May 12, 2006

The meaning of travel unfolds through film

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In new SAGES course taught by Linda Ehrlich

A journey usually involves a road, a vehicle and a destination.

Right from the start, students in Linda Ehrlich's new SAGES seminar, "Travel Writing on Screen," learn that no map exists for their exploration of film and literature.

But, like a road trip with its bends and twists, the course yields surprises as the students navigate this academic terrain.

Ehrlich and her 11 students are all learning to be something like a flaneur—a traveler who wanders and observes the streets. But in this case, they are wandering among travel films and writings.

"It might be unsettling, but it has allowed them the freedom to make the exploration into film," said Ehrlich, a professor in the modern languages and literatures department who is an expert on foreign films.

For many of her students, this seminar is their first film class. SAGES (Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship) is Case's innovative reform of its undergraduate curriculum.

Throughout the spring term, students have examined how travel is portrayed in such books as Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, E. M. Forster's A Room with a View, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Afterwards, they have watched cinematic interpretations of these works.

The SAGES students have also studied a wide range of scholarly essays about travel by such writers as Susan Sontag, Homi Bhabha, Michel Butor and Salmon Rushdie, and have discussed such issues as border crossings, forced exile, emigration, the grand tour and travel and memory.

Beginning with the film adaptation of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, the class's journey has included the Argentinean and Chilean vistas in The Motorcycle Diaries, the flight across desert terrain in Thelma and Louise and the cross-country trip in Easy Rider—movies viewed during class film night on Thursdays. Other territories are glimpsed in a French experimental film, L'Atalante; in an American classic, It Happened One Night; and in the independent film Mystery Train, by Ohio native Jim Jarmusch.

While the film nights are held in Kelvin Smith Library, Ehrlich says it is important that students see at least one 35mm film on the big screen at a local theater.

She also enriched the seminar experience by inviting Peggy Turbett, a Plain Dealer photojournalist, to discuss her explorations as a travel writer and still photographer. Turbett's presentation ignited a debate about the impact of the still image as opposed to the moving one, and about ethics of travel to countries under dictatorial regimes like Myanmar (Burma).

Film study doesn't mean sitting around watching Ghostbusters, said Ehrlich, although she says she enjoyed that movie.

"Great films are a form of art," she said, adding that "a good movie is worth seeing again and again."

In her research, Ehrlich has traveled to Italy, Japan and Spain, sometimes sitting alone in cold, dark theaters to view films from the past that are so fragile she has only one chance to see them. The ticket to such a screening may cost as much as $300.

Ehrlich says she brings her love of film to the seminar, where she finds that students "hunger" to learn more about an art form they have experienced throughout their lives.

"What we have gone over in class makes me notice the smaller details—how the music changes during different environments, how a person's hairdo can reflect their emotions and the little things that take a trained eye to notice," said Leslie Anderson, a first-year student from Portersville, Penn.

For Anderson, who is majoring in anthropology and biology, the seminar discussions have provoked an "I can't believe I never noticed that before" reaction.

Another first-year student, Matthew Collins, described his response to Invisible Children, a documentary about Ugandan children kidnapped and forced into the military that he viewed as a movie he chose to see outside of class. He noted that the film makers did not conform to his previous image of travelers; they weren't vacationers, nomads or pilgrims to a holy place.

"This film opened my eyes to the idea of traveling in order to observe, learn from your observations and inform others about the information you acquired along the way," said Collins, a native of Doylestown, Ohio.

Laura Dickerson, a first-year student from Dalton, Ga., also said that the seminar had broadened her conception of travel. "There are so many different means of travel and so many different kinds of 'trips' that people can go on," she explained. "I used to think that trips had to be planned out meticulously and that the traveler had to be sure to have enough money to get where he or she wanted to go." But after watching the films and discussing the readings, Dickerson said she came to realize that traveling can be as easy as walking into a new and different neighborhood.

Dickerson has lived for five years in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as a child and traveled throughout South America. Her first-hand experiences abroad proved especially useful in the discussions that followed the viewing of The Motorcycle Diaries.

By the time the students complete their journey, they will have seen more than 13 American and foreign films, read many literary and scholarly classics, made class presentations, completed three essays and turned in a final project.

"I hope this class will not be just any journey for the students, but one that piques their interest to continue their exploration of film," said Ehrlich.

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, May 12, 2006 07:30 AM | News Topics: College of Arts and Sciences, HeadlinesMain

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