Movie days in my classroom are an event. Rather than have my students watch required films in the privacy of their dorm rooms, I organize screenings for my students at my college’s mini theatre and we even have popcorn. As enjoyable as these “non-classroom” occasions are, they aren’t any less academic. Instead, students use the opportunity to critically analyse the films as artefacts of a time and place, part of the zeitgeist of a cultural moment. Employing film in my teaching and academic research, I attempt to understand how cinema is more than an art form that runs parallel to our life experience. Just as my students do when they watch pictures in class, my columns over the next few days will think about how the movies are exemplary of our existence, even constitutive of it, but not always in obvious ways.
Take my Interpreting Literature class – the gateway course to the English major at William and Mary, where I teach. In it, I pair texts from the canon (think Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Dickens) with work, generally, by more contemporary writers (think women, probably not white, and usually not dead). Between the study of corresponding books, linked by subject matter but separated by time, I’ll include a film that can help bridge the material but also illustrate concepts, portray a place, or bring nuance to words. Yet, how a syllabus puts disparate texts in conversation with one another may not be self-apparent. For instance, what does the Vietnam War have to do with the Belgian Congo or Nigeria on the eve of European colonization? A lot, as it turns out, thanks to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).
After they’d read Heart of Darkness (1899) and before they encountered Things Fall Apart (1958), Chinua Achebe’s response to Joseph Conrad, my students watched Coppola’s opus, which is inspired by Conrad’s turn-of-the-century novella. Apocalypse Now’s river-ride between war-torn 1970s’ Vietnam and Cambodia may seem far off from the late-nineteenth century water-bound journey Marlow takes in the depths of the Congo in search of Kurtz. But my students quickly picked up on the themes the two share: imperialism as failure and the belief in racial superiority as folly. Despite this, neither Conrad nor Coppola adequately develop their non-white characters, women especially. When students meet Okonkwo, the proud but fatally flawed Igbo protagonist in Things Fall Apart, as well as the rest of the people who constitute his life, they are given a sense of how “the other” was affected by colonialism, even resisting it.
When they met in 1980, Black American writer James Baldwin confided in Achebe: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.” By this, Baldwin didn’t mean that the African origins his father shared with Okonkwo, separated by a legacy of slavery, were what prompted him to see the fictional character as his parent. Baldwin’s statement had more to do with Okonkwo’s patriarchal nature – his brooding, sometimes overbearing demeanour – and how there was a kind of universality to this character that transcended time, place, and even the confines of a book.
Interestingly, upon watching Apocalypse Now, several of my students – all millennials who had never seen (or, in many cases, even heard of) the film – talked to their parents about what their lives were like during the America of the Vietnam War period. My students reported that their parents were surprised by the question and even more so that it arose from watching Coppola’s war epic in the classroom. “Did you know that the film is based on Heart of Darkness?” a student said her father asked, to which she responded with an eyeroll. But wanting to push my students further, I urged them to consider how the American film might play to a Southeast Asian audience. Would Vietnamese viewers see themselves in Coppola’s Vietnam like Baldwin saw his father in Achebe’s Nigeria?
These are the kinds of questions that the study of film allows us to grapple with. Sometimes enjoyable, other times thought-provoking, the movies are our cultural moment, mirror of our past and, perhaps, even what we don’t always see.
From The Peacock.