Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class, Missing the Mark

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class, Missing the Mark

Photo taken post-class...
Yet another week goes buy and I realize how culturally uneducated I am in my own American heritage.  Three presentations this week on three films that I have never – but probably should – have seen.  The theme for this week’s films remains to be defined since the only common thread is, well, that they are all movies…

American History X was up first, a movie about neo-Nazis, in case you haven’t seen it.  The students presented the idea of WASPs and immediately linked it to the film, leading us all to believe that WASPs were automatically Nazis.  I think John Kerry.  They think Nazi.  Apples and oranges?

Further on in the presentation I learned how all Americans have guns because we believe killing someone is OK…in the name of personal justice, at least.  It’s in the Bill of Rights, an indelible right, for the moment.  So the conclusion, apparently, is that you can be killed at any time in America.  It’s a “climate of fear” that we live in because anyone can have guns on them and Americans are willing to use them.

They should have watched Pleasantville instead.  Now that’s America. 

Then in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a not-so-classic western, I learned about the frontier.  The idea of violence, justice, and a “might is right” attitude predominates westerns.  I suppose that’s a fair assessment considering how the Bush administration went.

I remember my very first class in Paris back in 2006 when the teacher told me the most important date in American history: 1890, apparently the end of the American frontier.  1776 was barely a benchmark year in our history, right?

I did not grow up with westerns, nor do I recall ever watching one as a child.  I still don’t get this French fascination with these types of films.  They can just head down to the Camargue region of France and see cowboys – and flamingos to boot.  Now that is fascinating.

Then a double feature of Vertigo and Psycho introduced me into the world of Hitchcock’s new camera angles, the vertigo shot, and the idea that happiness that comes only with money and marriage.  Yet, curiously, no mention of the shower scene.  Probably one of the most iconic murder scenes in film with legendary music to boot, and the students didn’t show it.  But we did spend ten minutes discussing how all of the women were blond and submissive, a key element to American society, apparently.  I guess the shower scene was deemed unsuitable to show during class.

In fact, to that end, no shoot-out scene in the western, no shower scene in Hitchcock, and no angst-ridden racially-charged scene from a movie about neo-Nazis.  I wasn’t disappointed, but our visions of these movies were very different.  I have an image in my mind even though I’ve never seen these movies in their entirety and clearly those ideas are not cross-cultural.

The bigger question was why was no one exploring the classic American films like Lion King and Ferris Bueller was just beyond me.  And I’ve yet to see a monster, dinosaur, or alien in any presentation.  Now that is what American movies and culture are all about.


  1. Most of the students in your class haven't seen the shower scene in Psycho. I studied it when I was in high school, because it was part of my English program, but my English teacher was a Hitchcock fan -and he was right !

    I think they really should have shown this mythic scene. By the way, i'd like to know your opinion about how English is taught at the Sorbonne Nouvelle... What could be improved ? Do you think we can study America only through American films ?

    And have you learnt French in an American university ? How was it over there ?

  2. Hi Marie. Thanks for your comments.

    I don't think English is really "taught" at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. The professor assumes that everyone has a certain level already, so it's more of an exercise to do the presentations.

    Studying through film is a great way, I think, to explore a culture, but there are certainly other ways to explore the American culture. TV, of course, is a great way, but it is much harder to access all of the shows that are out there.

    And when I learned French at my American university, it was oftentimes just as difficult, but the teachers really did force us to speak as much as possible. In the American system we are taught from the beginning that participating is ESSENTIAL. In the French system, I'm not sure that there this same focus on participation. I can easily attend all of my classes and never say a word...and English class is no different...