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I’m currently on summer vacation in a city with a massive heat warning (feels like 47 degrees celsius), which means I have some free time. I’ve been watching a lot of (too much) TV. I’m struck by the different ways they approach background and cultural context.
The first is “The Bear” on FX. It’s set in Chicago and the feeling of the city, the culture, and the “personalities” seem to be essential to appreciating the show. I’ve never been to Chicago, I don’t know if I’ll ever go to Chicago, but the first five minutes established a feeling, or an impression of the city that brought back every memory or previous experience with Chicago from other media. There’s a cliche when describing movies and TV shows: “The city is like another character.” Shows like “Sex and the City” and “30 Rock” all use our general impression of a city to help ground it, enhance the comedy or drama, and make the shows feel more alive.
I haven’t found the clip from “The Bear” available online, but to give us this impression and immerse us in Chicago (or at least, the show’s version) they use a series of rapid shots of local landmarks, pictures of local celebrities you might find hanging in a diner, and shots of the city. The rapid cuts interspersed through the opening conflict give us an impression of a very specific Chicago, while also raising the tension and (I believe) creating the same feeling the characters will have while working in a high-pressure kitchen.
This – in addition to actual instruction of background information – is what I’m attempting to do with Fahrenheit 451. However, there’s an interesting alternative:
I’m also watching – and loving – the television show “Irma Vep” on HBO. For some background: it’s created by Olivier Assayas, a French director who directed a film called Irma Vep in the 1990s, about a remake of a French silent serial from 1915 called “Les Vampires”. In the 2022 mini-series, the director remaking Les Vampires previously attempted a remake of the serial in the 1990s, fell in love with the lead actress, married her, divorced her, and is now remaking it again. Which is also what happened to Olivier Assayas in real life, except he is remaking his film Irma Vep instead of remaking a silent serial. Get all that?
The miniseries tells you none of this, but constantly references it. It’s interspersed with clips of the original 1915 serial, and one clip of the original “Irma Vep” film, but none of it is explained to you. There are also constant references and conversations related to French cinema and the perception of different waves of French directors and their views on art.
My question while watching “Irma Vep” is: Do I need to know any of this to enjoy the show? I don’t think so. It’s funny, well-acted, charming, etc. without any of the meta-context. But every time I get a reference, or understand the context, or see the connection between the original film (which I’ve seen) and the new one, I feel… something. I think I’m appreciating it more, and getting a deeper understanding of the series as a piece of art.
So where’s the line for my students? Specific to each piece we read, is there some perfect level of understanding, cultural context, or background information that will allow my students to appreciate it or analyze it in an “ideal” way? Or is going in blind – bringing their own cultural context and understanding – an option? And how will I know? If “The Bear” gives me the impression I need of Chicago in the opening montage, would it give the same impression to my students?
If I go even further… How do I know my understanding of “Irma Vep” or Chicago or 1950s America is actually benefiting me? Is my interpretation “correct”? Am I just teaching my students my own biases? In some ways, of course I am: in part, I’m using my understanding of F451 to guide their analysis. Is that always a bad thing? Or is it showing them how subjective analysis can be?
I’m attempting to find more information about how media can help students understand cultural context, but I’m finding myself more drawn to whether cultural context is required, to what extent, and how to know.
Next time: I promise my next post is more focused… I started “The Bear’ this morning and was immediately struck by how well the Chicago montage grounded me in the world, and was also struck by how different it was from “Irma Vep”’s equally engaging approach.