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.


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

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.


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!


“Just Kids” by Patti Smith: a spectacular memoir championing Arts and Friendship

Patti Smith just kids

“I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.”
                                                  _ Just kids, by Patti Smith

I read Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, in February, reread it in summer of 2015, and have mentioned this book all the time. It is so massive to me – not because the author is an iconic figure, the godmother of Punk – but for its candor, depth, and very human feelings – the things that I look for in memoirs.

Patti Smith, born in 1946, is the legendary Punk rock singer-songwriter, a poet, a visual artist and photographer. The book revolves around Patti Smith’s relationship with one of the most significant people in her life-her soul mate, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their evolution from young aspiring people to professional artists. Their friendship began in odd situations in New York, carried through the years; they both loved and hurt each other deeply. They supported each other when the other was down. Their relationship fluctuated after Mapplethorpe admitted that he was gay; and for a while, they went in and out of friendship. Nonetheless, their love for each other in the end endured even beyond Robert’s death in 1989.

Just kids is well-written from the beginning to its end. It is so liberating and uplifting; and yet it doesn’t hide the very difficult times when Patti, before establishing her path, was still starving, roaming the streets, sleeping at doorbells, in subways or in graveyards, when “a handful of coins on the telephone could mean one less meal.” Living on the edge, she admittedly mused,

“I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the maniac activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.”

Patti’s struggle to find a purpose in art and life is so human and relevant to me as a young person. What is the aim of a real artist? Should it be in “great zoos” (the museums) or be towards the PEOPLE? In a culture that still devalues and stifles individualism, it is not easy for me to find a means for self-expression that won’t be persecuted or bullied, except in doing small-scale paintings to convey my thoughts. But I am yet comfortable doing it for myself; I want to reach out and inspire those who are like me or less lucky than me. After reading Just kids, I believe that that mission is possible.

Many young aspiring artists who still question their paths, I think, will find inspiration in Mapplethorpe, for his absolute confidence and belief in arts. In low times, when even Patti “nearly regretted the pursuit of art”, it was Robert’s drive and focus that assured them to stay staunch and hold on to their missions.

“He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize.”

That never meant living by the will alone; there were times when Robert had to take to hustling, offering himself to strangers to make extra money; when they lived on  day-old bread, took turns to see art exhibitions to report to each other; when they were so desperate that they had to pocket drawing supplies.

Just kids also dedicates a large proportion to the 1960s counter-culture, having an intrinsic historical value. In the 1960s-1970s, New York was a scary place to live; yet, it was the nurturing place for generations of artists, i.e. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Jimi Hendrix, Salvador Dalí, etc. Hotel Chelsea was a strikingly iconic place where these artists lived and frequented, the “salon d’Art” for ambitious and already esteemed artists alike. Patti and Robert were part of that artistic community, were mentored by many of those artists, and were simultaneously adding “fabrics” to that tapestry. All of these scenes are captured vividly in Patti’s classical eyes and candid narration.

If you love arts, music, and poetry, please read this book. You will find how beautiful and powerful effect that those three elements can create together, that every effort you put in arts is worthwhile.

If you love New York City, 1960s-1970s, this book is perfect for you. If you are still wavering in your career choices, read this book. You don’t need to be in the humanities to be inspired by Patti and Robert’s stories.

If you are still lonely and searching for true friendship, for ones who will understand you and love you for the weird person that you are, please read this book. It makes me laugh, smile, and weep and remain hopeful as ever.

Just kids is written with heart and soul, and I am so glad to have this book in my life. Please read the book, then listen to her recording “Paths that cross.”

In 2005, Patti Smith was named a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In 2007, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Just kids won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been continually circulated among a wide range of readers. Patti Smith’s debut album Horses was a key factor and major influence on the New York Punk rock scene.

——Some useful links:

Amazon link

2010 National Book Award Winner

NPR interview

Louisiana channel interview:

Patti Smith’s advice to the young:

* Some of Patti Smith’s greatest songs:


Paths that cross:

People have the power:

Fire of unknown origin: