Fiction Films as Substitute Texts

Date: Sat, 8 Jan 2005 13:11:38 -0400
From: Farah Mendlesohn
Subject: [IAFA-L] fact v. fiction
To: iafa
Here is an oddity. Last semester I showed students a documentary on Aileen Wournos. I am currently grading their essays. Without exception, those students who refer to Wournos cite the movie Monster instead. — Farah

Science Fiction scholar Farah Mendlesohn‘s post on the IAFA-L mailing list this morning piqued my interest. I know a lot of students in literature classes will take shortcuts and often screen film adaptations of a novel or classic story in order to fake having read the book. Sometimes the teacher can catch this in tests that cite dialogue or mention characters or even plot points that aren’t in the actual text. But to watch a fiction film instead of a documentary for a class paper?! An “oddity” indeed.

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of the students made an active choice to opt for the mode of “entertainment” rather “information” in preparation for their term paper. Although we live in an era where “reality TV” dominates the airwaves, our culture continues to give documentaries a bad rap and students will often quake in fear of having to spend time watching them. We are trained by media culture to expect our documentaries to be boring, white bread PBS nature films — and when they push the envelope, as Michael Moore‘s work has most notoriously done, critics often respond angrily for not conforming to the strictures of boring production values or rigid objectivity. And when that won’t do, “infotainment” comes to the rescue. This is a shame, of course, because documentaries are often educational in nature, even when they adopt an overt rhetorical or political stance (as Moore has clearly done).

We all probably have memories of having to watch terrible, crackling black-and-white filmstrips with dry narrators talking about the most mundane subjects in “education films.” I think that because of experiences like this, students sadly associate the documentary genre with those early exposures in schools — and it’s not the teacher’s fault, really, since such problems usually stem from a lack of school funding dedicated to educational supplies and the concomitant lack of updates to school libraries and media archives. Colleges often have better choices, but many students still roll their eyes or pull down their ball caps when you roll in the media cart to show a non-fiction film. I’ve often talked myself out of bringing documentaries into the classroom, for this reason, unless they’re really entertaining or eye-opening. I choose films that will stimulate conversation. I don’t ever want to be the bore that some of my early school teachers were, but I feel it’s also my responsibility to show students alternative forms to mass media fiction films, too, so I’ll opt for something a little racy or bizarre. I don’t compromise the educational value of the screening, however. I’ll always follow up a documentary with a heady discussion. And one of my hidden agendas is to re-open students’ eyes to the documentary genre in toto, by showing them powerful examples of it.

Of course, showing a recent documentary about a serial killer, as Mendlesohn did, should have been exhilarating to students all on its own. I’m still puzzled by the result she describes. But I think that, in addition to the latent preference for “infotainment,” one thing that might explain it is simply poor research skills. It’s likely that they chose the local Blockbuster Video rental store over the library reserves — or perhaps Monster was available “On Demand” in the comfort of their living room, so they used what was handy rather than going on the hunt for a copy of the film.

I’m sure Mendlesohn graded down those papers, or even flunked them outright. I wouldn’t accept the papers that cited the fiction version of a biographical film I assigned unless, perhaps, the students were doing a direct comparison/contrast of the two pictures, or had asked me in advance if they could do so, along a particular line of inquiry. I think it’s important to steer students away from infotainment options, because such sources are all readily available on their own without my classroom instruction.

I’m reminded of a student in my literature class who once brought to discussion an illustrated, abridged version of Dracula instead of Stoker’s full-length novel I’d required. I was appalled by this assumption that a children’s version of the book could substitute for the authoritative text. I’ve also read of Novel Textbooks — that is, entertaining narratives that tell stories about, say, Mr. and Mrs. Protein, in order to illustrate science lessons. The lines between entertainment and education are blurring, and while “edutainment” has its value, I think it’s important to teach a respect for textual authority at the same time. I want to teach students to value the primary text, the original edition, the best source. That way, they’ll also do so in their own future research.

Sure, I know very well that good critical thinking can happen in regards to a fictionalized autobiography as much as a documentary biopic. And, of course, postmodern theory teaches us that a text is a text, and that there is no true “authoritative” version of a text, per se. But then again, I’m showing my literary criticism students a documentary on Derrida this coming term. Perhaps I am lucky that there’s no Disney cartoon about Derrida currently playing in theaters. (Though there are a few one panel cartoons here and there!).

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

4 thoughts on “Fiction Films as Substitute Texts”

  1. Hi Michael,
    I followed your link from the BoB awards site and have enjoyed visiting over a fresh cup of coffee. I truly hope that when my boys enter college, they have at least one professor like you.
    Good luck,

  2. I’m inclined to believe that it has more to do with the availability of Monster at the local video store than with anything else. Most Blockbusters, for example, will have 30 or so copies of the Charlize Theron film and maybe one or two of Nick Broomfield’s documentary.
    I’ve actually found that many, though not all, students often *like* documentaries. I’ve taught Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line with great success.

  3. Having just revisted college for a short while about 3 years ago I have to say I found mostly the entertainment factor being played in. A lot of the (younger) students comments were superficial and shallow. I’m not trying to toot my own horn but sometimes only the instructor could grasp what I was talking about because I went down to the deeper issues of the films and music. Now, we did see a good documentary in Sociology but it had a lot of propaganda I didn’t care for included in it.
    Enjoying your blog –

  4. I used to teach a survey of drama course (ancient Greeks to modern day). Often students would watch the film as a way to help them understand the script, but then the problem is that they see one director’s vision, they get one actor’s reading of a line, and so forth. In a literature class, it’s important to be able to visualize the scripts, but the script is the authority. Invariably, students who treat the film as a shortcut to understanding the text slip up when they write their papers, making references to filmed “business” that’s not scripted… or they’ll even make explicit references to camera angles, music, etc.
    It may be possible to counteract this sort of thing by showing clips from several different filmed versions of the same text, in order to explain to students that the film and the text are different creatures.
    I’ve often considered playing one act from several different filmed versions of a Shakespeare play.
    All this is only tangentially related to the students’ reliance upon fiction films instead of documentaries… but thanks for posting yet another good entry that sparked my brain.

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