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!

“The Selfish Giant”: Something concealed, Nature does reveal

I wrote this essay in a 60-minute test for the English Literature class (Spring 2015), studying “The Selfish giant” by Oscar Wilde. An example of story-telling mastery, its style differs much from that in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”; more similar to that of Flaubert’s Three Tales. In this essay, I only analyze the setting of the story. Before you proceed, I recommend reading Oscar Wilde’s original story here.

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For people studying or interested in English literature, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is not a strange name. His exuberant personality, his eccentric and flamboyant fashion style, and perhaps his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being homosexual – all left his indelible marks on earth as a passionate artist who adored beauty. His novel, plays, and short stories usually embrace philosophical and/or theological questions. “The Selfish Giant”, a short story from “The Happy Prince and other Tales” (1888), is an excellent example. After emerging in in the dazzling nature in the story, readers are left surprised at the story’s revelation. But, is the setting of the story also significant for us to understand the protagonist, the Giant, at all?

Firstly, the “setting of a story” is the physical place, the scenes, time and space of the story. No characters can function alone without their interaction with the physical place. In return, the physical surrounding environment affects the characters physically and emotionally. “The Selfish giant” revolves around a big garden owned by a giant, the natural changes, and the human interactions within it. On the outset, the garden was quite desolate because the giant had hung on the gate a big sign saying “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, shoving away everyone. It was covered with snow, frost, hail, and wind. The trees never gave fruits. There was no delightful music.

These physical features obviously indicate that for such a selfish giant, the world he resides was not at all comfortable; or he deserved to live in that lonely, depressing castle. As we read on, we clearly see that the giant’s mood and his “selfishness” started to change when the poor little children snuck in the garden to play. Suddenly, there was warmth and joy in the garden; there was jovial music and laughter, which “melted” the giant’s heart. He realized that the Spring didn’t come to his garden because he was so selfish and cruel. The stone wall, the symbol of isolation between the two world, his and the happy outside world, was knocked down. This makes me think of the joy and ultimate freedom that people from West Germany and East Germany finally achieved when the Berlin Wall was torn down, 1989. Oscar Wilde’s story is timeless in hinting that no “walls” would bring unity and freedom. Knocking down his wall surrounding the garden, the giant made a huge leap forward, changing his attitude towards the world (and truly, who he was). He became more loving, more generous, more SELF-LESS. As a result, we the readers become more sympathetic with him.

Another striking feature was the story’s time lapses and the seasonal changes. They seem to represent human lifespan: spring represents youth, winter old age. Perhaps dying in the “winter” would be most painful. At the end of the story, Wilde let the giant die, which was a very solemn note for a children’s story. However, the giant did not die in solemn winter, but “under the tree, all covered with white blossoms.” The giant came to a more beautiful, eternal garden called “paradise”. The story’s message is that the good and loving, the self-sacrificing are rewarded generously. The giant started out no less similar to us: insecure, selfish, at times self-seeking. But he could change for the better; he stepped bravely forward and admitted his mistakes; he could sense and smell the wonders of this beautiful world. He could be better, and so do we.

“The Selfish Giant” has a rich source of Biblical fables; the setting of the garden (twelve trees, spring, flowers, etc.) somehow suggests a longing for Paradise. Put in a decaying moral world of the late Victorian era, the story still resonates Queen Victoria’s ideal of a peaceful loving world embraced by Christian values; a world where the righteous are rewarded eternal life. Keeping this note in mind, we come to another lesson that “The selfish giant” espoused: We do make mistakes in our life, but as long as you repent, there is a way to forgiveness and salvation, as was the case for the selfish giant.


 

Visit Penguin readers guide for the summary and exercises to better understand the story: http://www.penguinreaders.com/pdf/downloads/pyr/factsheets/9780582456099.pdf

See the animated film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btNVUWikg7M