Teaching Narrative Through Remix

17Dec10

I’m writing from the grading bunker, which seems like a fine place to contemplate the purpose of assignments we give our students. Usually, my assignments are fairly conventional in both form and goal, looking to synthesize specific ideas from the course in a way that allows students to apply them to an object or topic that interests them. With such assignments, I tend to have pretty clear expectations from my students, and surprises are either negative (how could they have misread the assignment so much?!) or rare cause for positive praise (great job finding a new angle on this assignment!).

When my assignments deviate from convention, I’m much more likely to be pleasantly surprised by my students’ work, and this semester I had one of my most uniformly positive experiences with an innovative project. The class, Storytelling in Film & Media, is a fairly traditional academic theory course, applying narrative theory to a range of examples in film, television and videogames. The assignment was to take one of the films or TV episodes we screened within class and, working in pairs, create a short remix video that offers a new story from the raw materials of the original. I conceived of the project as an exercise, designed to teach through practice how the practice of editing for chronology, juxtaposition, and tone conveys story – I explicitly ask them to avoid any expository voiceover or explicit analysis, and emphasize that the goal is to create narrative, not parody vids. But I did not expect that they videos they produce would be “successful” as much as instructive – in other words, I assumed that they would be productive & instructive in their failure to create a compelling narrative experience, rather than compelling narrative experiences themselves.

The results this year were quite exceptional, and I’ve posted them below the fold. None of them will make much sense without knowing the source material, as it is in the act of transformation that my students’ discoveries came to the surface. But I feel like all six videos succeed in creating an effective piece in dialog with the original, rather than just the learning experiences of struggling to tell stories from limited raw materials. For me, the crucial difference for this assignment is that I didn’t go into it with a model of a successful project – sure, they must create a new narrative experience from the raw materials, but how they do that is both incredibly open-ended and severely delimited by the parameters of what they have to work with. And there’s nothing as pedagogically gratifying as seeing your students come up with something that not only exceeds your expectations, but transforms your assumptions as to what the assignment could do in the first place. I hope you enjoy them!

“Away From Him”  

This remix of the fabulous Sarah Polley film Away From Her (see it if you haven’t!) is remarkable for creating a new storyline (Fiona rebels against Grant’s infidelity), eliminating the main plot of the film (Fiona’s diagnosis with Alzheimers), and maintaining a tone consistent with the original Alice Munro short story. I love how my students Nora & James managed to use the many shots of Grant looking offscreen thoughtfully, but change our assumptions as to what he might be thinking through effective juxtaposition, highlighting how the creation of the illusion of interiority in film can work effectively.

“Life’s Bond”

In this remix of Adaptation, Dustin and Michael create a new relationship between Charlie Kaufman and John LaRoche. In the original, Charlie’s obsessions are filtered through the authorial intermediary of Susan Orlean, but here Charlie’s unhealthy obsessions skip straight (or not so straight) to LaRoche – a challenge given that the two characters are only in one scene together. I was particularly impressed with the phone sequence, highlighting how filmmakers use phones as a shortcut to connect characters across narrative space.

“Edison”

Taking the excellent magician drama The Prestige, Andrew and Matt’s video cuts out most of the main characters and turns Hugh Jackman’s Angiers into Thomas Edison. The resulting piece reframes the story about a battle between two inventors, Edison and Tesla, rather than dueling magicians. This video highlights how fluid characters can become with some creative editing.

“The Transforming Man”

Josh and Sofia remixed The Prestige as well, but took a more experimental route – in this video, Bourdon becomes a hallucinating, murderous obsessive trying to discover how to turn himself into a cat. That was implied subtext in the original, right?

Pushing Daisies SlashVid

James and Ralph took the fast-paced double-entendre-laden “Pie-lette” of Pushing Daisies and added a new level of entendre that I’d have to imagine Bryan Fuller would appreciate. By focusing on the forbidden love between Ned and Emerson, they highlight how fungible dialogue can be, even patter as precise and sharp as on this show – the snappy tone helps justify the use of jumpcuts and repetition as well. Mmmm hmmm.

“Romantic Australian Walkabout”

Finally, Patti and Bianca took the “Walkabout” episode of Lost and untwisted it into a linear tale of a man and his girlfriend on a wilderness vacation. By taking the iconic island and reframing it as Australia through only a simple juxtaposition, they highlight how easy it is to ask viewers make basic assumptions about setting and relationships – and offer some fodder for any Locke/Kate ‘shippers who might be out there!



5 Responses to “Teaching Narrative Through Remix”

  1. I’ve had excellent success with students who wanted to do nontraditional final “papers” as well, but then, I teach at a media school. I’ve had an excellent vid on sexualized violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, believe it or not, a powerpoint presentation that morphed into this gorgeous illustration-heavy analysis of the female form of Sarah Michelle Gellar: http://www.watcherjunior.tv/05/schumacher.php

  2. Indeed I also had fantastic results with a remake assignment, asking students to write a project proposal and cut a trailer for a Hollywood remake of a foreign language film. Most interestingly, there is hardly any plagiarism, and some students who didn’t do so well elsewhere had an opportunity to shine. Some results were at professional level, though I would not dare to put them on Youtube to stay clear of potential litigation. Were you concerned about this?

    • I’m not sure how it works outside of the US, but as far as I know, nobody’s been sued for posting a YouTube clip (aside from YouTube). Instead, YouTube will takedown a lot of copyrighted content automatically, and the copyright holder can complain to trigger a quick take-down. I told my students to post in the comments that they are examples of fair use for educational purposes – don’t know if that matters procedurally, but it’s important to state.

  3. I love using WingClips in the classroom for reflective writing or class discussion. The site uses popular film to apply narrative theory.


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