Bridging Cultures through Film Noir and Short Narrative

From January to May 2016, teachers and graduate students at the University of Languages and International Studies converged in an American Studies class held by the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries.

Through this course, we have improved our understanding of two forms of American Arts, coming closer to the American culture. I relished being able to return to my school, seeing my former teachers, and seriously engaging in the United States Studies, which I had been doing individually since 2012. It was wonderful to study alongside my teachers and other professionals with much experience in the field.

Our course instructor, Professor Jack Yeager from Louisiana State University, is a Fulbright scholar and expert in Francophone literature. His Fulbright fellowship offered him the second chance to be in Vietnam; this time at my university for six months.

with prof Yeager and English Falcuty
With Professor Jack Yeager of Louisiana State University and English Faculty teachers of the University of Languages and International Studies. (photo by Ms. Hai Ha)

Professor Yeager delivered the course in two parts. Part One focused on American short narrative; the other on Film noir.

The first part commenced with two chapters of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” (1883). Reading “Castles and Culture” and “The Metropolis of the South”, we journeyed back to the late 19th century Louisiana, particularly to two major cities – Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Twain’s vigorous language pioneered the “narrative journalism” and “travel writing”, transforming the Mississippi river from a transportation corridor into a “personality” and a quintessentially American soul.

The discussion locomotive marched on with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” (1843) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” (1845) – two works of early American Romanticism. By the 1830s, European countries had been transitioning into literary Realism. Although flowering 30 years later than its European counterpart, American Romanticism shared the movement’s essential themes of human isolation, discontent with urbanism, and the fascination with the supernatural. Though regarded as masterworks, these narratives received critical questions about their limited white-male perspectives, their historical and socioeconomic context in which they were composed.

Afterwards, we studied the Naturalistic school exemplified with Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” (1899), Willa Cather’s “Two Friends” (1931), Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908). These short stories explored the harsh nature of the Midwest (Nebraska, Kansas) and Yukon. Crane examined the immigration mindset and fatal miscommunication among people. Cather, infusing the Panic of 1893, the Gold Standard crisis and the 1896 Presidential election in her story, proved that the political atmosphere in America at the time was far-reaching and potentially divisive. Jack London vividly portrayed man’s futile conquest against nature and the unknown.

The three above stories are coated with regional dialects, historical allusions, and unusual punctuation. Thus, often we must read their dialogues aloud to understand the mood and to process comprehension. The class encountered this similar issue with O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” (1905), a parable rich in comic irony, slang, and rhythm.

In addition, we studied a young voice from the Vietnamese American community, with Monique Truong’s comic tale named “Skin and Bones” (2014).  Written about a Vietnamese American woman’ journey to Vietnam to learn about her origin, its fantastical nature resembles that in Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel “The Woman Warrior” (1976) which concerns majorly about the Asian American experience.

Also interested in gender studies, professor Yeager brought to class early American stories that reflect gender attitude across the centuries. For instance, Kate Chopin’s “Desireé Baby” (1893) and William Faulkner’s “Dry September” (1931) – two stories that raised debates about feminism, class, and race (especially in the American South). “Brokeback Mountain” (1997) by Annie Proulx explores the taboo subject of homosexuality in the unforgiving landscape of Wyoming, western America.

The question of racism and justice was put into perspective at our screening of “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (Universal Pictures, 1962), an Oscar-winning film based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of the same name. Often invigorated with professor Yeager’s American experience and perspective, the Q&A sessions gave us a more wholesome picture of the United States history, landscape, and people.

There are legitimate questions to ponder, moreover. The purpose of this introductory course was to provide an overview and the techniques to integrate some of the course materials into the faculty’s literature syllabus and teaching methodology. “Should and how do we insert a particular narrative into the class discussion?” “Is it too long or too short for the task at hand?”, “How can we make it attractive to the students?”, “What background information do the students need?”, “Should films be a medium for teaching in a literature classroom?” So on.

Taking the opportunity to prepare and present the assigned stories, we marched into the rigorous classroom discussion. But for the limited time budget, I wish there were Mid-term/Final essays or Reaction papers as in the intended syllabus. Plus, it is fun to do a reading collage, a writing portfolio, or short “report” videos for the future workshops.

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The second half of the course focused on American Film Noir – a famous Hollywood film genre/style.

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Film Noir is different from Black-and-white films, which I had not known before the course

Influenced by German Expressionist cinema and film directors who fled Germany during World War II, Film noir borrowed many German aesthetic devices, plot conventions, and stereotypical characters, to evolve into a wholly American film style.

Detective fiction of the early 20th century inspired Film noir, whose plots frequently concern crime, deadly violence, daring “mind game” between ambitious criminals and clever detectives. The setting is usually the city at night with criminal activities and gunfights.

It is difficult to define Film noir, however. Not every film noir has a private detective and a killer dame (“femme fatale”) set in an urban landscape. One film can be more brutal, explicit, or romantic than the other. There is so much to learn that a few class sessions (despite extensive discussion) seemed to scratch merely on the surface.

The chosen classic films were The Maltese Falcon (Warner Brothers, 1941), M (Nero-film A.G., 1931), The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers, 1946), The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953). During the screenings, we paused at key scenes to discuss the technical innovations, i.e. the high-speed lenses, the angled shots and close-up shots, dark/light contrast, the classic three-point lighting, etc.

There were difficulties since the characters spoke in the old vernacular (although the films did have subtitles). Certain scenes carry symbolic meaning or reference to contemporary people’s attitudes. For example, the dark streets, the shadows, the stairs, the bridges. That is not to mention the symbolic costume, makeup, and hairstyles.

For me, the course has been highly educational, although film noir is not my favorite film genre. The wonderful part is to be able to recognize the “noir” techniques and motifs that are still widely employed in modern films. It’s amazing how those little things can create such nuanced psychological effects in film viewers.

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Thank you the Faculty of Linguistics and Cultures of English Speaking Countries for successfully holding this course, for sharing your concerns about the school, the curriculum, the students, and most of all, your life as a teacher. We express our special thanks to professor Yeager, for his commitment, his knowledge and witty sense of humor. Thanks for making this learning experience much more fruitful than it would have been had we done it alone. We hope to meet again in the future!

Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales): A seminar in Hanoi

“The French Literature in Vietnam” seminar series continued with its 3rd meeting, at the French Culture center L’Espace, November 25, 2015. This time, the guest speakers and audience engaged in Gustave Flaubert’s “Trois Contes” (Three Tales).

Four distinguished guest speakers took the lead.

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From left to right: Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, Dr. Trần Hinh, Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên.

Madame Lê Hồng Sâm, translator and former professor of French Literature, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Madame Sâm spent her childhood immersing in the French literary world in Colonial Vietnam, during the 1930s. She was the teacher and mentor of the other three speakers in this event.

Mr. Phạm Xuân Nguyên, current president of the Hanoi Literary Circle. A well-known literary critic and translator, he translated many important works from French, Russian, and English into Vietnamese.

Dr. Trần Hinh, head of the Aesthetics Studies Program, Literature Faculty, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Mr. Hinh has been teaching at the university since 1976, (co-) writing literature textbooks for secondary and college students in the country.

Dr. Phùng Ngọc Kiên acquired a Master in Comparative Literature at Université Marseille (France, 2006) and a Ph.D in French Literature at Université Paris – Diderot (2013). He is specialized in the 19-20th French Literature, with his Ph.D particularly on Gustave Flaubert.

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To begin the seminar, the speakers defined “conte” (a tale) means, as compared to “nouvelle” (novella/ news) and “récit”(a narrative). “Récit” can be translated as “narrative”, i.e. telling stories, memoirs, novel, historical fiction, fable, etc.  “Nouvelle” is either a piece of news or novella. “Conte” is a tale, similar to a fable, recounting the past or legends. Tales are short texts, containing supernatural elements (e.g, the enchanted items, talking animals, transformation, etc.)

The seminar went on discussing individual tales from each speaker’s perspective.

“Three Tales” is a fascinating work, rich with Christian allegories. Each tale was written in approximately six months, published in 1877 during Flaubert’s later career. If you have read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, “Trois Contes” will surprise you because it is very different from Flaubert’s satiric, hyper-realistic style.

The first tale is “A simple heart”, about a poor uneducated housemaid named Felicité, who lived a simple, unexamined life. She had suffered great losses, but continued to her last breath to love unconditionally, despite receiving little or mistreatment in return. Felicité had no husband, no children. Her only love married a wealthy woman to avoid conscription. As a servant, she devoted her life to her mistress’s daughter; when that daughter died, she redirected her love to the Caribbean parrot named Loulou. She died peacefully besides her beloved parrot, which appeared at the end like an incarnation of the Holy Spirit.

The second tale is “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier”. It evokes the Oedipus story in Greek literature, in which a king killed his own father and mother. The tale is vivid with details about nature, sometimes with horrific description of Julian’s great cruelty towards animals, culminating in a massacre of a valley of deer and his Oedipus curse. The tale ends with Julian ascending to heaven after having lived a life of servitude and helped a leper (who turned out to be an angel, a messenger of God).

For Christians and those familiar with the Christian Bible, the third tale “Herodias” is indeed very familiar. It retells the death of John the Baptist in the Book of Matthew, New Testament. John the Baptist criticized King Herod of Galilee for marrying his brother’s wife – Herodias. Herodias, considering this utmost insolence, concocted John the Baptist’s beheading. The tale ends with John’s disciples awaiting their Messiah.

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is truly a meticulous author – something visible in his prose and syntax; his style seems to be ahead of his time, closer to the 20th century modernism. Indeed, Madame Lê Hồng Sâm compared Flaubert to an alchemist pursuing stylistic perfection, inventing “gueuloir” – a tradition to re-read the sentences in a loud voice to seek and eliminate repetitions. Hugo, Kundera, Kafka all respected and said great things about Flaubert, though he was not as prolific as Honoré de Balzac or Émile Zola.

Part of the seminar focused on Flaubert’s literary circle, particularly his friendship with George Sand (1804-1876). Flaubert’s longtime correspondent and influential friend, George Sand (famously quoted, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved”). Sand had been in romantic relationships with the pianist Frédéric Chopin and the writer Alfred de Musset. George Sand’s passionate life might have influenced Flaubert in “A Simple Heart”. However, the impact of her unconventional, rebellious, dynamic life and sexuality on Flaubert were not discussed in the seminar.

One question was whether Flaubert implied satire in his three tales, particularly in “A Simple Heart”. The speakers agreed that Flaubert hinted no satire or criticism of the church, despite the elements of contrast (i.e. the protagonist’s name Felicité vs. her unhappy losses, her misplaced worship of the parrot). However, they do suggest his melancholy and disillusionment with the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

You can go to this website, choose a format and download the free eBook: http://manybooks.net/authors/flaubert.html

“Trois contes” is accessible in Vietnamese translation- “Ba truyện kể” (2015), published by Nhã Nam. This classic work is short but well-worth reading. I highly recommend.

Overall, “Trois Contes” and the seminar gave me a good introduction to Flaubert – a French author not yet popular in Vietnam. I was happy, though travelling there in a rainy winter evening cost me a soaked pair of shoes. 🙂

The French Literature in Vietnam: A seminar

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“La Littérature française au Vietnam”, the first in a series of monthly seminars about the French literature in Vietnam, took place at the French cultural center L’espace, on September 23, 2015. The event attracted many seasoned teachers, researchers, and translators of the language, as well as interested students and graduates.

Existing for almost 150 years in Vietnam, the French language and literature have become part of the country’s artistic life. Looking into history and cultural development, three esteemed guest speakers chaired the discussion, offering fresh perspectives.

  1. Professor Lê Hồng Sâm, a former professor of French literature, acclaimed translator and poet. Growing up in the late 1930s when Vietnam was still a French colony and Vietnamese literature was secondary to a French education, she studied the French language intensely. Professor Sâm shared her vivid childhood anecdotes of immersing in the French literary world, its magical power that sustained her throughout the 1st and 2nd Indochina Wars, and later in her teaching and mentoring career.
  2. Dr. Phạm Xuân Thạch, head of the Literature faculty, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. Dr. Thach entered university in 1991, a pivotal year marking the end of the Soviet Union. Therefore, he experienced first-hand this transition from a Soviet-influenced Vietnam to a modern country having its own identity. He also reflected on the current lacking of quality lecturers, especially in foreign-language literature, i.e. French, Russian, Japanese, and American literature.
  3. Literary critic and translator Phạm Xuân Nguyên. He talked about four major foreign literary streams in Vietnam: Chinese, French, Soviet, and English. Mr. Nguyên put forward an interesting question, “Is the fate of the French literature in Vietnam “CONDITIONED” to be declining, or does it have an internal fire that continues to kindle?” This points to the fact that we have seen an unprecedented growth of the English language, whereas that of the French or Russian seems to play an inferior role.

The answer exists in the large volumes of quality translation that readers of all ages enjoy. Some outstanding, widely-read authors were Rousseau, Hugo, Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, Maupassant, Stendhal, Sartre, Baudelaire, Verlaine , Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and the two recent Nobel Laureates Le Clezio (2008) and Patrick Modiano (2014). “The Little Prince” (Le petite prince) is perhaps the most widely read and loved.

I have detailed notes of the seminar; however, some points need discussing to put in this blog. The following questions should encapsulate the main points discussed:

– Is it, now in Vietnam, still relevant to study the French language? – to study French literature? – to study literature, at all?

– Why read foreign literature?  What universality exists between Vietnamese literature and the world literature?

– Is translating a piece of literature equivalent to “Comparative literature”, an academic field? What can be done to improve the quality of the translation?

For my part, I probed a question about the correlation between History and Literature; what to keep in mind when approaching a piece of historical fiction, specifically Stendhal’s seminal work Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830).

Professor Sâm responded with equanimity, explaining the historical background of this novel. The Red coats, the Black robes, the eagle in the sky, the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte, the new proletariats’ desire to break through the social ladders. She emphasized that while History and Politics do play a role in literature, we can always find out the universal themes in it: youth, friendship, love, hate, doubt, happiness, compassion, honor, pity, greed, and so on. Read literature to think and see differently, to have civil conversations across the differences in languages, and to understand your “self”.

What exactly is the point of living? Is happiness the sole purpose of living? What is crime and what is justice? What is friendship and why do we need it? …

This seminar asks more critical questions to the readers of literature, which I like a lot. Inspiring teachers and possibly life-changing books are not automatically available for me, which is why I need to keep searching. It is a long-term aspiration to find myself the answers.

Person-to-Person

By TENENESSEE WILLIAMS


Following is Tennessee Williams’s essay and preface to his play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Pulitzer prize winner, 1955). A lot of who I am today is determined by the books that I have read and the authors that I aspire to emulate. Williams speaks for my desire of communicating to other people what I am yet eloquent to express: love, fraternity, hope. One of those lines I memorize for life, “We come to each other, gradually, but with love. It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.”  I want you and me to feel that ideal materialize, in each other’s presence.

One of the literary giant of the 20th century.
One of the literary giants of the 20th century, Williams speaks not only for me, for youngsters, but also for all cries of humanity.

Of course it is a pity that so much of all creative work is so closely related to the personality of the one who does it.

It is sad and embarrassing and unattractive that those emotions that stir him deeply enough to demand expression, and to charge their expression with some measure of light and power, are nearly all rooted, however changed in their surface, in the particular and sometimes peculiar concerns of the artist himself, that special world, the passions and images of it that each of us weaves about him from birth to death, a web of monstrous complexity, spun forth at a speed that is incalculable to a length beyond measure, from the spider-mouth of his own singular perceptions.

It is a lonely idea, a lonely condition, so terrifying to think of that we usually don’t. And so we talk to each other, write and wire each other, call each other short and long distance across land and sea, clasp hands with each other at meeting and at parting, fight each other and even destroy each other because of this always somewhat thwarted effort to break through walls to each other. As a character in a play once said, “We’re all of us sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins.”

Personal lyricism is the outcry of prisoner to prisoner from the cell in solitary where each is confined for the duration of his life.

I once saw a group of little girls on a Mississippi sidewalk, all dolled up in their mothers’ and sisters’ cast-off finery, old raggedy ball gowns and plumed hats and high-heeled slippers, enacting a meeting of ladies in a parlor with a perfect mimicry of polite southern gush and simper. But one child was not satisfied with the attention paid her enraptured performance by the others, they were too involved in their own performances to suit her, so she stretched out her skinny arms and threw back her skinny neck and shrieked to the deaf heavens and her equally oblivious playmates, “Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

And then her mother’s high-heeled slippers threw her off balance and she fell to the sidewalk in a great howling tangle of soiled white satin and torn pink net, and still nobody looked at her.

I wonder if she is not, now, a southern writer.

Of course it is not only southern writers, of lyrical bent, who engage in such histrionics and shout, “Look at me!” Perhaps it is a parable of all artists. And not always do we topple over and land in a tangle of trappings that don’t fit us. However it is well to be aware of that peril, and not to content yourself with a demand for attention, to know that out of your personal lyricism, your sidewalk histrionics, something has to be created that will not only attract observers but participants in the performance.

I try very hard to do that.

The fact that I want you to observe what I do for your possible pleasure and to give you knowledge of things that I feel I may know better than you, because my world is different from yours, as different as every man’s world is from the world of others, is not enough excuse for a personal lyricism that has not yet mastered its necessary trick of rising above the singular to the plural concern, from personal to general import. But for years and years now, which may have passed like a dream because of this obsession, I have been trying to learn how to perform this trick and make it truthful, and sometimes I feel that I am able to do it. Sometimes when the enraptured streetcorner performer in me cries out “Look at me!” I feel that my hazardous footwear and fantastic regalia may not quite throw me off balance. Then, suddenly, you fellow-performers in the sidewalk show may turn to give me your attention and allow me to hold it, at least for the interval between 8:40 and 11-something P.M.

Eleven years ago this month of March, when I was far closer than I knew, only nine months away from that long-delayed, but always expected, something that I lived for, the time when I would first catch and hold an audience’s attention, I wrote my first preface to a long play; the final paragraph went like this:

“There is too much to say and not enough time to say it. Nor is there power enough. I am not a good writer. Sometimes I am a very bad writer indeed. There is hardly a successful writer in the field who cannot write circles around me … but I think of writing as something more organic than words, something closer to being and action. I want to work more and more with a more plastic theatre than the one I have (worked with) before. I have never for one moment doubted that there are people – millions! – to say things to. We come to each other, gradually, but with love. It is the short reach of my arms that hinders, not the length and multiplicity of theirs. With love and with honesty, the embrace is inevitable.”

This characteristically emotional, if not rhetorical, statement of mine at that time seems to suggest that I thought of myself as having a highly personal, even intimate relationship with people who go to see plays. I did and I still do. A morbid shyness once prevented me from having much direct communication with people, and possibly that is why I began to write to them plays and stories. But even now when that tongue-locking, face-flushing, silent and crouching timidity has worn off with the passage of the troublesome youth that it sprang from, I still find it somehow easier to “level with” crowds of strangers in the hushed twilight of orchestra and balcony sections of theatres than with individuals across a table from me. Their being strangers somehow makes them more familiar and more approachable, easier to talk to.

Of course I know that I have sometimes presumed too much upon corresponding sympathies and interests in those to whom I talk boldly, and this has led to rejections that were painful and costly enough to inspire more prudence. But when I weigh one thing against another, an easy liking against a hard respect, the balance always tips the same way, and whatever the risk of being turned a cold shoulder, I still don’t want to talk to people only about the surface aspects of their lives, the sort of things that acquaintances laugh and chatter about on ordinary social occasions.

I feel that they get plenty of that, and heaven knows so do I, before and after the little interval of time in which I have their attention and say what I have to say to them. The discretion of social conversation, even among friends, is exceeded only by the discretion of “the deep six,” that grave wherein nothing is mentioned at all. Emily Dickinson, that lyrical spinster of Amherst, Mass., who wore a strict and savage heart on a taffeta sleeve, commented wryly on that kind of posthumous discourse among friends in these lines:

I died for beauty but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed,
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, the two are one:
We brethren are,” he said.
And so as kinsmen met at night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.

Meanwhile! – I want to go on talking to you as freely and intimately about what we live and die for as if I knew you better than anyone else whom you know.

_March 20, 1955