Monday, December 05, 2005

Melodrama

Today I had decided to show one of my classes a film. This is a low-level class I have been reading to, and they had wanted a love story. Trying to find a love story in simplified English was hard. Not many of the graded readers for second language learners at that level of English are love stories. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, I found Jane Eyre.

I started reading it to them, and it wasn't very successful. It wasn't sexy enough for them. They weren't getting the FEELING of it. The simplified English was a part of the problem, and also their imperfect understanding of even the simplified English, but so was their lack of background knowledge of the times the story was set in. Also, they didn't know the story already. They hadn't even heard of it.

So I decided I should show them the film.

I forgot to check the video shops, but was told that they had a copy of at least one of the versions in the university library. I didn't know what version it was, but decided to take a risk. I went in this morning before my classes and asked to borrow it for a week.

The library gave me something called, Arashi ga Aka. I wasn't sure what this meant, but it seemed wrong. The librarian assured me that it was Jane Eyre. Not quite believing this, I took it to my first class, in which I was not planning to show the movie, in order to check it out on the video equipment.

When my first class (of only six students) saw that I had a movie they wanted to see it. We had a little debate about this, and then I decided that since the class was such a good one (these are higher level students) and they have got through most of the work I'd planned anyway, it would be a good thing to show. There are all sorts of themes in Jane Eyre that might be useful for discussion, I thought. I told them a little about the background of the story, and put the video in the machine.

The music came up, and then the title in Japanese. The title in English followed:

WUTHELING HEIGHTS

I couldn't believe it. Not only did I have the wrong film, the title was spelt wrongly. How did they DO that? Wasn't the correct title in the original? When they dubbed in the Japanese subtitles they must have also put in the new 'improved' title. WHY? It segued perfectly into the opening credits and looked like it was a part of the original film, but it couldn't have been. Why did they change it?

"Hey! This isn't Jane Eyre!" I shouted, and stopped the video. Then I realized that it didn't matter. This was not the class in which I was reading the story, so whatever we watched was all right, really. And Wuthering Heights has some wonderful themes we can discuss later, about women in particular. (This is a women's university.) This is a class that can handle discussion.

I explained the mixup to the students, gave more appropriate background information, and we went ahead.

The version I had borrowed turned out to be the 1939 one, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. I had never seen it before, and it is WONDERFULLY dramatic. At first I was worried that the students would find it dull - they're used to special effects and colour and sex and all the rest of it - but they were riveted. The music, the stark scenery, the fog and shadows, the gothic drama - it seemed to slip through their defences in a way a modern film could not. One student fell asleep the moment I turned on the TV (one out of five is normal for this - it seems to be inevitable) woke up again when the dramatic music started (because I had the volume set too high at first), and sat goggle-eyed along with the others for the next hour. (We only watched half of it, and the second half will be next week.)

With a different audience I might have been laughing at the melodrama. But the students took it all so seriously it forced me to look at it differently. What were they seeing? Why did this story of early nineteenth century England hit them so hard? I have never had this result from film watching in classes before. I have never seen students get so deeply immersed in a film.

Before my third class I dashed over to the library and explained the mistake. It turned out they had Jane Eyre as well, so I grabbed that. This class has only seven students, and is the class I am reading the book to. I put the video into the machine.

It was another black and white film, from 1939 this time, starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. This time, two students fell asleep when I turned the TV on, and both woke up when the dramatic music started, and stared, gobsmacked, as Jane was tormented by her cousins and then even more tormented at the school. When the bullying, evangelical Mr Brocklehurst stood Jane on a chair in the middle of the school and lectured about how she was an evil liar that everybody should shun, and then everybody turned their backs on her and filed out leaving her standing alone and forlorn on the chair, there was not a dry eye in the classroom. When her little friend Helen (Elizabeth Taylor!) died, there was audible sniffing. And when Mr Rochester's horse thundered out of the fog and fell, there was a little scream. I don't know who did that. It was not me.

Again, we had to stop the movie halfway. Both movies are over the class time (90 minutes) so I have to show them in two parts. Next week I will see the ends of both, and I think I'm looking forward to it as much as the students are. Again, I got the urge to laugh at Orson Welles' Mr Rochester ("Why is he so damned GRUMPY?" I wanted to ask), but again their serious expressions stopped me, and instead I fell headfirst into the story.

After stopping the film, right after the first fire, I read a couple of chapters of the book to the students. As it happens this ended at exactly where we'd ended the film, which was perfect. They were hearing what they'd just seen. And as they were listening to me read they were totally focused, far more so than they were last week, and I knew the film had worked its magic. They were not just listening to English, they were listening to the story. The characters had come alive.

The students had been a little resentful that they had asked me for a love story and I had given them what was apparently a story about a poor child in a nasty school, but now they understood why the background was necessary. Also, they understood what it meant when Mr Rochester took Jane's hand, after the fire, and thanked her for saving his life. What had been tame (especially compared to modern love stories) had become an impossibly romantic moment. That was where we ended, and nobody wanted to talk after that. They just sat there, dreaming.

I packed away my things, and closed up the video cabinet, and started to leave the room. The students usually leave before I do, and I paused for a moment in the doorway. I said goodbye and that I'd see them next week, and they responded abstractedly and solemnly and continued to sit, staring at the pages still in front of them.

I think they were hoping for Mr Rochester to leap out at them on his black horse, cape flapping wildly in the wind, to sweep them away from the poor, miserable, tormented lives their imaginations had suddenly given them.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The version I had borrowed turned out to be the 1939 one, with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon." is only half the story, unfortunately.

Catherine dies, Heathcliff has fits, and that's it.

No Cathy, no final union, no wandering lovers' ghosts in the full moonlight, no "sleepers in the quiet earth"

Still rather good tho.

Wiccachicky said...

It's amazing how a film can do that to a class. I had a couple screenings this semester and the students were talking about it for days.

The Editter said...

at least it wasn't Withering Heights...

Faerunner said...

Why don't my Spanish teachers show that kind of thing in class? I'd love to see one of the classic love stories in Spanish (the only movies I've watched were dubbed versions of The Princess Bride and The Lion King, both of which I can very nearly recite word for word in English anyway).

You are a very cool teacher. :)