People of the blogosphere, I need your help. For the latter third of each fall semester, I discuss film genres with my “Cinema and Society” class. Their final project is to create a 5 – 10 minute film in which they choose a fairy tale and give it the genre treatment. Some great examples from the past have been:
- Horror Cinderella – where the stepmother and stepsisters learn too late how far Cinderella will let herself get pushed;
- Action Red Riding Hood – where a young secret agent in a red coat has to get the “goodies” to G.R.A.N.D.M.A. by navigating through a series of obstacles set up by the enemy organization W.O.L.F.
- Sports Movie Jack and the Beanstalk – I remember this had something to do with Jack, a baseball player, taking too many “magic beans” – anyway, it was great!
You get the idea. Anyway, to prepare for this, the groups spend time pondering the plot and thematic motifs and iconic images found in their specific genre, and I show films to illustrate what they’re talking about . . . and to set the bar for what I expect from their own films. (No, I don’t expect them to BE Spielberg, just be inspired by him.)
This year, we have five groups, representing Action, Buddy Comedies, Horror, Science Fiction . . . and, of course, Mysteries. This week we focused on Action. I showed Tony Scott’s 1998 film Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. It has all the elements I love in the genre: a vast conspiracy that seems unstoppable, and an ordinary shlub (if Smith can ever be described that way) who gets in their way, nearly gets destroyed, and then finds the strength within himself to stop them cold (with some help from Hackman’s near-sociopathic technical expert.)
Next week being Halloween, we’re focused on horror. I prefer creepy to gross out, so I’m showing Rosemary’s Baby. Frankly, the students get seriously pissed that they don’t get to see a deformed demon baby, but I’ve watched It’s Alive, about the mutant infant who stalks milkmen, and I can tell them from experience that they’re better off imagining what little Adrian looks like.
For buddy comedies, I’m going classic, with Billy Wilder at his best: Some Like It Hot. Modern students often tend to wilt when they see that a movie is in black and white, so I’m always grateful when they laugh out loud at the final exchange between Jack Lemon and Joe E. Brown!
For science fiction, I tend to prefer sci-fi that creeps up on you rather than a Jerry Bruckheimer “crash over your head” sort of epic. I was going to go with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I’m tempted to show Arrival instead, since I think it was one of the most underrated films of last year and still haunts me. That was not the subject of this post, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on the two films.
And that brings me to mysteries. Being my favorite genre in just about any medium, you’d think that I’d have this one down. But I find myself at loose ends this year, so I’m throwing the topic open to the people I trust the most.
Here’s the thing: I plan on showing two films, one a traditional whodunit and the other more of a noir P.I. sort of film. Some years find me doing a whole unit on noir, but last year that series of films crashed and burned and left me, you should pardon the expression, gun-shy. So I’m going relatively safe and showing a neo-noir – Christopher Nolan’s Memento. The kids always love this one . . . once they figure it out.
For the past, I don’t know, five years, my traditional whodunit has been Green for Danger. I love that film, but hard as I try to ignore it, I can always feel a chill in the air when I show it. Kids don’t cotton to this movie, so I was thinking of picking something else from my home library. The question is, what should I show that best represents the traditional whodunit?
I’ve got all the Christies, so any of them is a possibility. But which would work best with high school students? And Then There Were None? (I know it’s one of Scott Ratner’s favorite films, but its tone is odd – more comedic than mysterious.) Death on the Nile? (It’s fun but long!) Orient Express? (I love it, but it suffers from being long and static. And the new one, with Branagh playing Poirot as an action hero, is just around the corner.)
There’s The Kennel Murder Case. It’s the best of the Philo Vance adaptations and a crackling good film. But is it better for older audiences? And while we’re on the subject of William Powell (if you didn’t know, we are!), does all the romantic/cocktail rigmarole overpower the mystery elements in The Thin Man?
I own a lot of old mysteries. But should I go with something newer? Should I go with something deeper, a la Gosford Park, which brilliantly uses the tropes of the country house murder to say things about class differences in England that Julian Fellowes could never say as well in Downton Abbey. Or is that just too much?????
The reality of the situation is, I think I just want to talk about good mystery films. I’ll probably sort it out just fine over here if nobody responds. But I would love to hear your opinions. Just naming a film you think would work in the comments section would be nice, but even better would be your reasoning as to why this film represents the traditional mystery genre so well! You might make me think of something I hadn’t thought of before. Even better, you might be contributing to a list comprising the best film festival to which we all could ever go.
I’ll host. You bring the snacks!