“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…”
Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas The AQA Media Studies Advanced 6571 Teacher’s Guide is music to an old punk rocker’s ears – A2 Module 4, Texts and Contexts in the Media, I quote: “candidates may therefore explore…pop music genres (disco, punk, grunge) etc.” Just imagine all those late 30s early 40s media teachers like me as they begin yet another lesson with the spiel, ‘And this track’s called “London Calling”. I saw the Clash and the Ramones in the same week in 1979…’ It takes an awful lot of self-discipline not to bore our classes stupid with our music. The AQA guide does say that central to the study of genre is “pleasure or critical pleasure”; however, we have to remember that it is the students’ pleasure, not ours.
Having denied myself endless youthful reminiscence, I settled on the gangster movie as a genre likely to inspire interest, even “critical pleasure”, in my A2 students. In the past I had taught the Western, but even with that genre there was a hint of self-indulgence. The great majority of my students are not film aficionados, and when it comes to High Noon or Reservoir Dogs, there really is no choice (for them!). And we have to remember that even Reservoir Dogs, a text that still seems so contemporary to us, is now 10 years since release, and that the current Year 13 students were 8 years old back in 1992.
The AQA specification is centrally focused upon the study of the media text; the real challenge of teaching genre in Module 4 is weaving the wider contexts – social, political, historical and economic – into the study of texts, in my case the gangster movie. Our students arrived at Module 4 with a good grasp of AQA’s 5 Key Concepts (Media Language, [including narrative and genre], Institutions, Audiences, Values and Ideology, and Representation) and so had the basic skills with which to study a film. But their knowledge of the way the wider contexts affect film making was very limited. The study became a mixture of directed in-class textual analysis, as well as strategically timed teacher led lessons in which the social, political, historical and economic contexts were taught, relating them to films already studied and films about to be studied. The balance, following the specification’s general text-based approach, was 25% context lessons, 75% textual analysis.
The gangster movie is a good choice of genre because the films are so obviously products of their time, both influenced by the wider contexts and socio-politically influential themselves. There were several good sources of contextual material1 and I spent some time paring down what the students had to know. I presented the contextual material in lessons taught from the front of the class, with the first of 3 paper resources for the students – an A3 size pre-printed sheet that had sub-headings and bullet-pointed spaces for students to make their own notes.
The first A3 sheet, for example, contained the following sub-headings: Puritanism; Huge growth in European immigrant pop 1860-1920; 1900 – Commercial pressure on WASP hegemony; Americanisation; Hyphenated Americans; Increase in leisure time; American Dream; Jacob Riis & DW Griffith; The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912; Prohibition 1920-1933; Wall Street Crash 1929; Entertainment/moralising; Romanticising the gangster; Talking movies c.1930; Scarface, Little Caesar, Public Enemy c.1930-32 (The Classic Cycle). In one lesson you can teach the students all they need to know about the contexts of the production of the key films. Note how this first A3 sheet finishes with the Classic Cycle, the key texts to understanding all subsequent gangster movies.
This A3 sheet was a crucial “scaffold” for the students; as the students gained more confidence, the scaffold could be removed and they had, by the end of the Module, critical autonomy. The students accepted the teacher centred delivery for two reasons: the lure of the forthcoming films, and they soon began to find critical pleasure in being able to read films themselves with increasing sophistication.
Covering all the seminal films was another challenge. To help them further, I produced a second paper resource, a pre-printed notes sheet for each film which contained: the acting credits; the director; the date; the film company; a plot synopsis; a critical quotation about the film and, most importantly, five headings which covered the main textual and contextual points about the film. This “scaffold” allowed students to make and keep accurate notes of each film, under these headings, and it allowed me to show edited highlights of a number of films, enabling us to cover many more films than we would if we watched each one in its entirety.
The most important films we watched from beginning to end, but a film like Angels with Dirty Faces for instance, I could cue up and show six short clips to illustrate key points about the development of the genre in the latter half of the 1930s. The headings for the sheet were: Environment vs. Innate Personality – the opening sequence; The attempted assassination as typical dramatic gangster action sequence; Father Jerry’s radio speech; The electric chair scene; The new gangster movie post mandatory Motion Picture Code 1934. These headings illustrate clearly how the teaching of the text is done in a way that integrates the contextual with the textual: “The attempted assassination as typical dramatic gangster action sequence” is clearly textual analysis, whilst “Environment vs. Innate Personality – the opening sequence” is socio-economically contextual.
The third and final paper resource provided for the students was a card photocopy of the original poster for each movie, which acted as a file divider, but also as a great resource to study the particular iconography of the individual film, and the changing iconography of the genre. By the end of the module the students had a fabulous set of notes of which they were genuinely proud.
Following this strategy, I taught these areas (texts studied in their entirety are in bold):
The Early Days
Jacob Riis photography and his book How the Other Half Lives c.1890
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The Classic Cycle and the 1930s
Little Caesar (1930), The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932) – Prohibition
The Hayes 1934 Production Code & clampdown on glorifying the gangster
Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and the Roosevelt New Deal
Post war pessimism and the dispersion of the genre
Dillinger (1945) (Biopic)
The Big Sleep (1946) (Noir)
White Heat (1949) (hybridisation)
Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Heist caper)
The Killing (1956) (Heist caper – influence on Tarantino)
McCarthyism; The Nuclear Age; The City as the centre of corruption and vice
Gangster movies that take real life gangsters as subject matter, including Bonnie & Clyde (1967)
The Mob movie & the re-make
The Godfather trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990); Goodfellas(1990); Carlito’s Way (1993); Casino (1995)
Brighton Rock (1948) and the post-war spiv in the 1950s
Get Carter (1968), The Krays (1990) – British realism texts;
The Long Good Friday (1981) – Thatcherism
Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998); Snatch (2000) – genre theory and the commercialism of film production; Gangster as East End farce & the Loaded generation
Reservoir Dogs (1991); Pulp Fiction (1994) – the director and actor as genre classification
Drawing conclusion about genre theory from the study of the gangster movie
Building upon Module One genre theory
Genre as process rather than static classification
The function of parody and pastiche, and hybridisation
Jane Austen’s Mafia! (1998); Analyze This (1999); The Sopranos (1999-2002)
The loss of teaching time inherent in the new AS/A2 examination structure made it crucial that we knew what we were going to do each week for the whole of the A2 year. We formulated a week-by-week plan for year 13 which we explained to the students when they returned after AS study leave at the end of year 12. This helped enormously in ensuring that we covered all that is required by the AQA specification. (Karl Elwell, Head of Department, outlines the overall plan, term by term, below.)
In our planning for A2 we took into consideration the demands of the new examination structure and realised that we could not teach essential lessons during the last five weeks of the Summer term of year 12 (too many students on field trips and holidays) and during the fortnight before, and the four weeks after Christmas in Year 13 (examination study leave and retakes).
The four weeks at the end of year 12 were spent delivering a non-essential, but interesting and enjoyable, reading film course, featuring some gangster texts, and preparing the students for their Module 5 research project. I spent the six weeks around Christmas in Year 13 looking in real detail at seminal scenes from the major films. So, for instance, we spent an hour on the opening scene of Hawks’ Scarface,the murder of Big Louis Castillo. I provided another paper resource, a notes sheet which gave them space to record: a scene summary; key moments; most famous line of dialogue; links with gangster genre theory; cinematography. A watermark copy of the original film poster on each sheet made them aesthetically pleasing, and the scene titles gave the students a useful shorthand for referring to the scenes in the examination. E.g. Asphalt Jungle: the Opening Cityscape.
This detailed textual analysis of seminal scenes honed their media literacy skills, and gave them excellent textual examples for the examination. They did not have to attend all the lessons, as long as each one of them attended some. It was a fascinating experience. Try watching The Godfather: Michael’s Restaurant Assassinations with the sound turned down; look out for the nerve twitch just below Sollozzo’s left eye when Michael declares he wants to visit the washroom!
As I said earlier, the students arrived at the beginning of the A2 course with a good grasp of AQA’s 5 Key Concepts, including, from the Media Language section, basic genre theory. Apart from listing what they perceived to be the iconography of the gangster genre before we began in earnest on Module 4, I left the more sophisticated theory until the very end of the course. It made sense – they had come to intuitively understand what happens as a genre develops; all I had to do was formalise in critical terminology what they had learnt. And by the end of the course they had all the textual examples they could possibly need to support their theoretical knowledge. Introduce the theory that new texts which break generic codes and conventions are, over time, assimilated into the body of texts which constitute the genre; the students will instantly know that the graphic Bonnie and Clydeballet of death scene influenced Sonny’s assassination in the Godfather, and that what was initially a ground breaking cinematographic technique became integrated into the gangster/crime genre. A cinema trip at the end of the course to see Soderbergh’s re-make of Ocean’s 11 saw one of the students say afterwards that the film was more like Mission Impossible than a heist movie like Reservoir Dogs; introducing the concept of hybridisation at that point is pretty simple. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch so obviously highlighted the formulaic nature of commercial genre texts, the students could articulate the theory themselves.
A classroom exercise to cement the connection between genre theory and gangster texts, which also looks towards the examination, is a version of Chinese Whispers. Essentially we want students to write paragraphs which highlight a point about genre theory, select a gangster movie textual example to support that point, and then explain in some detail how that textual example relates to that point. Each student writes a point about genre theory on a sheet of A4 and then passes that point to the next person; they then select a textual example to support that point; the sheet is then passed on to a third person to provide the explanation of how the textual example relates to the initial point; finally the fourth person reads out the sheet and comments on the quality of the whole passage. A fun exercise, which sharpens the students’ critical analysis and paragraph writing skills.
One of the best texts to highlight the codes and conventions of the genre is Jane Austen’s Mafia! It has to be handled gently, but the parody does highlight that, ultimately, the screen gangster is just that, a fictional representation. The very end of the course is the right time to introduce Robert Warshow’s assertion that, “the gangster—though there are real gangsters—is also, and primarily, a creature of the imagination. The real city, one might say, produces only criminals; the imaginary city produces the gangster: he is what we want to be and what we are afraid we may become.” 2 The students could appreciate this level of criticism at the end of the course; to introduce it any earlier would have been wholly ineffective.
Karl’s overall plan (see below) for delivering the whole course helps explain how I came to spend so much time on genre, which is, after all, only one half of one module. I taught genre in parallel with Karl’s half unit on representation, which completed Module 4. Whilst we taught Module 4, students were working on their Module 5 research projects. We had tutorials with individual students during the Autumn term of Year 13; once a film was set up, it was possible to conduct Module 5 interviews in the corridor. We have a set of the key texts on video in the library for Media students to loan to watch in their own time; as video becomes gradually obsolete, it is possible to buy most of the tapes for under £5 each.
I think the best justification for spending so long on genre, however, has been the development of the students’ critical autonomy and media literacy. They realised quite quickly that films are largely the product of their time, and then they realised that is true for the vast majority of media texts. They began to make connections between texts and between eras. They saw that: Joe in Reservoir Dogs was played by Joseph Tierney, who also played the title role in the 1945 biopic Dillinger; the end of Carlito’s Way echoes the end of Hawks’ Scarface; Tony Soprano’s disillusionment is similar to Tony Montana’s dismay at the hollowness of the American Dream. They watched Jane Austen’s Mafia! and understood all the intertextual jokes. They began to get excited about their own abilities and their confidence grew.
By the time we came to prepare for the synoptic Module Six, the students possessed sufficient critical autonomy and media literacy skills to understand rapidly what the Module required. They could make their own connections between texts, and between the texts and their production contexts. They applied the same principles they had learnt in their Module 4 studies to the comparison of the April editions of the Tatler and Bliss magazine.
In the end I knew it had all “worked” when one of the students asked for Angels with Dirty Faces on video for Valentine’s Day from his girlfriend, and another caught me in the corridor and said, “Hey, Mr Tomsett, when do you think they’ll release Scorcese’s Gangs of New York?” Never mind the Pistols, for one old punk teaching the gangster genre has been a new source of genuine “critical pleasure”.
1. The best texts I found for Gangster movie genre theory and contextual information are listed below:
Bell, Angela Joyce, Mark; Rivers, Danny: Advanced Level Media (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) – a straight forward look at genre with the Gangster movie as the textual example;
Bernink, Mike & Cook, Pam, eds.: The Cinema Book, 2nd Edition (BFI, 1999) – a good theoretical potted history of the Gangster movie genre;
Clarens, Carlos: Crime Movies (Da Capo Press, 1997) – very detailed, extensive analysis of the major developments of the crime movie;
McArthur, Colin: Underworld USA (Secker & Warburg, 1972) – seminal text on identifying the iconographic elements of the Gangster movie genre;
Mottram, James: The Gangster Movie A-Z (Batsford, 1998) – a really useful reference book, with a great chronological history of the genre which connects socio-economic context to the production of the films;
Munby, Jonathan: Public Enemies, Public Heroes (University of Chicago Press, 1999) – a great account of the Classic Cycle and the films’ production contexts, through post war dispersion of the genre, finishing, frustratingly, at 1958;
Warshow, Robert: “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Partisan Review 15, no. 2 (February 1958) – a seminal critical text.
2. Warshow, Robert: “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Partisan Review 15, no. 2 (February 1958)