The Cooperative High School offers a broad-based arts-humanities curriculum to students. This curriculum includes courses in theatre, music, and the visual arts as well as the more traditional offerings of English, history, math, and science. At the Co-op teachers of history and English, especially but not exclusively, have been working on curriculum projects which enable students to see connections between the new “arts” courses and the traditional “humanities” courses—and also among the humanities courses themselves. Thus the history teacher, for example, often provides time for a study of the art and architecture of a particular culture, and the English teacher encourages students to see literature as a reflection of the society which produced it.
“America in Film and Fiction” is designed to fit into a course I teach at the Co-op called “Visual Art and Literature.” This course enables students to see the many similarities between visual and written art. It includes comparative studies of painting and poetry, photography and poetry, and painting and the short story. Students are taught a method of analysis—appropriate for use with the visual and the written—which in turn facilitates cultural discovery. Students seem to emerge from this comparative study with a truer appreciation of all art forms as well as a newly-found awareness of history and its significance.
Last summer I worked on a unit which attempted to uncover the social concerns of 1930s Britain as delineated in two initially regarded disparate novels, The
by Agatha Christie and Down
and Out in Paris and London by
George Orwell. My students enjoyed comparing the middle-brow and high-brow novels immensely. They were detectives who relished the discovery of thematic similarities in the two works. They were also astute critics who noted and questioned the notions of style and audience. Two-thirds of the way through the work on this unit I decided to include as well two examples of film produced in 1930s Britain. This visual study served to underscore and further explicate our thematic discoveries. Moreover, I quickly realized that film study could and should, be a component of the course, “Visual Art and Literature,”
This year I plan to tie all of the threads together, as it were, in order to devise a unit which will include an adaptation of the method of analysis for film study as well as a comparative study of a variety of fiction. This unit will be a natural sequel to last year’s work, for we will consider pre-World War II American works which might then be compared with the previously studied British works. Yet, this unit will take film study a step further. Film will not be seen as part of a culminating activity, but rather will be seen up-front as the primary focus of the unit, and film will also be seen as another art form worthy of careful analysis.
The first section of this unit comprises’ a mini-course in film study. Sobochack and Sobochack’s excellent book, An Introduction to Film, provides an impressive blue-print for the study of the architecture of film. We will deal with two broad topics: film space and film sound. These topics encompass such elements of film as composition, movement, viewpoints, and background music. An awareness of these device will prompt student appreciation of the twentieth century art-form and/or will enable students to replace a passive and superficial acceptance of film with an active and sophisticate appraisal of its meaning.
Citizen Kane has long been regarded as a technically
I have chosen Kane as the subject for film analysis, and thus the focus of the second section of the unit, for two reasons: 1.) it was produced prior to World War II and thus fits the historical specifications mentioned previously and 2.) it is an artistically rich film which provides many examples of a variety of film devices and elements recognized by its astute creator, Orson Welles. In short, its very self-conscious depiction of what film could do renders it an archetype particularly appropriate for careful analysis.
The final section of the unit encourages students to engage in a comparative study of
and a variety of fiction. I believe that we will discover a similarity of theme among these works which might serve to indicate pre-World War II American concerns. Thus we will approach film and fiction with a historical bent—noting that art forms invariably mirror the societies which produce them. Yet, it is likely as well that this comparative study will enable us to discover various interpretations or transformations of theme; these transformations in turn might serve to indicate the individual insight (and genius) of each of the creators. Thus we will also approach film and fiction with a critical bent—noting that art-forms also mirror the minds and heart of the individual artists.