Christopher Nolan or Washington Irving: Teaching and the Canon

I’ll probably be held down and waterboarded by “canonistas” for the following. “Canonistas” are those self-appointed culture gurus devoted to establishing and advancing a particular canon of works before which we must all genuflect–parodied hilariously by the mathematical “reading” of poetry in Dead Poets Society.  But first, a digression (where almost all real learning takes place).  I tell my students to beware of false binaries (and I am making one between the canonistas and myself right now)–and then I repeatedly ask them to choose “A” or “B” until I can get them to say that they choose neither and find a third way (anthropologists call this mediation of pairs-of-opposites a “third term”).  Of course, sometimes there really are only two choices, but in many matters regarding teaching and the canon the answer to, “Do I teach Nolan or Irving?” is “both” not one or the other.  Incidentally, Christopher Nolan and Washington Irving are functioning as metonyms–stand-ins–in this discussion and we could be having this conversation about Clint Eastwood and Nathaniel Hawthorne or Spike Lee and Richard Wright or the Coen Brothers and F. Scott Fitzgerald and so on. I know that I’ve posed these binaries as movie directors and writers but really we could expand to include all sorts of binaries (Springsteen or Auden; Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas; Stephen King or Mary Shelley).  For the purposes of classroom teaching I often do have to choose one or the other given the limits of time (but I am an extremely poor sport about letting a text-book choose for me).

(I might also add that I admire E.D. Hirsch and his followers extravagantly and agree with much of the Core Knowledge program and I do think it is part of my obligation to “conserve” knowledge–to pass along “the best that has been thought and said” [in Matthew Arnold’s felicitous phrase]–as long as we can have a fair amount of skepticism about what the “best” is. )

I’m really just “thinking out-loud” and seeing where that takes me.  I regularly encourage my students to “think out-loud” with me, to be unafraid of going down the wrong alley, of bumping one’s head against a bad interpretation, of fruitlessly pulling in a fishing line with nothing on it–very few want to do this.  Mostly my students would like me to chew up their intellectual food for them and then spit it into their mouths like a mother eagle with her brood.  I am more inclined to push people out of the nest and see if they can fly.  A wonderful thing about most classrooms (many classrooms? some classrooms? a few classrooms?) is that even if the pushed out baby-bird doesn’t fly the landing is not fatal (except perhaps to some egos–and most of the real egos are at the front of the room.  It is for this reason that too much education looks like banking transactions–TEACHER deposits a certain amount of information and later STUDENT returns a certain amount of information–how much of that deposit that comes back is the grade).

I like Christopher Nolan’s work; I know Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Memento, Inception, and The Prestige all reasonably well. I like Washington Irving’s work; I know “The Devil and Tom Walker,” “Rip van Winkle, (one of the three or four most catastrophically mis-taught stories in American Literature)” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” quite well and several other pieces from The Sketchbook moderately well. Should students “know” “The Devil and Tom Walker”? I really like its “Faustian bargain” and if students have never heard that term they’ll recognize the “deal with the devil” in other things (I hope).  What about Rip? Most think they already “know” the story about the guy who sleeps for 20 years (of course he doesn’t–and Irving’s narrators’ misogyny in the two stories is pretty tough going).  What about the anti-intellectualism of “Sleepy Hollow”?  Should we be aware of this story (frankly, I’ve never known what to do about teaching it given its profound anti-intellectualism and so I don’t)?

Could one construct an argument that it is worth it to spend serious classroom time on Nolan’s Inception?  Certainly there are several objections (I’m assuming we can skip the objections about whether it is developmentally appropriate–I’m not talking about little kids but juniors and seniors in high school). One objection might be that the students already “know” the movie and have seen it on their own.  A second objection might be that the movie is popular and therefore can’t be any good (an assumption lurking behind many objections of culture warriors who regard teaching as the intellectual equivalent of eating brussel sprouts–they are good for you but they damn well better not taste good). A third objection, really the only one worth considering, I think, is, does the movie deserve the time you’ll spend watching it?  As to the second objection (popularity) this can be subsumed in the first and third objections.  The first objection, the students “already know it” is demonstrably false (as is the notion that they “know” “Rip van Winkle,” Genesis, Animal Farm, Calvin and Hobbes or virtually any other thing they have come across in or out of school).  Students have not watched the movie with a critical eye (they usually let movies [and books] wash over them in the manner that a tourist jogs through a museum demanding that he be “entertained” rather than the way a pilgrim approaches a journey–as a pilgrim she is determined to be open to a miracle). 

The third objection, “is it any good?” is the critical objection.  Last year when I taught Inception I developed two handouts that “read” the movie in different ways–one was as a commentary on making movies themselves.  A movie, like the dream(s) constructed inside Inception, is a collaborative art that requires a producer, a director, a set designer (or architect), several characters with specific roles and the ability to move between roles.  A movie also has to be careful about how it walks the line of “realism” or if it becomes preposterous (even by its own standards) then it will be rejected–just as the foreign organisms in the “dream” will be ferreted out because they don’t belong. A second way I encouraged my students to “read” Inception was to think of it in context of Nolan’s oeuvre.  I was hoping that they would all have seen The Dark Knight or Batman Begins (and I was lucky, they had). In all of Nolan’s movies with which I am familiar the main character has a secret which is sometimes known to the audience (Batman’s history, identity, and motivation, say) but often not (Memento, Inception, The Prestige).  In addition, sometimes a character in the movie knows the secret (Alfred) or sets about to discover the secret and the audience either participates in the discovery (Memento or The Prestige).  Nolan often plays with reality and fiction/illusion and narrative and interpretation.  I’d say he is fascinated by the moral dilemmas that the roles we play expose us to (and I think he loses the courage of his conviction in The Dark Knight but that’s a question for teaching). This act of reading–of becoming a semiotician–is at the heart of the way the movie is watched and studied. I’d say Nolan has a genuinely serious moral imagination.  For some teachers the above brief description might not be convincing and they SHOULD NOT teach Nolan–but only because they don’t find him good enough or because they don’t know his work (or, of course, he doesn’t fit within the scope of their class–but more on the scope of classes at a later date).  

This year I am making my class come in on a Saturday or after school to watch The Prestige with me–I’m still showing Inception in class (May 7–May 14 if you want to drop in)–and then I hope they’ll write about 3 Nolan movies (the two we watch together and another one) and his intellectual, artistic, and moral concerns (and I also hope that over the summer when they see The Dark Knight Rises [and they will] that they will THINK about the movie and their own thinking).

I also wonder if, given the cheap availability of DVDs (and the ubiquity of YouTube) whether we should devote MORE time to teaching movies in our literature classes than we used to.  Can Eastwood nudge some space from Melville?  Is Spike Lee a worthy competitor for time to Richard Wright or Ernest Hemingway? But what happens if we lose the cultural glue that holds us together? Should we all “know” Hamlet or Huck Finn? I think we should all know everything we can know about everything there is to know(what a cop-out!). Still, I’ve got more to say on this topic next week and beyond–but especially more next week about the virtues of the Graphic Novel and then the week after that some thoughts on a cool, rare, and nearly-impossible-to-sustain form of narration.



Filed under Batman, books and learning, christopher nolan, critical thinking, Inception, inferential skills, movies, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized, Washington Irving

5 responses to “Christopher Nolan or Washington Irving: Teaching and the Canon

  1. Pingback: Lady Luck Productions » Christopher Nolan or Washington Irving: Teaching and the Canon …

  2. jos58rol

    Why is either/or ? Don;t they both have a place.? I’m interested in what you may have to say about Graphic Novels since I taught (?) Pride of Baghdad last summer,I am going to be covering V for Vendetta next semester. It shoud be interesting. Perhaps you have some hints about presentation. joec444

    • Joe, I tried to make it clear that it is not really an either/or and that I know I am contructing a false binary. I’ll try to make that clearer. I intend to mention Pride of Baghdad and V for Vendetta in this week’s blog. Brian Vaughn–Pride of Baghdad–also wrote aseries that intrigues me called Y: The Last Man

  3. I liked The Prestige as a book, maybe more than I liked it as a movie. I wonder if you weighed one against the other when considering introducing the story to your class. I wonder if there’s something critical about the visual aspect that make the movie more viable and valuable than the book….although it’s pretty clear that Nolan is compiling enough of a cache to become a pretty solid teaching unit all by himself.

    Brian Wilson

  4. Hi Brian, I, too, liked The Prestige as a book and did, briefly, consider trying to teach it. Like many other texts, I finally felt that because of its length I could not do it. This is a perpetually interesting question–when do you teach a really long work and when do you teach numerous short works (maybe by the same author or by different authors)? I try to balance things out but am always tinkering with the formula. Next year I will be teaching the lengthy “Shadow of the Wind” and I have to think about what 25 days of what I currently teach comes out (and can I repurpose anything I’m currently doing to help set that text up). I agree with you, Nolan himself could be a unit–and we could probably name several others besides. Thanks for weighing in. Dan

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