Pandaemonium in the classroom

Pandaemonium, a 2000 movie directed by Julien Temple, sounds like it should be about Milton’s hell. It isn’t. It’s actually about the inside of Coleridge’s head—which, according to the film, is pretty much the same thing. Pandaemonium tells the story of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship from the latter’s laudanum-doused perspective, tracking the pair from their imagined first meeting at a rally in 1795 to Coleridge’s implosion at Southey’s Happy Laureate party in 1813. (Byron, for the record, looks on bemusedly). Along the way, it spices things up by adding a romance between Coleridge and a cleavage-bearing Wollstonecraftian Dorothy, prophetic visions of fighter jets and oil spills, and a reading of “Tintern Abbey” as a poetic walk-of-(incestuous!)-shame.

I love terrible Romantic biopics, so for obvious reasons, this film has a special place in my heart—right next to Ken Russell’s Gothic, Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, and a recent Movie-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named starring a coughy Ben Whishaw. But does it have a place in the classroom?

Showing movie clips in class, to me, always runs the risk of seeming gimmicky. For all their glee at a mention of Lady Gaga, students dislike feeling pandered to, and in-class movies can sometimes feel like a bone tossed by an exhausted instructor who needs an easy “in” to a resistant text. But in teaching “The Ancient Mariner” this term, I found that Romantic biopics—even crazy ones—can be useful when students are encouraged to critique them as if they were marking one of their own essays. Case in point: Pandaemonium’s very insanity provided a solid jumping-off point for grappling with the problem of anachronistic readings. The movie bluntly argues for Coleridge’s early poems as prophetic ecocriticism. Its long “Ancient Mariner” sequence features multiple shots of birds drowning in oil spills (“slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea”) and burning oil rigs (“the hell-fires danced at night”).

I asked my students whether they found this a legitimate reading of “Mariner.” Their answers varied: some scoffed that “Exxon didn’t exist in the 1790s”; others leapt to the reader-response extreme of pronouncing the film “totally valid, because it’s their [the filmmakers’] personal interpretation.” We eventually negotiated a middle ground that recognized the oil-choked albatrosses as a contemporary symbolic language for wider issues “Mariner,” in its own way, already examines: humanity’s place in nature; collective guilt; exploration and colonization. Students’ evaluation of the film made them more conscious of their own critical self-positioning—of the baggage we all bring to texts and the extent to which it influences our criticism. This includes authorial baggage; one obvious use of biopics is their privileging of biographical readings in ways that are easy to point to as a specific interpretative approach. Pandaemonium, though anachronistic, certainly falls into this category: Coleridge’s laudanum-fuelled excursions into the “wide, wide sea” of his own imagination are as much metaphors for his increasingly-estranged friendship with Wordsworth as they are warnings about humanity’s responsibility to nature.

More importantly, examining Pandaemonium as jointly biographical and eco-critical heightened students’ awareness of the various “uses” to which literature can be put, in their own work and in published scholarship. Movies can realize the difference between critical positions that might be tricky to introduce in the abstract. Pandaemonium’s filmmakers clearly have bones to pick with both oil companies and Wordsworth (cast as the hovering harpy spoiling Coleridge’s poetic feast). Next time I use the film to teach “Mariner” I will do so alongside an actual piece of ecocriticism/biography to hammer this point home.

I want to end this post by asking those of you out there who have used movies in teaching to share your experiences. What sort of movies do you show, and why? What are the pitfalls you’ve encountered in using them? The successes? I look forward to hearing—and cribbing (with attribution of course!)—from you.

PS: Oh, and do go rent Pandaemonium. The credits feature Coleridge wandering around contemporary London to a techno version of Olivia Newton John and ELO’s “Xanadu.”

3 thoughts on “Pandaemonium in the classroom”

  1. I’ll start off the comments by admitting that I use _8 Mile_ to teach rhetoric, and it goes *fabulously* every time, and not just because students enjoy hearing the f-bomb in the classroom. In my Shakespeare for Non-Majors classes, I use _Looking for Richard_ when I teach Richard III, Julie Taymor’s _Titus_ and _AMND_, and I am dying to teach _The Tempest_ alongside the new version with Helen Mirren as Prospero, but haven’t done that yet.

  2. Thanks for your reply, Kirstyn! I’m curious: how much of the film do you generally show? I have anxieties about spending more than 10 minutes of in-class time screening clips–I don’t want my students to see any one class as a skippable “movie day”–but I also recognize that watching no more than five minutes of any film limits discussion, since students are encountering the clips so out of context.

    Last year I tried to remedy this problem by assigning a few (short-ish) films as homework. For example, I had students read Oedipus Rex against Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to compare different versions of tragic heros grappling with fate/self-fulfilling prophecy. It worked pretty well, though some of my more skeptical students definitely felt like it was a fluff move. The difficulty, I guess, is getting students to understand that we don’t use pop-culture simply to make older literature seem “fun” or “relevant,” but to demonstrate the persistence of certain generic conventions–and more crucially, Important Ideas–across the centuries. Cf. Inception, the giant medieval dream-vision that sadly lacks Chaucer’s talking eagles and flying wicker houses.

  3. So for 8 Mile, I show a 10 minute clip of all three “battles” in the final battle scene. I give students the “lyrics” to B-Rabbit’s last battle. We analyze what B-Rabbit does in each successive battle that works so well rhetorically, and what his opponents do that fails, and spend more time analyzing last battle than the first 2. For _Looking for Richard_ or one other film per semester, I have a mandatory movie night on campus that I announce on day 1: class bonding, snacks, etc. So, I too have a hard time showing full-length films during class time — it is a waste, I totally agree. My only exception to this guideline is day 1 of class. This semester I’m teaching a Shakespeare class that meets 1x/week, for 3 hours, at night. For the first class I decided that after syllabus and an ice breaker, we were going to ease into Shakespeare (students are non-majors) and into our first play, Titus Andronicus, with Taymor’s _Titus_ = gory, violent, graphic, and (imo) fun — my goal was, for this day, fun. And then: for the next class, I assigned scenes from the film to analyze alongside the text we read and we had a great discussion about violence on the stage vs. film, interpretation of Shakespeare’s spare stage directions, race, sex, and action in the play. And when we arrived at reading Hayles’ “Flickering Signifiers” essay (I’m teaching new media intro alongside Shakespeare) students brought up Lavinia’s writing names with a staff without any prompting to talk about diff btw analog and digital. So the day 1 movie-fest did work out, to my amazement. I prob would not do it again if I had a regular 50 min or 1:15 min class period.

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