The Tesla Coil

February 28, 2010

Does Hitchcock direct your lessons?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 9:37 am

What, Pascal Bonitzer wonders, is ‘required to turn a Lumière  brothers’ sketch into a Hitchcockian fiction?’  What is the difference between the innocence of early cinema and the paranoiac, crime-stained universe of Hitchcock?

Taking as his example a short film depicting a soldier courting a nanny engaged in pushing a pram around a park, he concludes that it is enough merely to inform the audience ‘a priori that the nanny has decided to drown the baby’. This surplus knowledge then undermines the meaning of the whole sequence even if everything is filmed as before:

When one sees the baby babbling in its pram, the soldier clowning around in an attempt to seduce the nanny, and the latter simpering and shaking her rear, an underlying sense of horror serves to destroy the apparent meaning – what semiologists would call the ‘denotated’ meaning – of the scene, and distorts all its signs….  The first ‘impression of reality’ shifts to a secondary level, that of connotation.  For the camera is no longer saying to us: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is’, but rather: ‘Look at this baby, how sweet it is, it has only a few minutes to live, unless the soldier understands what is going on’.

What is required in filmic terms to produce this effect is merely the juxtaposition of two shots: one where we learn of the nanny’s murderous intent and another where we see the apparently innocent scene armed with the knowledge gleaned from the first shot.  The first scene is, then, a kind of surplus knowledge – the materialization of that knowledge, in fact – which stains the second scene.  It inhabits the second scene as a blot or anamorphosis, skewing our vision and instituting a condition of suspense.  What, we wonder, will happen?

Hitchcock's first film: Holbein's The AmbassadorsHitchcock’s first film: Holbein’s Ambassadors complete with anamorphic skull

What happens, of course, is that we become interested.  Interested both in the sense that we want to know what happens next, and also in the more fundamental sense of having an interest in, or rather being subjectivised by the anamorphosis.  We are therefore unable to remain neutral or objective; we are in the grip of the point of view created for us by the juxtaposition of the scenes, or the Hitchockian stain.

If Hitchcock was able to construct the place of his viewer in this manner, it might perhaps be instructive to consider how ELT subjectivises its students through its own, hopefully less sinister, juxtapositions.   At an everyday practical level, for example, what kind of student do we create when we ask a question to which we already know the answer?  The first scene here, the one with the teacher holding a lustrous blade, is the teacher telling the answer, and the second one is the teacher asking the question.  The only suspense such a scenario is likely to generate is a private suspension of interest.

When a more precious set of intimacies, such as the aspirations and ambitions of individual realisation, are tested in reality, what juxtaposition of scenes plays itself out in the mind of each student as they embark upon a course of study?  In the very first scene of their particular film, do they find their teacher enthusiastically extolling the glories of independent language learning, or is the stain of their initial lesson a series of mindless gap-fills while the pedagogue they entrusted their dreams to listlessly picks his fingernails in a semi-crapulous fug?  If it was the latter option, then no doubt the second lesson, or scene of their film, will bear witness to an atrophy of the student’s will and/or presence; if it is the former, then perhaps it may resemble a kind of Hitchcockian joy most obviously manifest in eagerness, or that strange phenomenon known as the student who happily does their homework.

February 22, 2010

ESL vs. “Hamlet” – the remix (part 1)

Filed under: Remixes — Sputnik @ 1:18 pm

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Is this

a) the wish of a snowman with an itch?

b) the thought of an IATEFL speaker just before they are due to give a paper?

c) a Shakespearean conceit which may prove instructive to ESL teachers?

Pity poor Shakespeare.  Here he was with a superlative plot for a play about a man who thinks rather than acts, and yet, how could he show it?  The most important feature of Hamlet the play is that Hamlet the character is a thinker. But what legitimate means did he have at his disposal to render the plight of Hamlet, and above all to give witness to Hamlet’s inner shoe-gazing?  He could not very well have the actor repeatedly wander across the stage in a dumbshow with his fist clasped to his brow, or looking wistfully from Elsinore’s battlements while he smoked a pipe.

No, he had to employ another solution.   And despite the claims of Elizabethan theatre to be ever more naturalistic than its predecessors, Shakespeare had to make recourse to a wholly artificial device in order to show Hamlet in action, or inaction – the soliloquy.  As the wonderful Margreta de Grazia remarks, ‘it is an awkward solution to be sure: speaking is asked to give the illusion of non-speaking’.  In other words, to access a greater reality, that of Hamlet’s inner self, we have to deliberately absent ourselves from reality, the reality where thoughts are silent, contriving in its abandonment to yield a more serviceable if less accurate truth.

Such theatrical pragmatism may also have a role in ESL instruction.  The general advocacy of natural, authentic and real English has never been more prominent – let us burn our textbooks, fling away their CDs like Frisbees, and condemn the school’s library of handouts to be turned into paper boats on paper seas.  But perhaps, if we can stop keeping it real for one moment, we might like to remember quite how useful the convenient fictions of course-books are.

As the great Henry Widdowson had cause to note, ‘the language subject as a pedagogic subject is not like the real object language’.  Textbook language is fake, of course it is – it’s a device we employ to get to the greater truth of communication.  Without it, we would be like a real Hamlet sans soliloquies, strutting the stage and moaning while looking wistfully into the distance: useless, uninteresting and, above all, mute.  Indeed, the real artifice is naturalism itself.  For quite in the same way as being on a stage renders everything artificial anyway, so does being in a classroom.  Is it not possible, then, that just as Shakespeare used the artifice of a soliloquy to give expression to Hamlet’s inner world, can we not use the artifice of textbook English to give expression to our students’ inner worlds?

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