Talk about a love-hate relationship with a story! I showed Jarhead in class today and sat there, cringing, as my undergrads chuckled and gasped through the vile language, hazing antics, and homophobic pantomime.
Looking over my syllabus, it occurs to me that I could be accused of deliberately trying to shock my students. There are sex-ed manuals, a documentary about a convicted pedophile, a comic book called Palestine. And now Jarhead–and let’s face it, not even Jake Gyllenhaal’s sorrowful eyes can redeem this movie from its soulless quest for gut-wrenching moments.
It’s a first-year, required course on non-fiction narrative. For me that means practicality trumps personal tastes. A reading list whose subject-matter is inherently riveting to the average 19-year-old offers a surer footing for the skills and concepts I’m teaching than a stack of unread classics.
Jarhead, based on Anthony Swofford’s Gulf-war memoir, gives us the chance to discuss what makes non-fiction different (the scaffolding of accurate statistics and eyewitness experience), and what doesn’t change (the need for narrative momentum and a protagonist with whom we can identify). It also offers a couple of prime teachable moments: how Swoff vomiting sand into the sink symbolizes the violent evacuation of personal identity in the army; how the film’s last phrase, “We are still in the desert,” extends the film’s central conceit to a critique of the military’s recruitment of marginalized populations and society’s neglect of veterans.
Pick what’s sure to get a reaction, and wring what you can from it. A teaching philosophy for the real world.