The Point of It All

I haven’t posted anything for a couple of weeks , first because of Thanksgiving, then because I was busy with some final dissertation stuff.  But now, thanks to strident protests and nasty glares from several people who apparently think I occasionally say something interesting (ahem, Leila and Molly), I figured I’d better not stay silent any longer.

Thanks to my end-of-class survey, I’m gratified to see that this experiment was apparently a success, with almost the entire class reporting that they read the blog on at least a semi-regular basis.  How that will translate going forward, I have no idea, but it doesn’t seem to have been a waste of time.  I’m not teaching next semester, so I intend to range more freely over a variety of topics, and I expect to add at least a couple of podcasts on different subjects in the near future.  For the moment, though, I’d just like to take a moment to reiterate the harangue with which I leave people on the last day of class.

There is no doubt in my mind that on seeing “Introduction to Film Studies” on the transcripts of their undergraduate students many parents slap their heads, cluck their tongues and roll their eyes.  Especially in an age where many traditional literature courses (and the Humanities in general) are greeted with similar derision, film remains a bastard stepchild, accorded little more respect than a course in astrology.  That is, in my view ridiculous, particularly in light of the following postulates:

1.)  In many ways, film is the most vital art form of the 20th century, and remains so in the 21st.  Film combines a multitude of arts including literature, drama, music and the visual and plastic arts, into a single whole.  It may also be understood and appreciated for most of those qualities across a multitude of cultures (though conditions of reception may promote alternate meanings in different contexts).

2.)  Film is our most important means of public rhetoric.  Most of us do not attend lectures, speeches or town hall meetings with our local politicians.  We don’t read the texts of regular addresses by national political figures, review the contents of bills passed in Congress or State legislatures, or carefully parse every word of Supreme Court decisions.  Most of us do, however, watch some part of the State of the Union, see sound bites offered by politicians on the local or network news, and watch documentary treatments of pressing national problems on shows like “60 Minutes”, “The Daily Show” or in films like Fahrenheit 9/11 or (more perniciously) in political advertisements which run non-stop in election years.

3.)  Film is our most important conveyor of history.  History should be the most interesting subject you ever learn.  Everything has a history, and the story part can and should make it automatically engaging.  Unfortunately, it’s frequently taught in ways that make students hate it.  But films aren’t (when they work) boring.  They get the story part. And they stick.  Appalling as Gladiator is in terms of historical accuracy, it’s much more likely to come to the mind of the average person than a chapter from Gibbon.  If the conversation turns to ancient Rome, more people will undoubtedly fall back on images from Ben-Hur or Spartacus than will be able to quote from the letters of Cicero.  And that passage into film history happens much more quickly than people think.  Current undergraduates already have very few significant memories from 9/11, and that’s only a dozen years ago.  Instead, their impressions are formed by the films and documentaries they see about the event.

4.)  Any film tells us something about the time and culture that produced it.  This is always true, whether we’re analyzing the Victorian helplessness of the Gish sisters in an early Griffith film, or just noticing the way people in the background are dressed in a forty year old commercial for Maxwell House coffee.  As documents, films tell us things about their times.  Any film, any time.

Given the truth of those postulates, we need to remember that:

1.)  What we watch is frequently a tiny subset of what’s available (let alone produced), and that makes no sense in a global community.  We have access to more films than anyone ever has, and they’re increasingly at out fingertips.  If we ignore that opportunity to instead focus on a tiny sliver of what’s available, we’re the worse for it.  Why restrict ourselves to what’s been made in America by mainstream studios in the last five years?  It makes no sense.  The world is ours to experience in ways that have never been available before and if we’re smart we want to use that access to learn about other cultures and other times.

2.)  Our responses to what we watch are conditioned and manipulated by the cultural standards which we’ve been taught, and we need to be aware of that.  Silent actors are not all “overacting”.  Special effects from the Fifties are not “bad”.  Epic films are not all “slow”.  We’re just not used to standards which aren’t our own.  Condemning something because we’re not used to it says a lot more about us as viewers than it does about what we’re viewing.  Why have those standards changed?  Why do we respond the way we do?  Does our belief in our “superior” standards have any basis in reality?  Or is it just too hard to think outside our own boxes?

3.) Filmmakers know that they’re trying to manipulate us, and we should reciprocate.  They may do it well or badly, but it’s silly not to remember that they’re always trying.  We cry when E.T leaves, or jump when the shark comes out of the water, because Spielberg is doing a number on us.  And he’s good at it.  The real question is why we’re susceptible, and what that says about us.  Just as importantly, what happens when those manipulations are used for more serious ends than making us jump?

4.)  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with just being entertained, but we shouldn’t really have to turn off our brains to do it.  If we’re intelligent people, we should want to keep thinking.  I’m not condemning those occasional moments where we just want to watch Big Bang Theory episodes (or car chases, or explosions) until our brains liquefy and run out of our ears.  But even those moments say something about ourselves, and we should be able to re-engage the moment something piques our interest.  The world is a wide and wonderful place, and if we turn our brains off too much we miss an awful lot.

As we move into a world where digital photography, distribution and exhibition replace actual film, nothing I’ve just said will change.  If anything, the postulates and conclusions I’ve just outlined will become even more important as we retreat further and further into the great digital cloud which is so in evidence as people walk from Point A to Point B looking at their phones instead of the world around them.  The rules and grammar of filmmaking will continue to be used, and we should know what they’re doing, how they work, and how they affect us on a daily basis.

So now if your parents roll their eyes, you don’t need to worry.  You’ll know what to tell them.  Just say it like you mean it, because I surely do.




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