"Choose Your Own Chaucer" Professorial Apologia

About a month before finals in Spring 2010, amidst a joking conversation before class began, a group of my Chaucer students convinced me to let them make a movie interpreting a Chauerian text. Or, more properly, they convinced me to let them persuade me that such a creative project would result in the same exhaustive intellectual engagement with Chaucer as would the traditional essay. They swayed me; I let them make the film (and write several proposals for and responses to the film) for a grade. And I was extremely pleased with the project -- the final movie, yes, but also the kinds of engagement with Chaucer and his classical sources that went into it. This professorial apologia is both an introduction to the film (what made it onto the screen and what didn't) and a defense of the project as a whole.

More than any other medieval writer (and many contemporary writers as well), Chaucer stages the engagement with the formative narratives of the ancient and more recent past as the creation of poetry. In all Chaucer's works, reading poetry, writing poetry, and interpreting poetry are coterminous, frequently engaging the emotional and ethical faculties -- not only the intellect -- of the reader/writer/interpreter. Nowhere is this tripartite engagement more evident than in Troilus and Criseyde, but the narrator of Chaucer's Legends of Good Women (imagined in the poem to be the same poet who wrote T&C) also engages in a complex interpretive reading-and-writing project, all with his imagined patrons, the quintessential "good wife" Alceste and the God of Love, looking over his shoulder. In the "Legend of Dido," in particular, Chaucer's narrator must engage with two conflicting portrayals of Dido, one by Virgil (Aeneid Book 4) and one by Ovid (Heroides 7). A "creative" rather than an "analytic" project (to make a contemporary institutional distinction) is thus a fitting mode of critical engagement with Chaucer, for it mirrors exactly his own engagement with the canonical literature of his day.

(For any future group of students thinking of talking me into making movies in the future: I allowed this project because I happend to have a group of students with just the right mix of film, communications, and writing backgrounds to pull it off successfully. This will NOT be a yearly option!)

The six students of the film group set the film's goals themselves, so I will simply quote or paraphrase from their proposals. The main goal was to use the medium of film to construct "a narrative voice that, like Chaucer's, struggles to negotiate the ambiguity of its position, vis-a-vis its primary source material," particularly in terms of the "meta-agency which is possessed solely by the narrator" to control the manner in which the source material and classical characters are portrayed. Because the medium of film constructs narrative subjectivity differently than does a written text (especially by an author like Chaucer, whose narrators are so heavily implicated in the narratives they tell), the film group wanted to create a rendition of Chaucer's "Legend of Dido" that separates narrator and narrative, stripping "the narrator [of] control over the very narrative he or she is attempting to construct." "The Legend of Dido"'s narrator exercises this narrative control by integrating -- visibly and even defiantly -- his two primary classical sources. The film group sought to remove that control in three ways. The first was to film the "Legend" from both a "pro-Dido" perspective and a "pro-Aeneas" perspective, differentiating the perspectives in part via different cinematographic theories (especially the Mulveyan "gaze"), all while acknowledging the narrative, historical imperative that constrains these perspectives within an established plotline. The second was to give the audience, rather than the narrative voice, the agency for determining which track would be viewed at any given moment. The net result is a dialogic, "choose your own adventure"-style film in which, again in quintessentially Chaucerian style, the audience cannot help but be responsible for creating the narrative and thus the larger meaning of the text, "foreground[ing] the idea that Chaucer's 'readers' will always become 'writers,' whose relationship to the received authority of the text will necessarily inform their interpretation." The group thirdly sought (coming, I suspect, out of their understanding of both Pandarus and the narrator in Troilus and Criseyde) to "position[...] the narrator as a sort of failed stage director -- or a stage director whose vision for the drama is constantly frustrated by the relative autonomy of the characters from this vision" by using a (Middle English) voice-over that did not match with the action on the screen. By rendering this engagement with Chaucer and his auctors in film, a definitively "vernacular" medium whose relationship to written texts is not unlike the relationship of Middle English to earlier French and Latin literatures, the film group was also engaging in a translation and vernacularization project that replicates, in interesting ways, the same excitement and tensions that Chaucer and his contemporaries encountered in their own writings.

The film group was on an incredibly tight time frame for such an ambitious project -- they had less than a month, from the time they conceived the plan until we all viewed the DVD -- so it was a foregone conclusion (in my mind, at least) that some aspects of the proposal wouldn't be met. While the actors, none of whom had previous acting experience, did an amazing job on the screen, and the group worked incredibly hard to pull together the project, there were a few falters. Some were clearly due to time constraints. The "intrusive narrator" had to be left by the wayside -- he appears only in the opening Prologue and the "Dido" cave scene (when the other Cartheginians in the woods remove themselves after hearing the narrator claim the two lovers were alone). Additionally, the attempt to dichotomize Dido for the sake of the two "tracks" ended up flattening out the nuances of both Virgil and Ovid's narratives. The "Aeneas" version of Dido doesn't fully take into consideration Virgil's portrayal of her as an effective queen, while the "Dido" version downplays the hysteria that is still present in Ovid's Herodies. This "tracking" of the different narrative lines also retraces Chaucer's creative path more than it engages with him as an auctor in his own right, as (for example) Robert Henryson does in the Testament of Crisseid and as the proposal had suggested the film would do. (I'm also sad that there's no famous pyre scene -- my favorite -- although I acknowledge that the student playing Dido wasn't receiving hazard pay.) In their reflective essays, the students recognized (and regretted) these shortcomings, and all wished that they could have had time to film a few more scenes, to finesse those they did write, and to make more space for narrator/narrative tension.

Yet for all the downsides of the schedule compression, the project was incredibly successful, both on the screen and in the students' writing. The role of the gods in the "Aeneas" track, highlighted in part by the different uses (or not) of special effects, was particularly effective. The "flattening" of the Ovidian and Virgilian narratives does mirror, in provocative ways, the kind of simplifying (disembowling, even) that Chaucer must do to these classical narratives to craft his own "Legend of Dido." The opening sequence, in which the Chaucerian narrator transitions from Chaucer's own Prologue to the "Legend of Dido" to a revised, quasi-Middle English prologue, hits the mark in setting the bar for the film high while laying out what's at stake in the project. And the original "Choose Your Own Narrative" DVD format literally forces the viewer to become part of the meaning-making process of the film. This ingenious writing and directing decision manages to fittingly translate Chaucer's deferal of (often ethical) responsibility into the "vernacular" of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" kids' books, playing very Chaucerian games (note the film's Pandarus epigraph) with readers' interpretive agency. Importantly, from a pedagogical viewpoint, the screenwriters, actors, and directors had to engage in very intense close readings of all three texts in order to make their own interpretive decisions "in a way that would remain true to [Chaucer's] distinct narrative devices" and to range beyond "Dido" and Legend of Good Women to make other important decisions, from costuming to narrative manipulation. As a group, the students were also learning from each other rather than me, and the film clearly bears the mark of all their involvement.

Beyond my own concerns that the film engage thoughtfully with Chaucer, the film also interestingly triangulages the group's understanding of Chaucer's narrative techniques with contemporary film theories, as its opening quotations from Sergei Einstein suggests. The original goal of breaking down the walls between narrative, narrator, and audience may have been too ambitious for the time available, but the fundamental premise of montage-as-collision was an interesting interpretation of Chaucerian source manipulation . . . especially when the viewer is made responsible for the shape that the narrative collisions take. It was also a profitable extension of the kind of Chaucerian "readerly responsibility" that we discussed in class -- just as Chaucer's narrator creates his "Dido" within and between the two classical narratives, so do the readers of The Canterbury Tales make meaning from the warring perspectives of the different narrators and their tales within the pilgrimage frame. And, by extension, so must the viewers of the film -- not only does the audience create "Dido" anew in each viewing, but the "meaning" they take from the film comes out of both preconceptions about the narrative and the narrative collisions they enact. Just as impressive to me was the students' final understanding of exactly how much Chaucer's poems (especially the non-Canterbury Tales ones) offer themselve to this kind of self-dramatizing, self-referential, cinematographically sophisticated adaptation. They were surprised that Chaucerian adaptations were so few, and right in isolating what in (and how) Chaucer is adaptable to the screen: his narrators, rather than (as has been done) the individual Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's narrators, and their difficulties participating in or controlling their own narratives, beg for a Monty Python-esque treatment of their problems as narrators. Chaucer's sly humor in making "Geffrey" too heavy for the eagle to carry in House of Fame, or in making his narrator so silenced in the presence of Alceste and the God of Love in LGW, would translate nicely into the kind of dry ridiculousness that characterized the Pythons' self-conscious satirization of the form as well as the content of film, and that was the target of the narrator as originally conceived in "Choose Your Own Chaucer." Ultimately, then, the way this group recognized the cinematographic potential of Chaucer's works, and started to realize some of that potential in their short film, was simply (say it in a Python accent) "brilliant."

The finished product is not without shortcomings. But the film-making process, including the after-the-fact reflection, was a more intense learning experience than would have been the traditional term paper.
 

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