Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics and Movies Bleg Update: A Thank You

An hour ago, I sent off the final grades for my last class of the school year, the adjunct course I mentioned a couple of months ago, on World Government Systems. It went well; a small class--only ten students--but they listened and asked good questions and the material went over pretty well, I think. How did the movies I chose to show in order to elaborate upon various themes of comparative government go, you ask? Hit and miss, I'm afraid.

I ended up not showing any films for France, Germany, Russia or Nigeria. Part of that was the lack of good, available choices, and part was simply the way the lectures ended up having to be scheduled over the eight weeks. And actually, I did almost show a film for Russia--The Vanished Empire. But in the end I decided that it wasn't very good, that I couldn't think of a good way to really relate it to the material, and that I wanted more flexibility in how to arrange the lectures. So that left me attaching a film to only half of the countries we talked about: Great Britain, Japan, India, and Mexico. (Next time I try this, I'm definitely going to take Douglas's advice, and begin with the films, and then choose governments to study on the basis of the themes which the chosen films address.)

The Queen was a hit, as I knew it would be--or, that is, knew it would have been, had the sound system in our room been working properly. More than half the students, in their final papers, chose to exam some issue which came up in that film: the symbol of the monarchy, the unwritten constitution, etc. Ikuru, regrettably, wasn't as successful. In retrospect, the most obvious reading of the film takes one inward, viewing it as an examination of one's life choices, and trying to get the students to see it, in a addition to that, as a film which says something about Japanese society and government was probably a little forced. Without more background into just how total the devastation of Japanese society was following WWII, and how the bureaucracy was one of the few institutions which maintain any real continuity with the pre-war years, to say nothing of an awareness of the intensely specific roles which old and young, women and men, long inhabited (and still to a great degree inhabit) in East Asian societies, then Takashi Shimura's performance as the grasping, mumbling, desperate bureaucrat probably just comes off as odd, as well as boring. That was what I perceived amongst the students, anyway.

I have to give thanks to a couple of bloggers--Camassia and Stuart Elliot for suggesting a couple of movies which went over quite well (not as well as The Queen, but well enough). Camassia suggested Jana Aranya (The Middleman) for India, which was really a revelation for all of us; not only a smart, quiet film which forced the question of how well and to what degree a stable democratic and/or market society depends upon people being willing to compromise on their principles, but it made me realize that I need to spend some time seriously investigating the work of Satyjit Ray. And Stuart recommended La ley de Herodes (Herod's Law) for Mexico, a funny, violent, and vulgar fantasy of a local politician's rise and fall. Not a great movie, really, but definitely the most fun to watch out of all four of these. If it had just striven for a little bit of stylistic weirdness, it could have been spun as an even better representative of the morbidity and magical realism of the Mexican mindset, to say nothing of their view of the political class.

So anyway, as the final business of the semester for me comes to an end, a thanks to all who responded to the bleg. The internet it good for many things, and being able to pump anonymous readers (and some not so anonymous ones) for suggestions is definitely one of them. And now, on to the summer...


Matt said...

I've not see the film by Ray you saw (though I'm going to add it to my netflix list now) but his "World of Apu" movies are just wonderful. You must watch them if you have not- among the very best movies I've ever seen.

If you want to do this again, for Russia I'd recommend Andrey Konchalovskiy's "House of Fools" for a contemporary movie, or his "Siberiada" for an older one. That one is one of the very best at showing the "Mysterious Russian Soul". (I like Konchalovskiy's Russian movies more than his more acclaimed half-brother, Nikita Mikhalkov, whose stuff I can't really stand. How Konchalovskiy made such trash in the US is a real mystery to me.) The contemporary Russian film I've like the most is "The Return", from a few years ago, but I'm not sure if it shows the national character or not- if it does, it's at a pretty subtle level. It's great, though.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, I'm right there; Camassia's recommendation emphasized something that I've been vaguely aware of for a while--that my knowledge of film has a huge, telling Ray-sized hole in it. That's one of the things I'm planning on fixing this summer.

And thanks for the Russian recommendations! I really did want to find a good film for that class period, but it didn't work out. I'll take a look at these.

Camassia said...

I'm so glad that worked out! This is also a reminder to me that I need to get around to seeing the first Apu movie. At the festival I mentioned I saw the second and third, which were very touching, but some say the first one is the best.