What the Kids are Watching

Today was my first day back at Idyllwild Arts Academy, where I teach two days a week in the Creative Writing Department. It’s a pretty cake job, in spite of the drive up the mountain to get here, because the students are so goddamn smart and committed. When I first started teaching here in the fall of 2006, I assigned a bunch of reading the first week and came back the following week to find, much to my amazement, that they had done it all and come to class prepared to discuss. I had been working with college students the previous year and this had not been my experience. I had to step up my game.

This fall I have a mixed group of students of Creative Writing and Moving Pictures students, and I’m teaching a class that will include both playwriting and screenwriting. While my experience at NYU left me feeling like the mediums had nothing common, I do think there are things to be learned by forcing playwrights to write screenplays and screenwriters to write plays. So I’ve structured my class accordingly.

To start things off today, I gave them a film literacy quiz: a list of 88 classic films that I think that it would be a good idea if they had seen. Why 88, you ask? Because that’s how many fit on one side of one page in a readable font! What other scientific criteria did I use? Mostly that I had seen them myself.

The purpose of this exercise was mainly to find out what their references were, so I could use them as we talk about movies in the class. The only movies on the list that all twelve of us had seen, it turned out, were The Lord of The Rings and Toy Story. In the second and third positions came Back to the Future, E.T., Jaws, Star Wars, Titanic and The Wizard of Oz. Not too bad as far as common ground goes. These are all big Hollywood blockbusters with solid structures which I will have no problem using as examples as I teach. 

The middle of the group wasn’t bad, either. A handful of them have seen Casablanca and Citizen Kane. Better numbers for Dr. Strangelove, Taxi Driver, and Harold and Maude. The real surprise for me came in the films that no one, not one of these students had seen. Making the list: Stand by Me.

I know that the students I’m now teaching were born in the 90s, and didn’t have the opportunity to see this movie, as I did, when I was actually younger than the characters in it. But it seemed to me like one of those movies that would definitely stand the test of time, that parents and children would be watching together for years to come. I was so certain of this, in fact, that when I was putting together my syllabus for an adaptation class last spring I deliberately cut Stand by Me from the roster, convinced that they all would have seen it already.

Not so.

But, luckily for me, a hole in their film literacy only means an opportunity on my end. It means that I get to be the first person to show them this amazing film that says more than any other I can think of about what it means to be a kid, and a grown-up, and a writer.

Stay tuned to find out if they actually like it.

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