My Year in Film Studies
When my department head approached me with the idea that I consider teaching a Film Studies class, it was--not to put too fine a point on it--a revelatory moment. One the one hand, as a lifelong movie lover and a decades-long movie reviewer/blogger, the idea of spending several hours a week immersed in the world of sounds and images was quite enticing. On the other hand, with the old adage "be careful what you wish for, lest it come true" ratting around my head, I feared that the experience of sharing my favourite films with a group of less experienced and "refined" movie goers would prove if not frustrating, at the very least less than satisfying. I fretted about the motivations of the students I would encounter. Were they taking the class in hopes of viewing a stream of Hollywood blockbusters? Were they hoping for a chance to veg out and/or catch up on their sleep? Would I, with my agenda of art, foreign and genre films, be casting the proverbial pearl before a roomful of inevitably ingrateful swine? Would this experience suck the joy out of one of my life's great pleasures? Was I risking tainting my love of some intensely personal films by subjecting them to a public roasting by these rubes and neophytes?
Yes, arrogance is sometimes a problem.
Underestimating others as well, it seems. Now that the year has passed, I am happy to report that my fears and concerns proved largely of my own making, as, once the veggers were weeded out, the students turned out to be quite keen participants in the endeavour of helping me create this particular course of cinematic study. The experienced was, if not uniformly joyful, certainly and at the very least consistently rewarding. The students--those who stuck with it--showed themselves to be a keen audience and eager scholars. They may not have embraced every offering, but they remained tolerant of the unfamiliar and sometimes challenging material, and I could not realistically have asked for more.
So how did what to put on the curriculum? Of the tens of thousand films at my disposal, how do I decide which to use and why? And how to organize the units so that learning flows from one and into the other smoothly and effectively? A lifetime of movie-going, a solid decade of movie reviewing and self-directed scholarship and I had to narrow it down to 100 hours of course work, of which perhaps 50 hours would be dedicated to film viewing. How was I supposed to narrow the entire history of world cinema, touch on the art, techniques and technlogical developments, give students a taste of the evolution of narrative film and global cinema as well as a hint of the plethora of genres and genre busters, down to fifty hours of film? What to choose and how to choose it? The mind positively boggled at the prospect. It was an impossible task. But that was my job. And here's how I did it.
In order to start on familiar ground, I decided to start off by looking at the conventional structures and techniques of narrative film. I wanted to start with a film that would be accessible and entertaining, while also clearly exhibiting the familiar elements of the three act story arc. After considering a number of options, including Hitchcock's North by Northwest, I finally settled on a more recent film, Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire. My rationale was pretty simple. I wanted a film that would appeal equally to both genders, and I figured the dual plot line of Jerry Maguire would work to my advantage, as the rom-com aspects of the film would keep the female students onside, while the sports/buddy film elements would keep the guys on board. Turns out I was kinda sorta right, but not entirely so. But before dissecting the film's usefulness in the class, lemme turn first to a review of the film
Jerry Maguire (USA, 1998, Cameron Crowe)
While a fan of the film, Roger Ebert complained that Jerry Maguire feels overstuffed, and he may be onto something; however, for my purposes, the film's stuffiness (heh) played right into my hands. First, let me leap to the film's defense. Jerry Maguire carries its own weight narratively-speaking, as the twin plot lines, the first showing how Jerry (Tom Cruise) struggles to learn how to achieve intimacy in the most important relationships in his life, the second examining Jerry's professional growth and his burgeoning friendship with his (only) client Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) do not simply run parallel, but play off of and amplify each others themes quite effectively.
Just as Jerry's personal life disintegrates, and his professional life is rebuilt from the ashes of the very public humiliation of his firing, so too does Rod's personal life thrive in a rich and rewarding set of relationships with family and friends while he finds his career as a professional football player endangered not because of a lack of talent, but due to a lack of passionate commitment. So Rod and Jerry, and Cruise and Gooding do deserve some credit here for making this criss-crossed relationship seem plausible, have much to learn from each other, as one's strengths are the other's inadequacies. The story elements that involve these two characters and their struggles are easily the film's most appealing and successful, while charting each character's growth was an indispensible way into an analysis of the concept of character arc and the three act narrative structure.
Considerably less successful are the romantic comedy aspects of the film, as the story is less distinctive, the feel more generic, the writing more clever and forced, feeling less lived and more "written." Crowe's limitations as a writer, his Rolling Stone meets Judy Blume cuteness and quirk, draws attention to itself here, as the love story between Dorothy (Rene Zellweger) and Maguire has considerably less traction than the contentious friendship between Jerry and Rod. To be fair here, however, Crowe shows some of the same propensity throughout the sports plot, with its catch phrases ("Show Me the Money" and "Help ME to help YOU"), but these moments do not define this plot so much as punctuate it. Part of that is intentional, as Jerry is clearly not in love with Dorothy, but merely clinging to the wreckage of his life in order to stay afloat. He is described as being incapable of being alone, and Dorothy allows him to skirt the problem. For awhile at least. However, as we are supposed to believe that a love grows between them, it would be helpful if (a) the characters enjoyed some chemistry (b) the relationship actually grew before our eyes, rather than just in our and their imaginations. And while Zellweger had not yet become the lemony pucker-faced leading lady I have grown so very ewary of, her self-conscious and affected coyness does little to lift me out of the sense that I'm watching actors in a less compelling romantic drama attempting to keep me from falling asleep. And while it again dovetails nicely with the notion that Jerry initially enters this relationship out of fear and not love, it is quite telling that the most interesting relationship in this part of the film is between Dorothy's son Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki).
Overall, Jerry Maguire is a competently made and mostly well-written film that deploys the parallel plot structure quite effectively in the service of its twin themes. And while the buddy elements of the picture are more engaging than the rom-com aspects, Jerry Maguire's use of standard narrative conventions in the service of its dual plot proved fertile ground for study.
Part Two, wherein I complete the discussion of JM and take a gander at Christopher Nolan's Memento, can be found here.