Friday, April 08, 2005

April 8, 2005

I’d like to take an intermission here to comment on my internship; I don’t usually write on my blog about my internship, since I encourage my students to read what I write here, and it seems sort of, well, exhibitionistic, then to blog about teaching the very people who may be reading what I say. But something particularly interesting happened this week in class that’s worth documenting here.

Every week we’ve been watching a film in class, though we’ve gotten a little behind of late because of some technical problems we had with equipment (first) and then because I had to miss class on another day (second). So now when I go to school on Wednesdays, truthfully, I’ve been ruefully facing the fact that I planned the class exactly the way I said I wouldn’t when I read about teaching film courses. People like Ellen Bishop (who wrote Cinema (to) Graphy) say it is often better NOT to show the whole film in class, but rather to show important parts and to discuss and analyze (and let students watch the films on their own). Somehow, though, that just didn’t work for me. I wound up showing them all in class—it just seemed more practical to me…but I felt guilty since I said in my original paper that I wouldn’t. I was letting myself down—and in a sense, Ellen Bishop, even though I wouldn’t know her if I backed into her in a parking lot.

Making this short story very long, then, some of the showings of films have seemed arduous and stupid, and I’ve thought, well Ellen Bishop was right, and these students probably would have benefited from watching them at home and we should be spending this time discussing….etc. etc. I get a lot of exercise from jumping around second guessing myself, you see.

But then this week we watched Eating Raoul. For those of you who haven’t seen it or who need a jog to the memory, ER is Paul Bartel’s 1980s cult film about Paul and Mary Bland, who come up with a scheme that will both earn them money to open the restaurant they always wanted (where they can serve their specialty, the Bland Burrito) and rid the world of kinky swingers. It involves their pretending to be swinging prostitutes themselves and then killing their customers for the money. The film became a sort of underground classic, with lines like, “Beat me! Bite me! Make me write bad checks!” that came to be repeated in mainstream places that would surprise one. But it’s pretty graphic to say the least. Showing it was a tricky decision; I knew that the sex scenes would embarrass the hell out of me—and they did. The film is so damn funny, though, and it’s the epitome of a dark comedy—so it was worth offending everyone to do it. For this film I wrote the strongly worded disclaimer on my syllabus—and for this film I wrote the webpage on kitsch and camp, so that students who didn’t understand it might at least have some theoretical reference for it. And as it turned out, that camp and kitsch information came in handy in our class discussion.

I thought I could take comfort because a particularly cool student had chosen to present the film; he’s a non-traditional student (in that he’s older than the typical college student) and he’s done a lot of writing. Before school started, he was in touch with me about the material of the course and he seemed really to “get” it. So I knew this student could handle Eating Raoul—that much I wasn’t worried about. I was just concerned that a few of the other students would be offended or that they just wouldn’t understand the kind of humor in the film. But it was a perfect film, nonetheless, to ask the students to consider I question I want to write about: does humor hold up to the test of time—particularly in the case of Paul Bartel’s film? In other words, did the jokes in this film cease to be funny in the 1980s, or are they still funny now? I asked them to consider that as they watched.

Then the student presented. Imagine my surprise when this extremely competent student began to discuss the film, distributing a very impressive packet of handouts, saying that he just absolutely didn’t “get” the film. I was really shocked. He said that though he watched it, he just couldn’t capture the depth of the humor. However, he did make one interesting observation, which was to compare Eating Raoul to a television situation comedy. When I heard that I jumped in and talked about high and low culture, mentioning how literature scholars at one time privileged literature over film, calling film low culture; then when film graduated into an object worthy of study, it was television that became marginalized. I argued, though, that television is just as worthy of study as film. The student politely accepted my diatribe and then we watched the film.

Miraculously, the entire class absolutely loved the film, every one of them—even the people I had been afraid would be offended. But even more interesting, the student who presented the film (and who developed questions for discussion afterwards), confessed that he had been mystified by his own experience: when he saw it in class it was different, he said. It was projected onto a big screen, not his small TV. And twelve of us were laughing riotously, talking throughout, and pointing things out to each other. So the part that was most fascinating to me was that the discussion was taken over by the notion that films—especially certain kinds of comedies—are collective experiences. Eating Raoul, apparently, is one of those. I added that, perhaps less dramatically, I had noticed the same thing about Putney Swope. It had been so much better when I’d seen it against the reactions of the class. The student presenter wondered how our experiences of the cinema change in the present since we so much more commonly view films in the safety of our little home entertainment pods.

The students did answer my question about whether or not the humor was anachronistic. I did feel like I had to explain (to the traditional-aged students) that AIDS didn’t even exist at the time the film had been written (or that maybe it did but it wasn’t even in the consciousness of most people). They said that the juxtaposition between the two extremes seemed, if anything, extremely topical in this era of fascist politics and lax everything else. Always interesting to me are the contributions of the two Maturals (retirees who take our classes). One woman noted that, in a certain way, she thought that the film might have been more offensive in the 1980s than it is today, if only because too many of the viewers would have recognized themselves. She thinks its easier, in retrospect, to laugh at ourselves.

But back to the point the presenter had made about television: No kidding, I’ve probably seen ER about 100 times in my life, and I never noticed what this one student observed, that Bartel seems to be parodying a situation comedy like The Dick Van Dyke Show or I Love Lucy. The details are there, down to the twin beds, the kitschy 1950s furniture, and even the sing-songy theme song. Once I realized that the student was talking about the production values, I realized he had really noticed something interesting. Another student in the discussion, who really notices great things always, noticed something about my favorite scene in the movie, where all the swingers are in the hot tub and they become annoyed because Paul and Mary won’t join them. Paul gets annoyed and throws in some sort of electrical appliance and all at once, like that children’s toy where you push the button and the elastic string relaxes its tension and the toy wilts, every pervert in the hot tub wilts. It’s hilarious—and the other student noted the scene as symbolic as the end of the free love movement, symbolic of the effect AIDS had on that era. It was a clever thing to note.

Anyway, this week was just a particularly productive session…and just think…next week is Harold & Maude, so we go from trying not to hide under the desk during the sex scene to trying not to cry during the sad one….


Anonymous said...


carlos here. i disagree with the notion of watching a film on your own. as much as possible, films should be experienced as what they are: a collective experience. you get in a big dark room with a bunch of people you don't know to do this thing called "watching movies." it has nothing to do with sitting at home, in front of the tv and the remote control that you can use to stop, pause, rewind, f. forward, etc. watching a film in a movie theater is a gesture of surrendering to the collective body on one side and to the wishes of the director. you can only decide if you're staying for the duration, or not. everything else is pretty much out of your hands.


Heidi said...

Well, well, little starlet, shouldn't you be out celebrating your quinceanera?

You are right. I learned this yesterday, as I tried to watch A Night at the Opera on cable by myself. It just wasn't the same...I kept finding myself distracted by the urge to grade papers, which is NEVER a good thing.

Heidi Kim the Original said...

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