Unconventional Films in the Classroom: Into the (Methodological) Woods

Just after the (last) New Year, I emailed my spring Research Methods sections with the usual ‘class starts soon, here’s the syllabus, order your books’ message.  This year’s message contained a strange assignment, due during the second week of class. They were to watch the recent film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and write a one page reaction to the questions, whose fault is it, and why?

For those unfamiliar with the film, Into the Woods is a complex tale braiding together half a dozen well-known fairy tales around the story of the Baker and his Wife, who remain childless thanks to a curse put on the Baker’s house by the Witch. The Baker and his Wife go into the woods to seek the ingredients to lift the curse. The rest of the village, meanwhile, is driven into the same woods by the arrival of a Giant (Jack’s fault, of course). While in the woods, all sorts of calamities befall the group. By intermission, things seem to be mostly repaired so that happily ever after is plausible, but in the second act, thanks to a continuation of behaviors from before – and the realization by some characters that fulfilled wishes aren’t always what you dreamed of – a second giant drives the group into the woods once again. Disasters of various sorts again ensue. But whose fault is it?

Midway through the second act, the characters confront the realities of determining causation in the real world. As the Baker says to Jack, “It’s because of you that there’s a giant in our midst and my wife is dead.” At that point, the fun begins from a methodological and pedagogical perspective. Are those two separate outcomes, or one? Is the causal chain from Jack to those event(s) equally strong? What constitutes a good explanation? The Baker’s Father was the ultimate trigger of the curse, which was placed on them by the Witch’s Mother – is it one of their faults? Neither of those characters even appears in the show – is that convincing? For that matter, what is “it”?? We have to begin by determining the actual dependent variable of interest: the phenomenon we’re explaining. Because of the nature of this particular show’s plot, all the plots are intertwined; isolating a single simple causal story is impossible. (Hello, equifinality and multiple causality!) The Baker’s wife walked off a cliff (in the more recent version), so it’s technically her own fault that she’s dead – or did the shaking of the earthquake cause her to lose her balance and fall? How do you attribute blame convincingly to an earthquake?

Aside from a bit of grumbling at an assignment so early, and the unfortunate guy who watched it in the frat house without knowing that “it was all singing!!,” this activity was generally well received. Forcing students to pick a side in their reaction papers gave us a starting point for discussion as I tallied blame on the board, then went into some of the justifications. Overall, the highly unorthodox use of film in a research methods class, and the even more unorthodox choice of films, was a very good way to start my admittedly unorthodox approach to a required but dreaded methods class.

One Reply to “Unconventional Films in the Classroom: Into the (Methodological) Woods”

  1. I start my methods courses with a film also, but different ones in different contexts.

    For the courses with more advanced students I have for years used the classic Polanski mystery Chinatown. I always tell the students that data analysis is detective work. Chinatown illustrates ever aspect of this and gives students a template for analytical work going forward. Several have contacted me afterwards and said that, while they didn’t think the film was useful at the time they saw it, they have since seen what I was getting at.

    Next spring I’m going to teach a much less sophisticated introductory methods course within time and place constants I didn’t have previously. Not having the 2 hours needed to show Chinatown, I’m going to be using the TV version of the Holmes mystery, Silver Blaze. Many think that Silver Blaze is the best of all the Holmes stories and it illustrates most of the points found in Chinatown. There’s the added element of unfamiliarity with the classic Holmes stories; I’m betting that none of the students in this class have ever read any of them or even seen them on TV. (The recent Cumberbatch Holmes series is nothing like the original.) We’ll see how this goes.

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