Making things

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Last semester, I decided to do something a little different in the classroom: to make something with students.

I started to conceive my own project-based learning class years ago, in half-serious dialogues with a friend – another child of the 1970s and 1980s – about the forgettable but ubiquitous genre of action movies. Dating back to the start of the Cold War and continuing right up to the present, these films revealed the various and overlapping histories of empire, liberalism, policing, civil rights and justice, and masculinity. Generally, they featured hard male bodies, indisputably phallic weapons, and cheesy one-liners. Often awful and always macho, they invariably described a world devoid of uniformed justice, a world crying out for singular retribution from outsized, extra-legal vigilantes. Why not, my friend routinely asked, teach a class on the genre? We’d laugh and dismiss the idea, but it stuck somewhere, as all good ideas do, and kept coming back out.

When it came time to develop a new class last summer, I settled, then, on the troublesome bricks and mortar of my youth, planning for a historically-informed class with an interdisciplinary edge and an eye trained on race and gender and nation.

160 students eventually enrolled in and stuck with the class. Some were majors in American Studies or Africana Studies or Ethnic Studies. Most were not. And some small few were “fans” of the genre. This size and intellectual diversity complicated and enabled a final project that was collaboratively creative, with opportunities for dialogue and debate, and even for the use of both old and new technologies.

At the heart of the class was a big project – the scene-by-scene re-shooting of Quentin Tarantino’s endlessly referential Kill Bill, Vol. 1., a film chosen precisely because it captures the dynamics of a very unique, alternative tradition in the genre: movies that feature women as the heroic leads. This is a tradition, as many will know, that includes Coffy (1973) and La Femme Nikita (1990), Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), Colombiana (2011) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), and that runs right up to Everly, the recent straight-to-itunes mash-up of Salma Hayek. I appreciated the ingenuity of the actresses who’d taken up these traditionally male roles, but I also enthused over how this subgenre had, despite the presence of strong women, redrawn (and re-confirmed) the dominant work of race and gender. Additionally, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is a film that speaks directly (and loudly) to the larger genre, with a soundtrack ripped from Blaxploitation and stage direction stolen from Hong Kong. The repeated, obvious gestures to other cinematic traditions opened up the chance for students, I hoped, to push even further, to link up to other historic features of the action movie more generally.

Every section of class – and there were 12 sections with roughly 10-15 students, staffed by 6 awesome TAs – was responsible for producing a chunk of the film, from casting to scouting locations to storyboarding to directing. The only major rule (which is to say, the only one that came into play) was this: not a word of dialogue could be altered. And so, then, often with comedic timing and always with reckless abandon, the students in class set out to change everything else, to see if they could alter the tone, the affect, or the work of the original film. This led, of course, to striking discontinuities, for the Bride (Beatrix Kiddo, the chief protagonist) might be white in one scene and black or brown in another, or male in a third, and then the switcheroo would continue. Amidst this remaking of Tarantino’s already dizzying pastiche, the dialogue and the major plotlines held the film together and made the experiment legible.

There was more to the class than shooting a film. As a complement to the assignment, students who surveyed the genre wrote up long “top 10” lists, identifying and explaining their own hierarchy of things that mattered in the vast corpus of movies we watched closely, along with a lengthy reflection on lessons learned and substantive peer review. If you wanted to be clever, you could call these essays – they were drafted and revised before final submission, and each point had to be well-argued and well-positioned. We assessed their collaborative work very carefully, with an eye on how students resolved the many compromises over creative (and sometimes political) differences, and how they ensured that the work was shared evenly. Indeed, we stressed, from the very start of the class, that they had to work together on their creative vision, and that we’d be watching to see how they did it.

Offering the class at a place with a serious commitment to undergraduate teaching meant that senior colleagues had done similar things before and could advise me along the way. It also meant that there was a considerable infrastructure in place to support the project. Gurus at the multi-media lab gave workshops on film editing software, and the library had ready-to-go camera kits for each section. A fairly healthy purchasing budget allowed the library to build a rich archive of the genre and to host it online. Additional support for props came from the upper administration, or out of my own pocket.  (One weekend, UPS delivered $500 of foam swords to my house). Still, in a pinch, the whole thing could have been shot with cellphones and borrowed material. And, in the end, despite all the institutional support, I stitched together the various parts of the film all by myself, while sitting on a couch and watching television and using nothing more than the pre-installed iMovie software on my laptop and a few online tutorials.

The end result was pretty cool. Or, at least, I think so. The capstone of that collaborative project was a viewing at the Providence Public Library, a viewing that brought to a close not just the class, but also a film series I’d run downtown. And the film itself – plainly titled Kill Bill, Vol 1., Redux – was exactly the sort of postmodern mash-up I’d hoped for, with every section trying to alter or even reverse the politics of race and gender in the film, each doing it rather differently, and in the process, revealing a keen sense of the work of the genre over its roughly 50 years of history.

Cool, perhaps, but not trailblazing. This idea – a big class with a big collaborative project built to be shared publicly – isn’t some new, radical departure.  It doesn’t qualify as “DH” work, though it might draw from the same spirit of adventure and rely on the same familiarity with new technology. (See this and this, for example). Indeed, this is old-school stuff, experiential learning of the sort once championed by John Dewey and others. As a classroom experience, it drew as much on the familiar terms of performance studies and histories of gender and sex as it did on notions of embodiment and visual culture. The medium not the message was somewhat novel, but many college faculty are doing much more interesting things.

And these are the things we should be talking about, unearthing for public debate, excavating for new approaches in the classroom. These approaches are a better complement for the always-integral final essay – better, that is, than hollowed out online options.

And yet, despite my strenuous dismissal that this is new, I’d also like to think there is the something rather important – in a historical moment that seems so fractious, so poisoned by arguments staged on uneven ground – revealed in my classroom’s conception of collaboration, of compromise, of principled debate and equally principled resolution. There were many disagreements, and quite a few private conversations with disenchanted students, but working through these sincere disagreements was, in a way, the very object of the class. And, in the end, 150 students from every conceivable academic background and with no considerable experience behind the camera joined together to scrutinize a genre, to understand an epoch of American history, and to shoot a movie that was roughly 90 minutes long, a movie they shared with the larger public. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t always fun.

To me, in this moment, that feels like an experiment gone right.

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