On Margaret Luongo's panel, we spoke about some assignments using visual arts in creative writing and literature classes.
I like using film clips and adaptations. I didn't have time to share all the film adaptations I use, so I promised I'd post some more here, as well as clips:
1. Some ADAPTIONS that have worked well in my classrooms at Cornell and Miami University.
a) THE SWEET HEREAFTER (novel by Russell Banks, and the film adaptation). When I first started sharing films and scenes to fiction writers, I worried that they'd only learn to write scenes that look like movies on the page. But I was surprised that if you choose an adaptation from a work that doesn't seem very cinematic, the process actually works backwards. Students look to the original and contemplate how the audience/reader experience differs from the film version, and ponder the novelist/story writers/playwright's' artistic choices and what it says about the unique characteristics of that genre. THE SWEET HEREAFTER works well because the book is so unlike a movie. It has 4 different first person narrators, reflecting on events that have occurred during the past (a school bus accident in which most of a small town's children die), and a lot of the experience relies on the intimacy of the voices and the internality of the reflection.
b) "The Killings" (short story by Andre Dubus) and the film adaptation called IN THE BEDROOM. In this one the film is a chronological presentation of the Dubus story's underlying events. Yet the story begins late, in media res (or maybe even later than the middle of things). So the students work backwards and contemplate why a short story writer would choose to begin the story so late and have most of it experienced as backstory. How does he reveal that backstory as memory and rumination? Why? Is there something about fiction that lends itself to that sort of revelation (as opposed to film)? What is gained, what is lost? How about the needs of compression in the story form?
c) REMAINS OF THE DAY (the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation). When I first watched this film, I thought it was a good adaptation, especially given how uncinematic the novel seemed to me, and assumed that the common truism about adaptations must hold true here: that the film makers changed it significantly to adopt to the visual form. And I wanted to see what they did, so I compared the dialogue line by line. To my surprise, a lot of scenes had kept the dialogue almost verbatim. But the effects of the two versions are very different. Why did the novel seem so uncinematic? First, it's an unreliable narrator, and the unreliability is an essential characteristic of the reading experience -- it creates a complex emotional and imaginative experience, an indeterminacy and uncertainty, as we mistrust what the narrator says, and search for clues to what is actually happening. We're active. Second, there's a strange intimacy with a precarious identity and self esteem. Thirdly (and relatedly) there's a large imaginative gap. Ishiguro doesn't have a lot of vivid physical descriptions of faces or even settings. But he gives us little clues that provoke us to imagine things ourselves. For example, he might tell about some idiosyncratic character mannerism or gesture. That triggers us to imagine the entire character, because the details are selected so carefully. In film of course, and by contrast, the imaginative tyranny of the visual image takes over and we see what we are presented.
d) RICHARD III (the Shakespeare play, and the film version staring Ian McKellen. I also like to compare clips from the Olivier version. The Winter of our Discontents speech works really well as a contrast, as well as the seduction of Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband's body. (Father-in-law in the original).
2. I mentioned that I like to assign to students a humiliation scene, after showing them a film clip in which someone is humiliated. I'm pasting the assignment guidelines lower below. Here is a list of some film clip scenes that have led to especially fruitful discussions and student creative writing..
a) MY LEFT FOOT. Play the scene sequences of Brown's gallery showing and the dinner celebration afterwards. The humiliation he experiences is very intense and harrowing, and the students get very much drawn in. The panned camera shot of the diners while Daniel Day Lewis is struggling to contain his physical spasms due to the emotional turmoil acts as a creative reaction shot, making the viewer feel as confined within it as the diners are within the awkward situation, and Brown is within his wheelchair and body.
b) FARGO. You can play the opening scene, and also the one afterwards in which Jerry is humiliated by everybody, including his father-in-law. It's a great way to show how you can get an audience to feel empathy for, and bond to, a character who is unsympathetic. Note how the Cohen brothers humiliate him before we find out he wants to hire these guys to kidnap his wife. By then it's too late: we've already felt empathy for him.
c) THE DEPARTED. This is an interesting scene, near the beginning, where Jack Nicolson's character basically commits extortion and shows his power not by beating up a late-to-pay store owner, but by hitting on his teenage girl in front of everybody. The helpless, beefy stop owner has to just watch. It shows how you can take a common, even cliqued scene, and make it new and interesting. Also, it's an example of how you can humiliate a minor character not for the purpose of creating an audience-character bond, but simply to draw the audience in to the scene -- to suspend disbelief.
d) THE GRADUATE. If I have time, I like playing this scene sequence of both the graduation party -- in which Dustin Hoffman feels constantly embarrassed by the overbearing attention of his parents' friends -- and the attempted seduction by Miss Robinson, which is a form of humiliation in so far as she is toying with him. It shows how humiliation / embarrassment can be used for comic effect.
e) GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. This scene, in which Alec Baldwin's character creatively humiliates a bunch of sales guys, is exhilarating in his brutality and cleverness. It's interesting because it's dramatic, even a tragic play, but there's humor here too -- though not light like in The Graduate. One warning, I usually play this scene later in the semester than the humiliation assignment because the dialogue is rather direct. There's not much subtext that isn't pickup on and expressed in dialogue. It's great in Mamet's hands, but students -- if not properly warned -- tend to write scenes that are too direct in an uninteresting way.
GUIDELINES FOR HUMILIATION SCENE ASSIGNMENT
ASSIGNMENT: Write a scene involving a humiliation that opens--or comes close to the beginning--of a story. If you wish, you can write a short short (a 1-2 page short story), or complete it in poetic form. You can even write it as a stage play or film scene.
Be ready to share it for feedback.
OBJECTIVE: The humiliation should draw us in emotionally as readers.
1) In a dramatic scene, the main characters usually want something pretty badly. They have a GOAL or YEARNING. There are also OBSTACLES to the character achieving this goal.
2) Place the humiliation at the opening of a story to draw the reader in--to engage reader emotions.
Humiliation is one of the writer's greatest tools. When we readers, or the audience of a stage play or film, witness a character being humiliated, we get drawn in. We tend to have empathy for the character. We feel their emotions--even of characters we don't like. We at least getting pulled into the story. Why? Because humiliation is such a strong, universally felt emotion.
Before you write your piece, observe how humiliation works in prose, film, drama. Notice places in the stories we have read where a character is humiliated. Do you feel drawn in here?
For example, near the beginning of "John John's World" by Lois-Ann Yamanpaka (in our course pack), the narrator-mother feels embarrassed at the grocery store checkout when her autistic son throws a tantrum over some mylar balloons he wants her to buy. She is humiliated by the reactions of the clerk, the security guard, and other shoppers, who all seem to judge her harshly as a mother for not controlling her son. Also note in this scene how deftly the author sets up the drama: the mother wants to buy the groceries and check them off her to do list. Her obstacle is that her son wants the balloons and will possibly throw a public tantrum if he does not get his way. Note how the scene causes us to feel her embarrassment. Because embarrassment is a universal and strong emotion, we empathize with the mother very quickly--that is, we are drawn in to her story.
Readers often resist empathizing with unsympathetic characters; yet unsympathetic characters are often the most interesting people. Humiliating an unsympathetic character early on is a great way of getting the reader engaged with their emotions. It allows you to write about people with character flaws doing "bad" acts without losing your audience.
Remember, one of the most important things you can do as an author is to create a bond between the reader/audience and a character. Humiliating a character--especially at the beginning--can really do that. It also brings us into the emotional life of a scene.
Brian Ascalon Roley is the author of a novel, AMERICAN SON (Norton), a New York Times Notable Book, LA Times Best Book and winner of the Association of Asian American Studies Prose Book Award; and a new story collection, THE LAST MISTRESS OF JOSE RIZAL (Curbstone). He teaches at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio.