Thursday, April 17, 2008

Algonquin Roundtable

This semester, as many of you know, I have been teaching a class about films that portray the lives of writers. Most recently we watched Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, which tells in part both Parker's life and the coterie that was the Algonquin Roundtable (as drawn by the inimitable Hirschfeld here). It's a little bit of a mess as a film: star Jennifer Jason Leigh went all out to achieve realism in capturing Parker's singular cadences of speech -- sacrificing intelligibility along the way (much to the students' annoyance); plus the story arc seems to flatten jarringly by the end, which seems to come abruptly without much warning.

I had originally scheduled us to do Stranger than Fiction, but by time it came around, I just didn't want to do that film. As much of a mixed bag as Mrs. Parker ends up being, it is far more meaty than the rather slight STF. I think the students would have preferred the latter; when I announced the change, one student joked "okay, we're not friends anymore," but she brightened considerably upon the realization that she could now write on that film for her final paper. Normally the students leap onto Blackboard to begin discussing the films even before they end, but so far only one student has posted on this movie, although we finished watching it yesterday.

But it's Dorothy Parker! and the Algonquin Roundtable! Parker is amazing and her ability to skewer is unparalleled in American culture. We don't appreciate wit in this country. We consider humor too lightly. Under her jests, however, there is a steely critical eye, unerring in its judgment:

Fighting Words

Say my love is easy had,
Say I'm bitten raw with pride,
Say I am too often sad--
Still behold me at your side.
Say I'm neither brave nor young,
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue--
Still you have my heart to wear.
But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!


The Algonquin Roundtable has always represented for me the idea of what it ought to mean to be a writer: to be part of a lively, witty and endlessly inventive group. I have always yearned to be in that kind of milieu this hotel evokes (Vonnegut's memorial was even held at the Algonquin). I feel moments of that sensation with our pals in CT, and there's our local roundtable every Tuesday at Mahar's (ironically, not with the English department folks, but with the History and Political Science crew), but no reality can live up to the romantic notion that got fixed in my head all those years ago. It's no more "real" than Homer's drunken party recollection of a similarly erudite gathering, but it persists in my head.

That's part of what the class is about: examining all the romantic notions we tie to the idea of being a writer. Yes, we do always teach classes where we hope to learn something. I don't know how much I'm learning -- I do have an awfully sharp group of students -- but I am thinking.

2 comments:

Jeff said...

I'm curious: what other films have you assigned? I regularly encounter some of the oddest assumptions--among students, friends, and even family--about what it means to be a writer. I'm not entirely sure where these misperceptions (which cover everything from work habits to the mores of the publishing industry) come from, but I'm guessing they're rooted in film depictions and, to some extent, in the outdated conventions that still govern how the biggies (Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, et. al.) are covered by the media. Has teaching this course turned up more interesting or fruitful explanations?

K. A. Laity said...

Jeff --

I started this class to explore my own romantic notions, but I suspected that my students would share a lot of them (a lot of the class is of course English majors [unlike me]). I was taken aback when they told me that there was no cachet attached to being a writer anymore, because anyone with a blog was a writer. However, as we went through the films they gradually revealed the same sort of romantic notions.

They not only bought into the whole "muse" trope, but they also proved more susceptible to perceiving realism based on costuming and acting style. With little exposure to the period in which George Sand lived, they were more willing to believe that Impromptu was realistic, in contrast to Shakespeare in Love.

The films have included a very slanted selection that moved from Shakespeare in Love and Impromptu to Wilde and Barton Fink, Bullets over Broadway, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mrs. Parker and ending with American Splendor (we're watching The Mindscape of Alan Moore at the final, but they don't have to analyse it.

I'm looking forward to their final papers; they've been thoughtful and insightful for the most part so far, applying what they've learned about technique to the individual films. Some really terrific work, often by students who had never really thought seriously about film. I have new champions for the importance of editors and Foley artists!