this column...it's gone!? Excellent writing there, "JB". It reminds me of film and music commentary that I used to hear a lot of in the early 80s. But if the theme of this column rings true...that was an awful long time ago.
    Even though I don't think that I have the film knowledge of most of your readers (great comments by these guys), here's a pairing for you: The Road to Morroco and The Blues Brothers (HA! Had to get it in there).

  15. I am not addressing your question exactly, but I feel like posting anyway...

    Unfortunately, I don't remember as much of HS as I wish I did (for various extenuating circumstances...d'oh), but without a doubt, your class was something that is burned in my mind... in a good way. I think however you decide to create/shape this year's syllabus, you will be successful reaching the kids that are open to it and a bunch that aren't.

    Even before Fthismovie came around and brought back some familiar voices, there were several times a year that I would watch something (not even necessarily a movie) and reflect back to a conversation or interaction or screening that took place in your class.

    I don't see it referenced here, but I remember watching The Birth of a Nation and thinking how much power film can have (for good or bad). I also remember thinking that with all that power movies have to shape thoughts/ideas, it is even more important for people to have the conversations you facilitated in class and those you all continue to have on fthismove. Many times, the conculsions people draw after analyzing a film (though not intended by the film maker) are just as important/valid (and I would argue sometimes more). If I remember correctly, watching The Birth of a Nation in your class was what prompted me to go out and buy Reefer Madness... a decision I will never regret.

    Anyway, no more rambling on... I didn't intend to answer your question so I won't apologize for failing to.

    ...and who could forget Let's Do Lunch?!

  16. So Birth of a Nation was your gateway drug? All kidding aside, Steve, thanks for the kind words.

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  18. First taste is free. A little harmless "The Birth of a Nation" on the house... No one got hurt, so you go buy a little "Reefer Madness". No big deal. Then, before you know it, you have watched "Red Dawn" three times in a row and bought a ticket to go see "Fahrenheit 9/11"...