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

Brian Keaney

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!


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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