Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Sh!#ting on the Classics: One for the Road
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.