Hitchcock and Homework

The Rewards and Perils of Hitchcock in the High School English Class

by Brian Keaney

21 June 2010

To what degree should a teacher help a student develop taste? Hitchcock stands as one of hundreds of artists whose work educators might use to explore questions of art and the classroom itself with their students.

“My boyfriend won’t watch movies with me anymore,” said a ninth grade student following our class viewing of Psycho.

Using the films of Alfred Hitchcock in class has forced me to reflect on a number of pedagogical, ethical, and cultural issues that any good teacher must consider and re-consider throughout his or her career: To what degree should a teacher help a student develop taste? Are there some materials appropriate for certain groups of students rather than others (i.e., for “Honors-track” students)? Is a democratic classroom—one in which students actively participate in the selection of materials and designing of lessons and curricula—possible in the American high school? It is significant that film, as the mode of modern American art, should provide the backdrop for such investigations, and that Hitchcock, whose films offer such a wide range of fertile interpretive material to work with, remains the auteur from whom students and teachers alike continually find challenging and often unsettling glimpses into the very issues—identity, love, death—we all inevitably find ourselves entrenched in while navigating the uncertainties of adulthood?

About five years ago, during my first experience working with 12th grade students, I had the opportunity to turn a standard Senior Year College-Prep English course into something much more appealing: an abbreviated version of Film 101. Due to scheduling issues at my school (a voc-tech high school at which students spend half of their time in a vocational major), electives are mere pipe dreams in my department; consequently, I took advantage of a flimsy second-semester curriculum and created my own four-week version of an intro to film course. The selections were entirely my own, without input from my students: The Graduate, Rebel Without a Cause, and Vertigo.

For the majority of the class, “Hitchcock” represented something vaguely “classic” and few students had seen any of the films. Suffice to say that for these students, Vertigo was a poor choice. The film’s pacing, reliance on repetition, false endings, and (for them) dated special effects were off-putting at best, alienating and annoying at worst. I could see them drop one-by-one during the famous “car chase” as Scottie follows Madeline though the winding streets of San Francisco—at approximately 20 miles per hour. It was tough to disagree with many of my students’ feelings about Vertigo: it is a strange film in many ways, and even after multiple viewings, its layers and labyrinthine twists still frustrate. I had planned on discussions about obsession, guilt, and trust. Instead, I desperately tried to defend the film and hoped I had not turned off 20 or so 17-year-olds from ever returning to Hitchcock or “old movies” in general.

Why did I not choose a more “accessible” film? In retrospect, Rear Window, perhaps superior to Vertigo in its own right, might have fared better. Rear Window had recently been ripped off by Disturbia and an excellent parody by The Simpsons and could have served as effective counterpoints and foundations for discussion and assignments. The truth of the matter is that I was duped by the myth of canonization, a problem that haunts English courses from Middle Schools to Grad Schools. By and large, Vertigo is the classic Hitchcock film, much as Hamlet is the Shakespearean tragedy. Sure Romeo and Juliet is good, but Hamlet.... This is not to disparage either work. It is very necessary for us as educators, writers, and readers to approach the entire issue of canon from a careful, yet realistic point of view. The problem with my selection of Vertigo for this particular class was not that I considered its status in making it, but that I allowed that point to be the only criterion for doing so.

Much more successful was an experiment I attempted with a group of younger (freshman) honors students the following year. The impetus for our class viewing of Psycho was actually a Roald Dahl short story, “The Landlady,” which involved a hapless young man finding shelter in a hospice run by a sweetly murderous hostess. Unlike the viewing of Vertigo, this one had the advantage of being grounded in a textual reference point, a thematic touchstone which we had already dissected together. Also, while only one or two of my ninth-graders had seen the entire film, nearly all of them responded to the mere mention of the film’s title with the same gesture: raised fists coming down in mock-stabbing motions, punctuated by their own “ree-ree-ree” sound effects. While like Vertigo, Psycho is grounded in an exploration of the mind, Psycho features the cultural common denominator of graphic violence that, like it or not, is an afterthought for American children (and as a parent of a four-year-old, I have seen first-hand how such numbness to death and violence is shockingly innate from a very early age).

From the opening notes of Bernard Herrmann’s menacing score, these students were tuned into the interpretive opportunities of the film. They found evidence of foreshadowing in the dagger-like slashes of light as the opening credits began. They quickly began recording the numerous allusions to birds and critiqued Marion Crane’s questionable scruples in the early scenes (noting her costume change from a white bra and slip to black ones at the Bates motel). Perhaps most satisfying was the fact that for this class, the film worked. The students found it intriguing, disturbing, and above all entertaining, not despite its being “old” and “classic” but in many ways because of those traits. There was a genuine curiosity about this movie that we’ve seen parodied and alluded to hundreds of times in pop culture.

This year, I returned to Vertigo. Again working with senior students, but this time an honors group, I used the film as a vehicle to explore the daunting challenges of “theory,” first asking them to research a number of theoretical points of view (psychoanalytical, feminist, formalist, Marxist, etc.) before choosing one to “frame” a written analysis of the film. In addition, I had students write a review of the film. By and large the students had trouble balancing their appreciation (or perhaps an obligation to appreciate) for Hitchcock as somehow “classic” and the film itself as “a classic,” and their own unenthusiastic responses to Vertigo in purely entertainment terms.

When it comes to screening films in class, particularly ones released when students’ parents were in school, students have two very strong expectations, boundaries that the teacher must not transgress, lest he or she wishes to turn English class into naptime. Those commandments are: Thou shalt not subject students to black-and-white films, and Thou shalt not expect students to bother with any language other than their own. Thus the Criterion approved Peter Brook version of Lord of the Flies inevitably gets shelved in favor of the 1990 debacle featuring profanity-laden nonsense that ultimately demeans Golding’s novel. I only mention the Lord of the Flies film to illustrate the complex decision-making that goes on regarding many aspects of teaching, especially in selecting appropriate, effective, and engaging materials like texts and films.

On one hand, this teacher at least feels a strong responsibility to guide students in critiquing their expectations while broadening the scope of their conceptions of what art is like and what it can do. That said, I find very offensive the notion of teacher-as-tastemaker. It is a tricky balance to strike between showing young learners what is available in terms of artistic points of view and forcing upon them one’s own preferences in a heavy-handed, elitist way. A passionate teacher’s own taste will inevitably shine through in class (this is why I will never teach The Scarlet Letter.)

In consideration of some of these admittedly weighty debates, Hitchcock then stands as one of hundreds of artists whose work educators might use to explore questions of art and the classroom itself with their students. As a bonus, teachers who choose to screen Hitchcock’s work in class will no doubt find ample opportunities to explore the standard “English class” fare in an intriguing manner that, with the right framing, many students will find inviting and challenging. As for myself, I will continue dreaming of my film elective, where introducing students to Hitchcock (and others) will be open to debate and discussion, a class in which the students themselves will help drive the selection process. Until then, I’ve really got my eye on North by Northwest for when September arrives.

Brian Keaney is a teacher of High School English at Tri-County High School in Franklin, Massachusetts and Shakespeare at Bridgewater State College. He is an avid music and film critic who’s searching always looking for more time to write!

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