French Kiss-Off


I am a big fan of planning things. Telling TiVo to record a show as soon as it appears on the schedule, mapping out which films I’ll see at Sundance, making an appointment with my gynecologist as soon as the six-month reminder card arrives — this is like crack for me, my friends. Hot, buttered crack!

Needless to say, I am not thrilled when my plans go awry. What is the use of scheduling something if it’s just going to change at the last minute, that’s what I say, often and angrily. So I was a little unnerved last week when I found my class schedule at Portland State University unraveling before my very eyes.

If you haven’t been keeping up, I’ve gone back to school to do Film Studies, in the hopes that it will make me a more better writer. As befits my fondness for planning, I registered for my Winter Term classes as soon as I was allowed to, back in November. My selections were: Writing on Film (I wanted to see if I’ve been doing it right) and French Cinema (I’m interested in art from all nations, even stinky ones).

These classes were a good complement to each other. One meets from 12-2 on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the other from 2-4. They’re even in the same building. I was pleased with my efficient, economical class schedule.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I showed up for the first day of French Cinema and discovered that the class was being taught in, um, French. Every Tuesday the class will watch a French movie, and then on Thursday the class will discuss it. In French. As a way of practicing their French.

Now, I don’t speak French. You will notice it is absent from the following list of languages I have mastered:

• English (questionable)

So as the movie (“Le Retour de Martin Guerre”) began to play, and as I examined the syllabus and realized what was happening, I contemplated my options.

The sitcom option, of course, would be to take the class anyway. I wouldn’t be able to participate in the class discussions on Thursdays, but it’s not like EVERYONE in a class talks every day. As long as I seemed to be listening and occasionally nodded thoughtfully and said, “Oui … oui,” I could probably get away with it.

Then, when it was my turn to give a 15-minute presentation on that week’s film, I could find someone who speaks French, have him write out my presentation, and memorize it before class. Or I could wear a wire and have my French-speaking friend stand just outside the classroom door and feed me the lines through an earpiece.

Ultimately, my plan would come crashing down, of course, probably on the last day of the term. The professor would find out what I had done, and we’d have a hearty laugh about it and then there would be hugging.

The problem with the sitcom option is that the whole point in taking the class hadn’t been just to watch French movies, but to discuss them with others, and to learn about French cinema in general. Obviously this would not be accomplished if everyone was speaking some crazy foreign language.

My only other option, then, was to drop the class and disrupt my brilliant schedule. I combed the course catalog for appropriate classes meeting before or after Writing on Film, but found none. Then I found an appealing alternative: Danish Cinema, meeting Monday/Wednesday/Friday at 10:15 a.m. And the course catalog said specifically that this class was taught not in “Danish,” if that’s even a language, but in English! And I speak English! (Refer to list.)

I was momentarily delighted. Danish cinema! Why, we’ll probably examine the films of Ingmar Bergman! No, wait, he was Swedish. Danish. Danes. Denmark. Hmm. The only Danish director I can think of is Lars von Trier, whose “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville” are not among my favorites, and whose general attitude toward cinema is pretentious. Are there other Danish filmmakers? There must be, clearly, if there’s a whole class devoted to them. Surely taking it will enlighten me and help me appreciate them better!

This being Tuesday, I had already missed the first class, but I was prepared to attend the second one on Wednesday. Naturally, when Wednesday arrived, I slept through my alarm and did not wake up until 10:45, thus missing the second class, too. Knowing I would miss even MORE classes because of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, and already being two behind, I dropped Danish Cinema and signed up for Film History II, which meets on Thursdays and which I hadn’t missed any of yet.

Having taken Film History I last term, I already had a textbook, which I assumed Film History II would simply use the second half of. Obviously this wouldn’t work, though. Obviously Film History II would need to use the second half of an entirely different film history textbook. Obviously an art form that is barely a century old and is ridiculously well-documented will have a wide variety of conflicting interpretations of its history, thus requiring AT LEAST two different textbooks to cover them all.

I kid, of course. The textbooks are virtually identical to each other in format, structure, organization and dullness. (How you can write dully on a topic as inherently entertaining as cinema, I have no idea.) I’d like to write a textbook someday. It will cost $5 a copy to print, we’ll sell it for $75, and every two years we’ll add a couple commas, reprint the thing, call it a “new edition,” and make previous editions obsolete, thus preventing students from getting anything when they try to sell their used copies.

Anyway, now that my schedule was settled, I was able to relax and enjoy school, to fill my head with knowledge and expand my horizons. Most importantly, with my schedule determined, I could start coming up with excuses for missing class. Tres bon!

When the sitcom solution occurred to me -- the one where I take the class anyway and merely pretend to speak French -- I knew who to call: my friend Mrs. Pants, who has watched many sitcoms and is expert at divining their secrets. (She helped me last summer when I lost my friend's cat, too.) Sure enough, she came through with the idea of having a friend stand outside the classroom and feed me the lines through an earpiece. She really should write sitcoms, especially considering that generic, cliched ones are always in high demand. (She could probably write a brilliant and original one, too, but nobody wants those.)

A bit of poking around revealed that "The Passion of Joan of Arc," which is one of the most enthralling silent films I've ever seen, was directed by a Dane, Carl Dreyer. (I knew his name but had forgotten his nationality.) It would have been an interesting class, I'm sure, especially since I once had breakfast with Danish diplomats during the Olympics.