Response 2 – Jesse James: From Hero to Villain in the Eyes of One (2.1)

By Thomas Burkdall

The Child is Mother to The Woman

– apologies to William Wadsworth

Amanda Sheridan’s piece on Jesse James (1939) both shows the potential of multimedia and raises questions about its use in the curriculum.  Her response to the Movie Memory Memoir assignment skillfully cuts to the heart of personal development and cultural identity while prompting me to consider the objectives of our courses.

In six and a half minutes, Sheridan touches upon numerous significant ideas. The young androgynous “Manny” soon transforms into the teenage “Amanda,” raising the issue of gender identification:  the child does not begin to appear distinctly gendered until age nine, thus visually representing her identification with the male outlaw, only to later reject him for moral reasons.  With her maturation, Amanda must come to terms with the violence of the James Gang, mirroring the American fascination with “cool” rebel criminals, be they bank robbers or bikers.   Through these images and conceits she invokes the struggle between the “outlaw hero” and the “official hero” that Robert Ray describes as the “thematic paradigm” of classic Hollywood, a filmic echo of literary trends considered by Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. The young historian sheds her innocence and confronts the canonization of our cultural heroes by misrepresentation, especially given this film’s infamous disregard of historical accuracy.  In this short video then, Sheridan provides concrete evidence of a number of cultural trends in a moving and personal reminiscence.

Yet as visually striking and culturally evocative as this piece is, I am left with concerns. I have a colleague who questions what multimedia accomplishes that cannot be achieved in a well-written piece. Is the memory of late night television and a child newly discovering our cinematic culture more powerful in images than words?  Does hearing the soothing voice of Henry Fonda as Frank James alter our response to this “American Robin Hood”? Do the terse intertitles have as much power as well-crafted sentences? How much does the recreation of childhood scenes and the simple melody contribute?

Finally, what does the project aim to teach? Sheridan regarded it as a “challenge technologically and artistically” and learned a “thing or two” about herself. That, in itself, may be more than enough and I would be very pleased to see similar projects and such learning emerge from one of my courses.  Yet, I still ponder whether multimedia classroom projects (my own as well as those of others) are to improve technical skills, lead to analytical insights, or to produce expressive texts—or some combination of all these. Just as we should ask these questions of our writing assignments and courses, I believe we must articulate our goals and objectives for multimedia texts and curricula—not only for administrators and ourselves, but most importantly for our students.

See Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), 55-69., accessed 9/24/2010.