Whenever I teach my short-story class, I find myself talking about the movies. I’ve always presumed that my adult-ed students, few of whom were ever English majors, are less likely to have Flannery O’Connor in common than Casablanca. But there’s a flaw in this approach. I’ll say, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and many of my students will look right back at me . . . but blankly. They don’t know Casablanca.
I assign not a single short story in my writing class. But I do assign—no, I demand that my students see—Casablanca. Talk about storytelling! Talk about characters! Talk about . . . no, let’s make this a broader discussion: Talk about an American treasure! Talk about myth-making . . . star-making . . .bliss-making! For crying out loud, let’s talk about Rick and Ilsa and Sam the piano player doing “As Time Goes By” and Captain Renault and Major Strasser and—well, after you’ve seen it, we can talk about it. First, though, you’ve got to see it.
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So I’ve made it my duty to introduce my students to some of the great old films. Any film buff knows them all—but we’re not all film buffs. And one of the delights of teaching—perhaps my main delight—is to introduce students to things they hadn’t seen or read or thought or done. I stand before my writing students acting out scenes of classic movies to illustrate the trickery of storytelling—storytelling is all trickery, you know—but also to egg them on, move them, perhaps get them to rent some movie that was made before they were born, or perhaps even before their parents were born, and which even today will grab them and entertain them and make them happy because it was simply great.
For a writer of stories, there is so much to learn from the old movies that I’m putting together a new course for the winter term. Six sessions, six movies. The rules are: English language, black-and-white, pre-1960. No two movies from the same genre, or by the same director, or with the same stars. So, of course, I must ask you, which six would you choose?
I’ll tell you my choices in a minute. But what fun to decide which six. Remember, some of my students have never, ever seen a black-and-white movie! But this time, instead of having to watch me act them out, they’ll actually watch them. Afterwards, we’ll try and figure out how these stories worked their magic on us. First, though, I’ll get to watch my students watch the films. I would do that for free.
So many parts of storytelling that work on the movie screen can also work on the page—which is, after all, the screen of the imagination. One is setting–where and when the story happens–and how the setting is as much a character in the story as any person, and maybe more so. And the plot, which depends for its success on our believing that all this really happened. And the characters—how we’re made to care about them and what they say or do or cause others to say or do. How they think and what they want, the forces that impede them, the way the best of them surprise us but really don’t. The way a story, when it’s over, sometimes feels finished, and sometimes not, and why both can feel good. And why—it happens all the time—a sad ending is the one that makes you deeply, deeply happy.
I can’t wait. Here are the ones—boy, this was tough!—that I’ve selected for the course:
King Kong (1933)
The Thing (1950)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
High Noon (1952)
The Third Man (1948)
So that’s my six. This doesn’t let you off the hook. I want to know yours.
By the way, my adult-ed short-story class begins again on Thursday, October 27th, here in Northern Virginia. Check pg. 24 of the Fairfax County Public Schools catalogue for “Writing a Short Story.”