Tuesday, June 19, 2007
I'm more than midway through "College for Kids," a two-week program held on our campus every--well, almost every--June. I've been teaching for it since 1998, mostly broad-based theme/genre courses like "Science Fiction" (always a big draw any year a Star Wars movie was released), "A Brief History of Comedy" (Guess what? Someone getting hurt is funny!), "Unlocking the Mystery" (pyramids to riddles, Holmes--Sherlock, not John--to Genomes), and this year, "Heroes and Villains"* and--gee, what a surprise--"How to Watch a Movie."
My experience in the movies course thus far is comparable to the times I taught Film Art at our local correctional facility--and I make the comparison without malice to either tot or con. But both have often disappointed me by not sharing my enthusiasm for particular movies, or scenes, or the effect of camera placement and movement, shot sequence, color and light, sound. Both groups, for instance, grow fidgety and flippant over 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I revere without embarrassment--unless I'm teaching it to inmates or children, when their boredom and disdain tarnish the glow and muffle the tone of every coldly beautiful--and emphatically leisurely--moment. Just today, I showed the children selected sequences--to illustrate the relationship between music/sound and image--and I could feel their relief as I stopped each scene--each of which was punctuated by their giggles and wisecracks. The only cultural reference-point any of them had with the film was the giant-chocolate-bar-as-Monolith in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--which, when I saw it, I appreciated as homage to a cinematic icon, but which today proved a mere distraction. (I found even myself referring to the Monolith as "a giant candy bar"; oh, the fawning squeak of the quisling, eager to fit in!) Showing the movie at the prison, during the EVA scene, when Frank is fetching the AE35 unit, I was queried, "Is this a silent film?" I told him Kubrick would have been pleased by the question; still, it was not, I think, intended as a compliment, no more than the comment that 2001 is like Burton's film--the backwards-comparison particularly stinging.
But how petty can I be? Why should I expect universal acceptance of Film as Art (even if the course at the prison proclaimed so in the title)? And what matter if it isn't? But even more, I should understand my students' unconcern. After all, the movies are shared by everyone. Most films, even many of the "serious classics," are infinitely more approachable than their counterparts in literature--narrative as well as dramatic. The wall between most contemporary readers/audiences and Chaucer or Shakespeare, Milton or Spenser is quite tall, as it must be, given the removes of time and culture. And even more "modern" fiction encounters resistance, either from feminists or multiculturalists or other social empower-ers. This too is not only common but of course desirable. Passive consumption of art defeats the purpose, so to speak, since most art requires participation of some sort, dialogue rather than monologue. And the movies provide the readiest opportunities for such participation. This is in some ways its greatest strength as an art form. Like Dickens' novels, movies are so popular that the audience claims ownership, and provides movies all necessary sustenance by its mere attention, whether in appreciation or ridicule, or both. Even the most consumptive cinephile can hawk up a justly deserved gobbet in cinema's face.
Again, the ease with which most of us can adore, deride, or ignore cinema is linked directly to its ubiquity, and when one reacts to something so easily accessible, one does so with whatever's right there at the time, whether it be a TV commercial with Fred Astaire dancing with a Hoover or a greedy kid zapping himself into mega-choco-land--or even another, "lesser," film, in heavy rotation on basic cable, film school by osmosis, creeping in with repeat dinnertime viewing. Whenever we try to understand things, we use what's handy: "The Kingdom of God? Er, well, it's like seeds sown, or a treasure hidden in a field, or a fishing-net lowered into a lake." Why do we do this? Perhaps we will never be ready to know what cinema, itself a kingdom in hiding, is really like. So we make it out to be like something else--or make each movie like another. We can keep going, then, movie after movie, like those farmers of Paradise scattering seeds, letting grow those things we know, to help us little by little understand the things we don't.
So OK, 2001 is obscure and aloof. But it is like a silent movie, and its images have seeped into the visual culture. So it gets what it deserves, and doesn't escape a whipping. And lucky me, I've written myself to a point where it doesn't matter, as long as we keep watching, if only to see what we know in every cinematic enigma, every Rosebud and Monolith, tossed into various furnaces--or onto various soils, some fertile, some thorny, some rocky. It appears, then, that it may not be the movie's fault, but where it lands. Me, I'm going to keep talking and talking and talking, to any child or felon who'll listen, and try to soften the ground a bit, to see what purchase can be gained.
* ... in which at one point we wondered whether video games had heroes or villains; I instructed them to conclude No. But I did suggest maybe the gamer him/herself was the hero, not Link or Mario. (You may now roll your eyes.) But there's good news: They all concluded heroes were everything villains weren't, so it seems the cultural moral compass still works, more or less.
Posted by Paul J. Marasa at 8:25 AM
Content copyright © 2005-2011 by Paul J. Marasa. No part of the written work displayed on this site may be reproduced, linked or distributed in any form without the author's express permission. All images, video, audio and other materials used are deliberately and solely for illustrative purposes connected with each article. Each accompanying element is intended as a research and reference tool with relation to each article. No challenge to pre-existing rights is implied. Aside from The Constant Viewer, the author claims no responsibility for websites which link to or from this website.