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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Shit-Ass Film Classes; or, Why to Study Shakespeare

Overheard yesterday on campus at State University:

"Yeah, I dropped that class. I'm going to take some shit-ass class this summer where you just sit around and analyze movies."

Nice. I especially enjoy how the idea that one would be sitting around analyzing movies literalizes the implied posture of moral and intellectual lassitude apparently inherently implied by the whole practice of analyzing movies. I have to admit that I was sort of relieved to hear that final word "movies"; for the seemingly endless, terrible moment between "analyze" and "movies," I found my mind racing through other possible endings: "plays"? "books"? "poems"? "Shakespeare"? It was like Stanley Fish's reading of Milton come to life, and I was stuck in the enjambment.

Maybe this is just a moment of cynicism, but this comment did underline for me what I think is one of the biggest criteria of intellectual or academic legimacy of the introductory Shakespeare course I teach pretty regularly, at least for some of the students who take it: the fact that the language is hard. It's Old English, as they like to tell me. You have to Look Up Words. But that, apparently, is less an objection to the class than the actual basis of its "Real-ness": it's exactly what makes my class a little more like, say, Organic Chemistry, and a little less like some shit-ass film class. I don't think this group of students sees much inherent value in "learning Shakespeare," in and of itself, and certainly still less in reading literature more generally; as for the idea of "analyzing cultural texts," I don't think that has registered at all. Again, I'm just talking about a certain group of our students -- leaving aside English majors, budding intellectuals, and other aberrations of nature; the course I'm talking about draws heavily on non-majors, and at State U, that tends to mean science majors. For the person I overheard, certainly, it's clear that the only thing that might make my class more "real" than a film class is that you have to use a dictionary. Even a historical dictionary.

  • At 3/14/2007 08:28:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    This post pleases and amuses me on so many levels.

     

  • At 3/15/2007 04:29:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I especially enjoy how the idea that one would be sitting around analyzing movies literalizes the implied posture of moral and intellectual lassitude apparently inherently implied by the whole practice of analyzing movies.

    Note too that "sitting around" also invokes another posture associated with shit-ass.

     

  • At 3/15/2007 05:28:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    H: I don't know what you're talking about.

     

  • At 3/15/2007 06:00:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I: I can't tell if you're being coyly sarcastic or not. I'm talking about sitting on the can, dude.

     

  • At 3/15/2007 06:25:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    H: Now I can't tell whether you're being coyly sarcastic. This reminds me of an exchange between two teenagers at a Lollapalooza-style rock festival on an episode of the Simpsons --

    1 Teenager: "Yeah, these guys are really awesome."

    2 Teenager: "Dude, are you being ironic?"

    1 Teenager: "I don't even know anymore."

    More or less. Memorial reconstruction.

     

  • At 3/17/2007 12:37:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Yeah, that's a great Simpsons episode: Talking about the Smashing Pumpkins, Bart says that "making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel."

    And putting aside the physical position of the practicing film critic, I think it's worth noting that this student's opinion is shared by colleagues of ours in literature departments. And it's not clear why: after all, film criticism requires substantially the same "close reading skills" that literary criticism does, and films arguably have had a greater cultural impact in the twentieth century than literary fiction has. But films are ostensibly more accessible, and therefore easier, and therefore worth less intellectual effort. Right?

    Blah, blah, blah, I know I'm only pointing out the obvious. But would you support a class on, say, 1980s teen comedies? (maybe American Graffiti for background, then Porky's, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Last American Virgin, Valley Girl, Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, The Sure Thing, The Karate Kid, Dirty Dancing, etc.)

     

  • At 3/17/2007 02:16:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Simplicius, it's obvious you don't know shit-ass about 1980s teen comedies. Karate Kid and Dirty Dancing do not qualify as teen comedies. And Valley Girl is really in a different (more elevated) aesthetic realm than the rest of them. Genre, baby, genre.

     

  • At 3/17/2007 04:52:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    It's all about pushing against the limits of comedy, fool. "Karate Kid"=happy ending in which he defeats the bullies and wins the girl: how is that not a teen comedy? Or, perhaps, shouldn't it be considered a teen comedy?

    Something like "The Outsiders," despite its teen gloriousness, wouldn't belong. And "Dirty Dancing," I would argue, is pushing into the post-teen teen comedy area. "St. Elmo's Fire" might also work in this arena, on the theory that a) the same note for 14 weeks would get boring, and b) a good way to figure out what teen comedies are and why they matter is to look at ones that belong in some ways and don't in others. Sheesh!

    "Better Off Dead" would be another worthy addition. I'd probably pull "The Sure Thing" to put this on the syllabus.

    And if you like "Valley Girl," I imagine you'd also like "The Last American Virgin," which is the saddest teen comedy ever. It's almost like the producers of this movie didn't realize these films are supposed to end happily (after all the sex jokes, nudity, and casual drug/alcohol use).

     

  • At 3/18/2007 12:54:00 PM, Blogger Truewit wrote…

    You fellows joke (don't you), but I once taught an advanced undergrad seminar on comic forms through history that featured a final paper in which students had to choose a contemporary comic text to close read for the conventions of dramatic comedy that they had pieced together by reading Aristophanes, Plautus, Shakespeare, Behn, Centlivre, etc, then discuss how those conventions revealed their text's socio-political engagements. They handed in some of the most memorable papers I've ever received -- M.A.S.H., wit, and the displacement of Korea for Vietnam; frame-breaking and status-reversals in Wayne's World (that one didn't work as well, but it was a valiant effort); class satire in Caddyshack -- and four really repetitive essays on fashion and Sex in the City. They weren't all brilliant, and a lot of it was kind of cultural criticism 101, but I don't think I've ever taught another class for which I could list final paper subjects. there's something in that.

     

  • At 3/20/2007 02:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I'm an undergrad taking that teen comedy course and have a final paper due in a couple hours that question the rise in popularity for these teen picks. I still have no clue why these films were so popular in the 1980s, died out and came back with Clueless and Meangirls a decade later. It was a great class, but we didn't discuss its historical connection in the quarter, and now have to conjure it all up for the final. (sigh)*

     


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