Cineliteracy: Who’s leading the charge?

“If anything I have said here sounds “elitist,” you might consider the vast movement we see occurring in this country’s politics, especially on the far right, where any learning at all is equated with elitism and any experience in public office is equated with being tainted. When our educational system is being systematically downgraded, expecting people to learn things is simple common sense.” – Kristin Thompson

The above quote is the final thought in a recent post at David Bordwell’s blog, in which Thompson muses over the fact that people who have little working knowledge of film — let alone expertise — try to engage her (and other film buffs and scholars) on the topic of movies, when the end result is almost always the same.  To wit, the film expert comes across as an elitist snob, and the average viewer awkwardly shifts to another bit of small talk.  It’s a common occurrence; I’ve experienced the same thing.  Over and over.  (And over again.)  I’m not even a proper expert, as Thompson or Jim Emerson (whose blog post inspired hers) is.  Thompson takes a few stabs at possible psychological motives, but it’s all anecdotal.  There’s no substantial body of research she cites one way or another.  What she says seems consistent, on the whole, with what I’ve observed in my own interactions with people who do not share a crazed enthusiasm for cinema.

Those final thoughts struck a chord with me, though, of some big things that Thompson leaves unsaid.  Perhaps “unexplored” would be a better word.

I don’t intend for partisan politics to be a big part of this blog, so I’m not going to respond to Thompson’s right-baiting.  She is dead on, though, in a sidelong kind of way, about anti-intellectualism and the degradation of the educational system.  Regarding anti-intellectualism specifically, I’ve talked before (more obliquely) about how there is a latent mistrust of higher film education among religious conservatives.  In general, my observation of average, non-film-geek Americans (right, left, and middle) is that they don’t equate all education with elitism, but they like to practice a kind of reverse elitism of their own, preferring to label movies that don’t conform to conventional Hollywood formulae as “pretentious.” Perhaps the religious ones will carp about how Christians and God are always made to look bad.  Perhaps they throw up their hands and talk about how “the story made no sense,” not bothering to analyze how the plot and emotional/thematic arc are two different things, and how perhaps the filmmaking technique emphasized breaks in continuity for effect.  In the U.S., the religious majority may not understand that nationalist ethnocentrism underlies the kind of laziness that manifests as an aversion to subtitled films from other countries.  Some of these characteristics apply to people who are not particularly religious, of course.  Many are actually self-identified atheists and/or liberals.  But if you’re reading this blog, you know the type.

These are the people who are resistant to change as a point of pride, if not principle.  In the circles of religious conservatives with whom I grew up, and in the character of other practicing Christians I’ve met over the years, there seems to be an uncanny overlap between the intractable disdain for “pretentious” pop culture and a defensiveness about religious doctrines and dogmas.  The whole idea of a theological idea being doctrinal is that it is set in stone, just like the tablets Moses schlepped down from Mount Sinai; it doesn’t change, and therefore, one’s belief in it shouldn’t change.  Not only do most people hate to watch art house cinema, they often have a very fixed (and equally uninformed) opinion of what’s “good” in mainstream cinema.  Once this is decided — and, like religious doctrines, often inculcated early in life — it’s done.  It doesn’t have to be explained, articulated, or properly defended.  It may be inflicted on others at will whenever the subject (cinema, religion, whatever) is brought up.  It becomes a facet of a person’s identity.  Taste and faith are often understood in very similar ways.

Subjective taste, then, becomes doctrinal in nature.  “I hated Mr. Bean’s Holiday, therefore anyone who liked it is stupid and doesn’t know what a good movie is.”  This is its own kind of elitism.  And as any good elitist knows, the best way to attack other forms of elitism is to brand those elitists as elitists.  You can’t restrict this tactic to the ranks of conservatives or liberals; it bridges religious boundaries.  But it’s something that could only have its roots in a culture that has been deeply seeded with the attitude of religious conviction… which most cultures have been, but especially the United States of America.

From this comes the relevance of Thompson’s comment on the degradation of the education system.  The real problem goes even deeper — at least in regards to cinema.  Not only has education been consistently degraded in general, but where film is concerned, it was never really established in the first place.  Not on the elementary or secondary level.

Allow me to make the introductions: Chicken, meet Egg; Egg, Chicken.  Now that you’re acquainted, who would like to go first?

Institutional resistance to change has resulted in one of the most severe deficiencies in modern history.  Since the advent of motion pictures as a medium, and through its subsequent development into television and Internet multimedia, the education system has never undertaken to provide a basic, comprehensive introduction to motion picture literacy (or “cineliteracy”) to children or young adults.  (Thus sayeth Mr. Chicken.)

Those children grow up into adults with absolutely no grounding in cineliteracy, and are therefore not equipped to do the most basic deconstructing of movies, multimedia information flow, or even the reasons they feel the way they do about motion pictures.  Since they have never been given the tools to ascribe any sort of meaning to the overwhelming presence of motion picture arts, they either relegate it to the side as “mere entertainment,” nothing worth thinking about except as a way to pass a lazy afternoon or evening, or they react with fear and hostility, condemning the motion picture arts as too pervasive, too powerful, and too out of control — and therefore bad for children.  So nobody would see any need or support any serious proposal for including cineliteracy as part of any fundamental school curriculum.  (Thus sayeth Mr. Egg.)

You see how this works?

The lives of millions hang in the balance, people. Now is not the time to be checking your Blackberry.

In her post, Thompson is dumbstruck by the fact that even her highly intelligent, highly-credentialed colleagues could have a well-rounded background in the arts and humanities, but still reveal a stunning, perhaps even haughty (my characterization, not hers) ignorance about cinema:

David was once talking with a distinguished literary scholar who would have been appalled if someone in a university had never heard of Faulkner or Thomas Mann. But when David said he admired many Japanese films, the scholar asked incredulously, “All those Godzilla movies?”

Yup.  Only the best and brightest.

I don’t think Thompson or Bordwell is really surprised whenever the disparity in cultural cachet between cinema and virtually every other established art form rears its ugly head.  They’ve been doing film studies for too long.  At the same time, this is a potent example of the kind of grooming that begins at a very young age in our culture.  When our teachers and instructors along the road of life wax poetic about the Great Artists or the Great Artworks, they typically fall back on literary or musical examples.  Shakespeare.  Mozart.  HamletThe Magic Flute.  Painting and sculpture; the classics.  The “Mona Lisa.”  Michelangelo’s “David.”  The Odyssey.  There’s no substitute for endurance: these things have been around for hundreds of years, and are still regarded as vital.  More than that, they are foundational to Western identity.  They are vaunted and hallowed as equally in the halls of academia as a tourist trap gift shop where you can by a postcard of a detail of God’s and Adam’s fingers almost touching.  You don’t even have to like or be able to appreciate fully these great masterworks.  They’re too entrenched.  More than that, they are “acceptable” forms of self-expression.  In art class, kindergartners play with finger paint or crayons; they don’t learn how to edit images from their cell phones into a cogent YouTube video.  (And you know that pretty soon they’ll start issuing complementary cell phones at birth.  “A mobile in the hand of every newborn!”)  Most people don’t question this status quo.  It only seems to come up for discussion whenever school districts are faced with budget cuts, and arts and music programs are the first things on the chopping block.

From birth, human beings learn how to understand and speak the language in which they are raised.  From the earliest level of formal education, they are taught how to read and write in that language.  As the most social of social species, humans recognize the primary importance of being able to communicate successfully, so we make everyone learn how to read and write their native language; we correct grammatical mistakes in their automatic “programming” as well through speech lessons.  Humans also place a tremendous amount of importance upon logic.  Logic is the greatest of human inventions; our post-Enlightenment society runs on rationality, so we also learn mathematics, algebra, and geometry from a young age.  Even if we don’t all grow up to be carpenters, actuaries, or physicists, the rigor of critical thinking is what enables us to continue to evolve and to find common ground with each other when all else fails.  It has given us the scientific method.  Through science, we learn about our natural world and the invisible laws that guide us.  These are the most fundamental of subjects, and with those as our foundation, we go on to learn how the human race has developed and applied these concepts in history, geography, and social studies classes.

The importance of arts and athletics in human development has long been recognized, and it’s the reason that elementary education includes gym class and rudimentary introductions to drawing/sketching, crafts, and music.  It would seem like a no-brainer that the dominant art form of the last century — motion pictures — would find at least some place in this curriculum.  Especially at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems that audiovisual communication techniques are rapidly supplementing or replacing older forms.  People no longer simply phone each other; they text — and in a rapidly evolving form of pidgin that seems to resemble pictorial cuneiform more than proper English.  People make their journals public on Weblogs, and now even written blogs are being supplemented or supplanted by video blogs.  In any Internet message board, you will find people insulting or endorsing each other’s views with an exponentially increasing number of pictograms that rely upon an interlocking series of memes that now require their own database.  News is no longer simply reported in the pages of a newspaper; people follow cable news networks and watch extended live videos online, or get information from expertly crafted lectures and essays presented in video form.  Reading and listening to music are no longer the most popular forms of social rest and relaxation.  They are both practiced, of course.  But movies and TV shows are the norm.  In short, it is obvious to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see that the motion picture is no longer a nickelodeon novelty.  It is the most important form of communication, art, and entertainment in the world.

Yet people know less about correctly analyzing a film than correctly analyzing forms of literature that are no longer written by anyone outside of a small, specialized minority.  To people who aren’t English majors, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is a phrase synonymous with hours of head-throbbing tedium rather than the world’s greatest pickup line; kids are more likely to be flattered by having their physique compared to Kim Kardashian’s or Channing Tatum’s.

This tree stump has already made more money than you will make in your lifetime.

Education is indeed being degraded.  It is vitally important that each generation be well-rounded by a comprehensive liberal education.  Shakespeare is just as important today as he was 100 years ago.  The problem is that a working knowledge of Citizen Kane is just as important as a working knowledge of MacBeth, but virtually nobody is making an effort to reshape the 21st century curriculum to reflect that reality.

Common sense isn’t all that common, as the saying goes, so simply expecting people to learn things isn’t going to gain much traction.  Whether on the grassroots level or in the top levels, developing a film studies curriculum for elementary and secondary education is not on anyone’s agenda, largely because they have no frame of reference for understanding just how important it is.  While most medium and large size universities offer courses in film studies, often even to satisfy liberal studies requirements, very few schools below higher ed do so.  Here and there, a plucky teacher may develop a curriculum on his own, but that usually has more to do with the teacher deciding to cater to his/her own interests rather than volunteering to take the helm of a program being developed by a school district.  (Check out Hokakey’s Little Worlds blog for a brilliant example.)

If film studies became a standard part of the elementary/secondary ed curriculum, it won’t necessarily solve the cineliteracy problem unless steps are taken to address larger, more systemic failings.  But it would be a start.  Even if the general taste and cineliteracy level doesn’t see a massive uptick on a national scale, it’s very likely that when Thompson attended a future cocktail party, instead of getting a blank look, her conversation partner might say, “Oh, yeah, we had to watch that in high school,” when she brings up The Rules of the Game.  People in the U.S. might still generally shy away from foreign films and films with lower production values, but at least they would have a better appreciation for the sheer body of cinema that’s available.  It wouldn’t come as quite a culture shock for something other than a denizen of the AFI’s myopic lists to crop up when a film buff is asked, “What’s your favorite movie?”  As it happens, my stock answer is Casablanca, and it still blows my mind how many people flutter their eyelids and give me a partial squint as they say, “I think I’ve heard of that,” in a tone that tells me they’ve never heard of it.  Not that prime-time TCM would replace Jersey Shore or Glee as favored nightly viewing for the average viewer, but at least folks might have a clue as to the kind of things they might find on Turner Classic Movies, should they choose to flip over to it.

Inevitably, any movement to get film studies installed as a major part of the curriculum will be met with resistance, especially now, with pitched funding battles erupting across the nation.  Ironically, this represents something of a golden opportunity for the Christian community to take up the torch and lead for the first time in a long time in a genuinely progressive cause that dovetails neatly with the conservative, doctrinaire attitude that is endemic to religion.

Christians have been at the forefront of nearly every revolution in modern Western history — often divided, as is the case with any diverse group of people, but tireless nevertheless.  Whether aligned with the political right or left, the unique position that the Christian religion occupies in American culture makes it ideally situated to debate and mobilize on virtually anything that is a community concern.  Historically, the relationship between Christians and cinema has been fraught.  This is to be expected.  Many maintained a vitriolic attitude toward the novelty of cinema in its earliest stages; others hailed the wonders of the new medium and saw its evangelical potential.  These early prejudices and conceptions persist to varying degrees.  A lot of Christians attempt to excise “objectionable” entertainment from their lives altogether, exclusively dieting on family films and TV programming or otherwise minimizing their interaction with the media; others maintain a sort of separate-but-equal division, enjoying films on their own terms, however crude or in conflict with professed beliefs, while still living “the Christian life” in most other respects.  There is very little effort within the Christian faith community (or communities, as is more often the case) to integrate an understanding and appreciation for cinema — including mainstream pop culture — to the faith life of its members.  Whether they’re ostriches or cognitively dissonant, Christians seem to be content to let secular pop culture sort itself out.

This is totally backward.

Most students who attend private schools in this country attend schools with a religious background.  Of these, most are Roman Catholic; a good chunk are of various Protestant varieties.  While the budget margin for private schools is incredibly thin, these are the institutions that would have the kind of flexibility to develop experimental film studies curricula.  Even the nonsectarian private schools could adapt their curricula to include film studies, and interfaith groups could effect change on these by joining together to advocate and recommend programs — or at least to demand some kind of film studies program.  Accreditation for infant film studies curricula would be a tough hurdle, but developing the programs independently would be light years less unwieldy than the public education system trying to formulate one-size-fits-all programs.

Churches would also be in a prime position to organize screenings and informal classes and lectures for congregants.  Film experts are often happy to share their knowledge with people, regardless of creed, and since many churches function as community centers, fomenting an expansion of cineliteracy in church groups would likely radiate outward into the rest of the communities.

The best part, from the doctrinaire perspective, is that denominations with a narrower interpretation of Christian truths could use increased cineliteracy as a platform to further spread the word (as they see it).  A closer, more active engagement with the arts has historically only served to advance the messages and clout of the Church, and while I do not personally endorse or advocate using films merely as a springboard for proselytizing, I think that a more open-minded approach to Scripture would follow a more educated approach to the cinema.  And there are certainly denominations out there that are not interested in using cinema as a tool for evangelism, who seek the expansion of knowledge and education for the sake of critical thinking, and for raising the standard of mental living.

In short, there is no down side to Christians embracing the integration of film studies into their educational curricula, and there are many positive benefits.

Just because I emphasize the benefit to Christian education doesn’t mean I’m excluding secular education.  The same benefits apply just as equally, and film education is just as important in the public sector as in the parochial.  My emphasis on the Christian angle is in part because (obviously), this blog is dedicated to presenting a Christian perspective on all things film related.  More importantly, though, I think Christians are historically the most resistant to accepting radical change.  Most societies are resistant to radical change; America is no different.  Things change very slowly, and for the most part, that’s what’s great about this country.  Radical change should take a long time.  That way it doesn’t feel radical, even if you’re able to look back ten, twenty, a hundred years later and appreciate just how different things are from the way they were.  It’s striking a balance between stability and change, while respecting the right of all parties to have a say in how that change plays out.  The problem is that when you put religion into the mix, there’s a certain amount of intransigence that comes along with it, and this intransigence often carries an ideological edge.  Nothing is free of ideology, but at least in a secular system of government, there is a mandate for the ideology of disparate groups to be blunted, sort of shoehorned into working together, whether they like it or not.  Religious groups make no such concessions on their own turf, and that’s the primary battle here.

As stated above, there is no reason why any particular denomination would have to sacrifice its religious principles in order to provide a comprehensive film education.  Well, I suppose the Amish would have a hard time integrating film studies into their education.  I respect that, if only because they have nothing to do with motion pictures anyway.  For them, it really is not necessary.  But for pretty much any other major religious group, the theological thrust of the education can be maintained while still providing a rigorous training in form, style, and the kinds of ideologies that filmmakers and audiences bring to the viewing/production experience.  A secular education would just (hopefully) subtract the theological framework, and focus on the basics, while perhaps including theology as a part of the ideological array that is covered when students learn how to do in-depth criticism.

Just think: if Harrison Ford had actually become Amish, we never would have had to sit through Indy IV.

What I’ve sketched here is a very broad perspective on what I see as a criminal deficiency in our education system.  I plan on getting more into the nuts and bolts of possible ways to redress this deficiency in future blog posts.  Perhaps the biggest criticism I have of Thompson (and my diatribe isn’t really a criticism; just an extension on a topic she doesn’t delve into very thoroughly, and is mostly tangential to her main point) is that she foists the name-calling off on the political right and the failures of the public to care for its educational system.  Is there a vast, virulent streak of anti-intellectualism in this country?  Yep.  Is it mainly rooted in the far right wing?  Maybe.  In my experience, the people who carp about “ivory tower intellectuals” tend to be more conservative, but that’s just my own experience.  It may or may not be the case in the population-at-large.  I don’t think it’s fair of Thompson to project psychological motives like ego-salving or right-wing ideology onto the problem of people thinking of film expertise as “elitist.”  I’m not intimately familiar with the course catalogue or degree program requirements of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but as far as I could see, there is no program in the entire curriculum devoted to the pedagogy of film studies for elementary or secondary ed.

This isn’t terribly unusual.  At least, for the average university.  But UW-Madison is a world class institution.  It is internationally recognized for its communication arts programs, and certainly Bordwell and Thompson have done more than their part to bring prestige to the university with their own highly influential work as film scholars.  I expect that individual studies or special topics courses could be tailored to meet the needs of an education major who wanted to design a film studies curriculum for pre-university level students.  And I’m sure that many of the courses included in the Comm Arts degree cover the effects and impact of the media on younger minds.  But that’s not quite the same thing.

The point is that Thompson is one of the most visible and respected voices in film scholarship, and her own university offers virtually nothing that explicitly addresses the problem we face: namely, that nobody grows up with an education in film.  You can blame anti-intellectual right-wingers all you want; you can speculate that people only bring up movies with film experts to validate their own taste.  That’s all well and good, but if you’re going to tie these lamentations into a eulogy for the sad state of education in general… well, that just doesn’t add up.

If we want to see real, positive, and practical progress in the name of film knowledge, we have to start by teaching people how to teach film.  And not at the university level.  At the fundamental level.  “Catch ‘em while they’re young,” as they say.  Any elementary or secondary ed degree that doesn’t include a film studies component is incomplete, as is  any elementary or secondary ed curriculum that doesn’t include a film studies component.  If we want to stop seeing “any learning at all” equated with “elitism,” a good place to start is including a well-rounded cultural education as part of the mandatory course load for every young student.

Thompson and Bordwell, of anyone on the planet, are ideally situated to develop the rudimentary guidelines for an elementary film studies curriculum.  It just seems odd to me that, with everything she said in that blog post, the idea of cineliteracy and integrating film studies into the grammar school curriculum never came up.  To me, that is one thing that indicates an “ivory tower” mindset.  I would like to see that mindset change, and I would very much like to see Thompson being one of the people leading the charge.

I’m not leading the charge, but I am calling for a charge to begin.  This is a bugle blast.  (“Hi-yo, Silver — away!”)  This is an important issue, and whatever is in my power do to will be done to drive that point home.  In the future, look for more on this topic and others connected to it as I ruminate from my own observations and try to pull together what others have written.  I’m not alone in this by any means, but the cadre is small.  Let’s see if we can grow it a little, shall we?

Who was that masked man, anyway?

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

28 responses to “Cineliteracy: Who’s leading the charge?

  • Adam K

    First “Catecinem,” now “cineliteracy”…I dub thee a “cinevangelist.”

  • Adam K

    In a slightly more serious vein, I wonder whether cineliteracy could be even more successfully couched in terms of overall media literacy. THE art form of the 20th century has certainly shaped all forms of audio and visual discourse in its wake, and expanding cinematic education to include television and A/V aspects of the Internet (narrative and documentary, and, more crucially, how those two are intertwined) would introduce a political dimension that goes beyond mere “pop culture” discussions. Even those Christians who would otherwise attempt to “excise ‘objectionable’ entertainment from their lives altogether” should be interested in learning how that entertainment works, if only to better resist its perceived dominant ideology. And hey, they may find some of this “entertainment” isn’t bad after all.

    Basically, teaching how film and its sister media shape their lives and can be shaped by their lives should be a high priority for any cultural group during the 21st century.

    • mjschneider

      First, thank you for taking the time to respond in depth to this.

      I would think that general media education would have to be a part of a curriculum. My conception (at the moment) is that “motion pictures” are sort of the foundation for all other contemporary kinds of multimedia. The same principles of editing/association, framing, production design, and narrative are at play in TV and even things like news broadcasts. The interactivity of the Internet is a game changer, and I’ve no idea where it will go from here, but a basic knowledge of the construction of a cinematic narrative is probably a good place to start at a younger age. Then, later on, theories of media and especially the psychology of watching and participating can be introduced at the high school level. My ideas on this are utterly subject to change, but I’m willing to test them in debate and research before dismissing them.

      And I completely agree that ostrich Christians should be able to learn how entertainment works, if for no other reason than to resist it more effectively. My gambit is that they *will* find out it’s not so bad after all, and that a cineliteracy program will help Christians engage more effectively with the rest of the culture and take more of a progressive, leadership role, rather than the reactive one they seem to have inhabited for so long.

      What do you think would be the best place to start on the earlier, elementary levels?

  • JeanRZEJ

    I’ve spent most of my adult life learning about the multitude of ways in which my literary education up through high school was a farce. It’s all well and good to lament the lack of film education, but I must say that replacing it with something equal to the backwards standard literary education would be a travesty. If language is about creating a system of commonly understood devices for direct communication then poetry is a means of confounding that ‘usefulness’ for something impressionistic. Unfortunately, literary education tends to focus on theme, even with poetry, thereby reducing poetry to mere indirect communication at the expense of its impressionistic power. If you were to tell most poets that their poetry would only be understood as a codified indirect expression then they would just choose to write in prose. The same happens in rudimentary cinema studies, a codification of the proper and the need for ‘substance’ (aka theme) over ‘style’ and all sorts of art-denying constructs. What we need is not some fresh construct to provide a backward framework but an additional insistence in any and all branches of the study of art on the value of that which has yet to be or cannot be codified, a certain concentration on the inability of such codification to predict the scope and variety of creativity. Given this all students will realize the potential of art to transcend the known standards and limitations in all mediums. Simply teaching kids the standard approaches to The Rules of the Game won’t change the rules of the game; what is needed is to teach kids that there are no rules and that all art will affect each person differently at each point in their lives, that what can be taught is merely one set of tools that may or may not be of any use to any particular work by any particular person. With art the limits of education to encompass art is as important as exposing any given limited educational structure. It is not objective truth, as with mathematics, and to treat it as such is worse than not teaching at all.

    Pop criticism tends to be the worst example of the dangers of raising nonsensical standards to the level of objective truth: ‘The characters were not likable and so I was unable to care about their plight’ – what does it MEAN that the characters were unlikable? This question cannot be asked within the construct and thus exposes its absurd inapplicability to art and its capability to supersede any and all constructs. Art’s power lies not in the ability to teach people about the narrow constraints of its necessary qualities but to teach people about the vastness of its sufficiency, and the most important educational tool to that end is skepticism and a desire to explore the ineffable.

    • Alex Weitzman

      “The characters are unlikable”, used as a criticism, makes sense if it is clear that the story’s point hinges on the audience finding the characters likable. As in, the audience’s experience veers away from the story the filmmakers want to tell because they’re too distracted by an unforeseen negative emotional response from anybody watching it.

      Imagine a version of “Forrest Gump” where the exact structure, plot points, side characters, and results of the story are the same, but Forrest was a rude, cruel, and mean man. The film would be unbearable, because we would be seeing all this success falling into Forrest’s lap despite his horrible personage. And, AND nobody in the story would be calling him on it; everybody in the film would perceive Forrest the same way, but the audience would easily see him for a terrible man. It would be safe to say that whatever story the filmmakers were trying to tell would be shattered beyond repair because nobody could accept that this story happened to this man.

      All criticisms have their place, no matter how cliche or trite they may seem by now. The trick is in the usage.

    • mjschneider

      I don’t think anybody’s talking about replacing backward educational ideas with equally backward educational ideas. Cinema is distinct from literature, and if it’s to be taught, it should be taught in a distinct way. Hopefully with no watering down or obfuscation of what makes it unique and powerful.

      It’s also important to keep in mind that nobody’s talking about the kind of pop criticism you’re talking about. Mr. Weitzman summed it up nicely. Any criticism is valid if it can be articulated well and backed up with concrete examples. The purpose of an education in film studies would be to teach kids how to identify and use those concrete examples.

      I would agree that any art education should encourage people to think beyond the prescribed boundaries, but that exploration doesn’t mean a whole lot if people aren’t going to be able to relate their individual experiences to each other, or to relate the evolution of one’s experiences at different points in one’s life to other experiences in a meaningful way. An individual’s experience of film may be subjective, but there is still the piece of art — the literal object — to consider.

      A painting or a film is not ineffable in itself. It is something that is worth considering on its own terms as well as the terms that an individual brings to it. We can encourage individuals to explode the boundaries of how they experience something, but it’s not really debatable that if they’re going to experience something, there must be a thing there to experience.

    • JeanRZEJ

      ‘The purpose of an education in film studies would be to teach kids how to identify and use those concrete examples.’

      This is the core of what I think is wrong with art education.

      ‘An individual’s experience of film may be subjective, but there is still the piece of art — the literal object — to consider.’

      Yes, and it will always be considered through one’s own subjective experience, and in fact I find the idea of value independent of an individual’s experience to be absurd. Valuable to whom? Only to a person, because of their experience. Is art is created in a forest and never seen, is it valuable? Does it even make sense to use the term ‘value’ unless it has a direct referent who is making the judgment? I say no, such a usage would merely be a contradiction in terms, hence why valuations of art must always refer to an individual and his/her subjective experience.

    • mjschneider

      ‘The purpose of an education in film studies would be to teach kids how to identify and use those concrete examples.’

      This is the core of what I think is wrong with art education.

      ‘An individual’s experience of film may be subjective, but there is still the piece of art — the literal object — to consider.’

      Yes, and it will always be considered through one’s own subjective experience, and in fact I find the idea of value independent of an individual’s experience to be absurd. Valuable to whom? Only to a person, because of their experience. Is art is created in a forest and never seen, is it valuable? Does it even make sense to use the term ‘value’ unless it has a direct referent who is making the judgment? I say no, such a usage would merely be a contradiction in terms, hence why valuations of art must always refer to an individual and his/her subjective experience.

      Who’s talking about value? The only time I even used the word in my original post was in an entirely different context. You’re inferring a lot here, and it’s misconstruing my points.

      I’m not talking about the “value” of an objet d’art, I’m talking about the fact that there are certain attributes of any film that can be identified and discussed in concrete terms. A film is of a certain length, shot in a certain way on a certain film stock, featuring certain actors who are blocked in a certain way in certain scenes, etc. These are all quantifiable things. If two people, whatever their subjective opinions, can’t agree on these basic things, then their opinions aren’t really inspired by the film at all. They’re just spewing uninformed prattle.

      The whole reason I think that the literal object should be considered is precisely to give the subjective experience of an individual a more robust — and communicative — meaning. It’s the difference between a person saying, “I enjoyed the film,” and a person articulating precisely how and why he liked the film, and what in and about the film he liked. That’s why I say art is not subjective; the individual’s perspective on art is subjective. There’s a clear, important difference. An individual’s subjective opinion can’t even be valuable unless that opinion is based upon something. Nobody can even come up with an opinion on a film unless that person is first aware of that film and its form. There’s no value to an opinion that is without any kind of source.

      So I’m not even talking about assigning subjective “value” to a film. I’m talking about everyone simply agreeing that a film exists, and that it has certain formal and stylistic qualities. That’s pretty basic stuff, and I don’t think there’s any point in even discussing — that is to say, exchanging subjective experiences about — a film if an individual refuses to recognize the existence of a film’s fundamental traits. An education in how to identify and discuss these formal traits would be very useful in this regard.

    • JeanRZEJ

      ‘It’s the difference between a person saying, “I enjoyed the film,” and a person articulating precisely how and why he liked the film, and what in and about the film he liked.’

      Those are two examples of the same thing, only differentiated by specificity, not some ‘objective’ qualities.

      ‘That’s why I say art is not subjective; the individual’s perspective on art is subjective. There’s a clear, important difference. An individual’s subjective opinion can’t even be valuable unless that opinion is based upon something. Nobody can even come up with an opinion on a film unless that person is first aware of that film and its form. There’s no value to an opinion that is without any kind of source.’

      This is obvious, and I have no idea how this relates to anything I said.

      ‘A painting or a film is not ineffable in itself. It is something that is worth considering on its own terms as well as the terms that an individual brings to it. We can encourage individuals to explode the boundaries of how they experience something, but it’s not really debatable that if they’re going to experience something, there must be a thing there to experience.’

      This just seems like a red herring. Yes, it is useful when two people assume that they are talking about the same thing, in some sense (differences between print qualities and such notwithstanding), but where at any point was I not operating under the assumption that this was the case? Perhaps you are using this to say that we need to make sure that two people are talking about the same thing before assuming that they actually are, but this tends to be done by relaying subjective experiences, not using the objective materials of the film, because two subjective experiences being distinct does not mean that they will be entirely dissimilar on all levels of experience. I know of no person who has ever used an objective tool to verify that the same film was watched, so bringing objectivity into a discussion which can be and is in practice always covered by relaying subjective experience seems very peculiar. Whatever the case, this conversation has gotten so sidetracked as to be absurd, and I can’t say I have any compelling reasons to continue here where the approach is not conducive to honest discussion at all.

    • mjschneider

      It’s a bit rich that you use the term “red herring” to describe my response, when your previously reply was almost entirely a rebuttal of a point that nobody had made. I don’t know that you’ll ever read this, but I’m posting it for the sake of completion.

      “Those are two examples of the same thing, only differentiated by specificity, not some ‘objective’ qualities.”

      No, they are not examples of the same thing. A person saying “I enjoyed the film” and leaving it at that is not engaging in a discussion; he is not substantiating his opinion; it is not clear what he liked about the film or why. It is not even clear that this person understood the film. A person going on to cite concrete examples of how/why he liked the film, what worked, what didn’t, and going even further to articulate the ramifications of the worldview he brings to the table — that person is engaging both the film and any other conversant who wishes to discuss the film with him. It’s the difference between a free-floating assertion and a substantive discussion. That is a massive difference.

      “This is obvious, and I have no idea how this relates to anything I said.”

      It relates to the fact that when I said this:

      “An individual’s experience of film may be subjective, but there is still the piece of art — the literal object — to consider.”

      You said this in response:

      “Yes, and it will always be considered through one’s own subjective experience, and in fact I find the idea of value independent of an individual’s experience to be absurd. Valuable to whom? Only to a person, because of their experience. Is art is created in a forest and never seen, is it valuable? Does it even make sense to use the term ‘value’ unless it has a direct referent who is making the judgment? I say no, such a usage would merely be a contradiction in terms, hence why valuations of art must always refer to an individual and his/her subjective experience.”

      Your response is laden with unfounded inferences and distortions of what I said. It seemed to me that you did not understand what I had written, so I clarified and elaborated my original point. If the point was so “obvious,” then I suggest you read the posts you’re rebutting more closely in the future, since you’re the one who missed it in the first place.

      “This just seems like a red herring. Yes, it is useful when two people assume that they are talking about the same thing, in some sense (differences between print qualities and such notwithstanding), but where at any point was I not operating under the assumption that this was the case? Perhaps you are using this to say that we need to make sure that two people are talking about the same thing before assuming that they actually are, but this tends to be done by relaying subjective experiences, not using the objective materials of the film, because two subjective experiences being distinct does not mean that they will be entirely dissimilar on all levels of experience. I know of no person who has ever used an objective tool to verify that the same film was watched, so bringing objectivity into a discussion which can be and is in practice always covered by relaying subjective experience seems very peculiar.”

      Again, I expanded my point for clarification, because you so clearly missed it. Nobody is denying that subjective experience is paramount in experiencing a work of art. The problem is that so few people demonstrate any capacity for understanding art on a fundamental, formal level. Two people who are not using the same or similar terms in a film discussion, or who do not share a basic understanding of form, style, theme, and other film craft techniques are not going to get very far in communicating.

      Nobody is reducing poetry to functional prose. A film, if it is indeed poetry, will remain poetry. The problem is that in order to understand that poetry and talk about it meaningfully, the conversation itself — the basic understanding each person has about the film — must be functional to some degree. This is why you’re one hundred percent wrong when you say this:

      “…what is needed is to teach kids that there are no rules and that all art will affect each person differently at each point in their lives, that what can be taught is merely one set of tools that may or may not be of any use to any particular work by any particular person.”

      Dead wrong. Even The Rules of the Game has certain characteristics that every person ought to agree upon, whether or not they feel differently about how they’re used. Any discussion that does not factor in these attributes is not a discussion that involves the actual film. I’m not saying that we’ll arrive at some grand, penetrating, objective Truth, but there are definite, concrete, objective traits in any film that should be a factor in any meaningful discussion. Every subjective experience is anchored in these traits. So giving kids the tools to identify and think constructively about these traits is, in my opinion, important, because there are some sets of tools that will be of use to every person when considering pretty much any work.

      “Whatever the case, this conversation has gotten so sidetracked as to be absurd, and I can’t say I have any compelling reasons to continue here where the approach is not conducive to honest discussion at all.”

      Neither Alex nor myself have been dishonest. It’s too bad that you feel that the conversation has gotten “so sidetracked as to be absurd,” but let me again remind you that you’re the one who has denied the ramifications of the fact that each film is a concrete object, you’re the one who inserted a straw man about “value” into your response to my post, and completely ignored or distorted the facts that Alex brought to bear regarding the validity of “the characters are unlikable” as a criticism.

      You’re welcome to keep posting here, if you wish, but the high horse you’re riding out on reeks a bit of hypocrisy.

  • JeanRZEJ

    ‘“The characters are unlikable”, used as a criticism, makes sense if it is clear that the story’s point hinges on the audience finding the characters likable. As in, the audience’s experience veers away from the story the filmmakers want to tell because they’re too distracted by an unforeseen negative emotional response from anybody watching it.’

    I’m afraid this suffers from so many fallacies that it’s hard to even list them all:
    1. Only the most manipulative films center on a character having some silly inhuman characteristic as ‘likable’ as opposed to, you know, ‘representative of a real human being’.
    2. It’s not hard to make a character likable, so if a character is not likable then the contradiction between what the viewer THINKS is the director’s intent and his actual intent should, in my opinion, point to a faulty premise on the part of the viewer, not a failure by the filmmaker.
    3. Even if the filmmaker wanted the character to be likable and yet he is not, the character being something other than what the viewer thinks he should be has nothing to do with the film. It’s not Burger King, you don’t order it as you like it.
    4. Reactions to a character’s ‘likability’ varies among people, and being so persnickety as to cordon off any room for human error makes the viewer both a.) a failure in the realm of suspending disbelief and b.) a failure as a human being in empathizing with people who are not superficially ‘likable’

    etc. I’m sure there are more reasons. Mostly, though, I am fairly certain there is no context in which it can be applied without the ridiculous assumption that you implied as a necessary element. Instead of saying, “This character isn’t likable, which is a flaw” the impulse should be quelled with the question, “What does it mean that the character is not likable?” Creating superficial contradictions is one of the most powerful tools to get the viewer to challenge their own preconceptions and ask questions about what they are seeing. If no sensible answer can be reached, then I still see no reason why the viewer should assert that the filmmaker is at fault, as if the viewer is more aware of the structure and content of the film than its creators. And, really, this only comes into play in highly schematic forms of narrative cinema, anyway – and yet the absurdity of such a pursuit is made all the more clear when these people use such criticisms of films that are built to defy the highly schematized narrative conventions. In the end all that such superficial negative criticisms explain is the refusal of the viewer to continue asking questions and settling for an answer which contributes nothing to their understanding or appreciation of a film.

    ‘Imagine a version of “Forrest Gump” where the exact structure, plot points, side characters, and results of the story are the same, but Forrest was a rude, cruel, and mean man… It would be safe to say that whatever story the filmmakers were trying to tell would be shattered beyond repair because nobody could accept that this story happened to this man.’

    I know of several films like this, actually, and they’re amazing. Not all films must demonstrate a.) reality or b.) the way things ‘should be’. If you think that this schema would be unrealistic, then that contradiction with reality would raise interesting questions about the nature of humans’ relationship to terrible people BECAUSE of the inability to accept the story as real. If you think that it is realistic but is not the way things should be, then you basically have the inverse of the story of Job, an example that I find fascinating. There is no set pattern that a film must be, and the way in which films progress in narrative terms lays the groundwork for which ideas may be provoked, especially if the story runs contrary to either reason (surrealism), expectation (genre deconstruction), or reality (any embellished work, really). I think you’ve created the perfect example of why pre-determined structures are of no help when addressing work, especially of an unfamiliar variety.

    ‘All criticisms have their place, no matter how cliche or trite they may seem by now. The trick is in the usage.’

    Absolutely could not agree less, and I’ve already provided one counter example.

    • Alex Weitzman

      “I’m afraid this suffers from so many fallacies that it’s hard to even list them all: [/snip]”

      Funny you should say that, as you fall prey to using quite a few yourself in your various points.

      In Point #1, you sidestep discussion of the validity of the critical phrase to instead bash the very concept of likability and any film that involves it. This is your own candid opinion about film (and potentially life, although I’d prefer not to do too much armchair psychologizing). It’s not really relevant here.

      In Point #2, you first make an assumption about the ease of making likable characters. And then, you tacitly assume that the fault lies with the viewer. The fallacy here is that the hypothetical I posed is about a specific situation, and you whine that the situation may not be the case. Thank you, Captain Obvious. Therein lies the point about me posing the hypothetical: the critical phrase is valid when that situation is indeed the case.

      In Point #3, you have two disconnected thoughts stapled together. You make to blame the viewer again for pickiness when the artist made a mistake. That’s an illogical connection.

      In Point #4, you attempt to use the the relativity argument about people’s standards of likability as a reason against the critical phrase. Again, you’re being kind of a Captain Obvious here. This is why movie opinions vary by any rubric. If everybody agreed on what was likable, then this wouldn’t be something to debate.

      In all of this, you’ve avoided what I’m actually saying. Did I say that this was a phrase that deserved to be used more? Did I say that likability is important to me? No. Your response seemed predicated on assuming that I have said these things, and that you will take me down on these subjects out of your own personal offesne to the notion of “likability” being anything of importance. (And really, you seem bizarrely touchy about the notion, BTW.) But what you avoided is what I actually said: in instances where it is clear to the viewer that a film was structurally in need of a character that we liked, and we did not get it, the film becomes less palatable.

      This was the point of my Gump hypothetical. You swerved this by claiming that you enjoy films like the hypothetical one I described. However, you managed to miss what is crucially different about what you were praising and what I was describing. You were praising what is essentially satire. I am describing something straight and absurd. And to quote a friend of mine, there is a word for “straight and absurd”. The word is “bad”. You’re talking about films where the impossibility or the unreality of a terrible person getting all the love and results that someone like Gump got is an ironic counterpoint to reality. See the difference?

      Again, I’m not saying likability is important in general. I’m saying that there’s no reason to excise a word or phrase from the available lexicon.

    • mjschneider

      What Weitzman said goes for me as well. And I’ll just reiterate that saying someone is “unlikable” can be used descriptively or pejoratively. In the former sense, it is simply articulating a formal aspect of the film in question, and as Alex articulates, that formal aspect may be a flaw in the film’s aesthetic. It may not be. But at least the word can be used in a way that provides a common ground from which critical discussion can spring.

      The the latter sense, it is not a valid criticism. But if an individual were able to articulate the reasons why s/he found the character to be unlikable, and why this was a make-or-break aspect of the film, the exercise of articulating that might be worthwhile itself, because it would employ critical thinking.

    • JeanRZEJ

      I’m not going to respond to Alex’s pedantry and his litany of unfounded assumptions.

      This was the very first sentence of his original post:
      “The characters are unlikable”, used as a criticism, makes sense…

      I disagree with that statement, without exception, and made that point clearly, so when he says, “In all of this, you’ve avoided what I’m actually saying”, so it’s just silly.

      ‘You were praising what is essentially satire. I am describing something straight and absurd. And to quote a friend of mine, there is a word for “straight and absurd”. The word is “bad”.’

      This brilliantly illustrates my point about how nonsensical it is to have preconceptions about art, because the quoted is absurd. Whether it is meant to be straight or not is actually irrelevant, because it is impossible to know the intent, and it really only alters the visceral feel, not the underlying idea.

      I won’t say any more, because taking two steps back for every step forward is an agonizing process.

    • Alex Weitzman

      “I’m not going to respond to Alex’s pedantry and his litany of unfounded assumptions.”

      Except, of course, to call it pedantry and a litany of unfounded assumptions. Neither of which, by your statement above, you intend to clarify or justify by evidence or rhetoric.

      “This was the very first sentence of his original post:[/snip]”

      No, that was not the very first SENTENCE of my original post. That is the first couple of clauses in order of appearance in the first sentence of my original post. And, more importantly, conveniently cut off at the right spot for you to take offense at it. If you’ll go back to that original post, and take a look at what the very next word was: “IF”.

      So, now, you’ve assigned me an assertion that I never asserted, and am arguing against that assertion as if I have no right to insist that I’ve said otherwise. Look up the words “straw man” sometime.

    • JeanRZEJ

      ‘If you’ll go back to that original post, and take a look at what the very next word was: “IF”.’

      I’m well aware of the logical implications of the conditional, thanks. If P then Q. If ~P then ~Q. I disagreed with P, so I disagree with Q by necessity. Two steps back.

    • Alex Weitzman

      “I’m well aware of the logical implications of the conditional, thanks. If P then Q. If ~P then ~Q. I disagreed with P, so I disagree with Q by necessity. Two steps back.”

      We’re not arguing about what you disagreed with. You made it very clear, before I even posted, that you disagreed with the validity of “the characters are unlikable” as a criticism in ANY scenario. No, we’re arguing about what you characterized my argument as, and then thusly responded to. And that is where you deliberately or otherwise misread or misrepresented my statements, so as to make me some kind of proponent of the idea that likability is important.

      Two-step all you like, but you’re not going to make it look like you’re not dancing around the facts.

    • JeanRZEJ

      ‘we’re arguing about what you characterized my argument as, and then thusly responded to. And that is where you deliberately or otherwise misread or misrepresented my statements, so as to make me some kind of proponent of the idea that likability is important.’

      I never used the word important with reference to you, so I have no idea how you could say that I am deliberately misrepresenting your statements when you are in fact, deliberately or not, creating some accusation from the aether.

  • Alltheginjoints

    Well, I don’t have quite as much to say as those above me, but I would just like to thank you for the great depth you provide.

    And I agree. I think people need to know more about film and why it works and why is does not. So that I don’t have to explain EVERYDAY why Transformers II sucked.

    Thanks!

  • Satish Naidu

    A big obstacle I see, and that is because of human nature, and the general nature of schooling that “teaches”, is that the way we interact with movies is most akin to seeing. I mean, we can teach the history of the form, but to teach how one “ought to” watch is probably not the appropriate way of teaching cinema.
    I mean, I believe that a lot of cinema has to do with impression, and as I have said elsewhere, what we bring to the movies is as significant as the movie itself. I wouldn’t want my contribution to be a borrowed one, but only my most personal one. I am not exactly able to gather how we might overcome this, let us say, contradiction.
    To read a certain shot a certain way is to me very reductive of the power of cinema. The movies are a result of our seeing habits, and the vice-versa might not hold entirely true. I meet viewers who have been “taught’ movies as part of their curriculum in their post-graduation, and they seem to be terribly unimaginative or at least, there seems to be no personal taste.

    Maybe exposure to cinema, or reading about Le Cercle Rouge (sorry, I have a thing for it) in the same breath as say one of those Mozart things, or reading about how it shaped history, or exposure to philosophy and politics, might help. But the act of seeing is one’s and one’s alone, don’t you think?

    • mjschneider

      I do and I don’t. Learning how film shaped history, how it relates to philosophy and politics etc. are all definitely important. Learning about the history film is important, too, in order to contextualize the techniques and technology. But in terms of how one sees a film as an individual…

      Think about how we’re taught how to write. There are certain conventions and rules that we learn first. The object isn’t to tell us that this is the ONLY WAY to write, but grammatical rules (and proper spelling) are there as groundwork. Great writers don’t become great writers by picking up a pen and dashing out whatever springs to mind. Great writers become great by first becoming average — normalized writers. Once they’ve mastered the “normative” aspects of writing (i.e. the aspects that are most consistent with the way we understand language in a given society), they are empowered to diverge from those aspects in meaningful ways, often radically. But it all flows from a comprehensive understanding of how language functions, and my contention is that most people do not have a basic understanding of how cinema functions, irrespective of whether it’s “good” cinema, “bad” cinema, or a personal take on it that no one else shares.

      The “rules” of film legibility are there because, in a basic sense, they’re the easiest aspects of visual vocabulary to understand. Before an individual can fully appreciate how well those techniques are used, it’s vital to understand the role each technique plays — not only in one particular film, but in general. In his Dark Knight video essay, Emerson breaks the first part of that chase sequence down shot-by-shot. He could only attempt this after having learned the basic terminology of cinema — shots, editing, framing, screen space, etc. — in other words, he is cineliterate. Everything after that is interpretive. His argument that the sequence is “bad” comes from cineliteracy, just as (hopefully) my argument that it might *not* be bad comes from cineliteracy. (Although I’ll readily concede that he’s far more cineliterate than I am.)

      One of the goals I would want to set out for any cineliteracy curriculum is that individuals are empowered to articulate their own ways of seeing. I agree that we all have different values and preferences assigned to different shots or associations; so in that way, I agree that the act of seeing is one’s and one’s alone. However (and this is a big however), since movies are all constructed from the same basic toolbox, a truly cineliterate person possesses an understanding of the tools and the ways in which they can be used, as well as the ways in which they are most commonly used. So in that way, the act of seeing is *not* one’s and one’s alone, because a hundred people can literally sit in the same room and watch the same film and have the same basic understanding of what the film is trying to achieve. Cineliteracy empowers all those individuals to articulate, defend, and advance the ways in which their own, individual ways of seeing conflict with each other. It’s not about how one “ought to” watch cinema; it’s about first getting everyone to agree on a fundamental level what exactly they just watched. *Then* they can all talk about their individual perspectives.

    • Satish Naidu

      I might want to disagree a little here, Matt, especially on the analogy between writing and viewing. Maybe, we might want to consider reading and viewing.
      But then, is viewing, or watching, seeing, much more immediate then writing, or reading? I mean, the basic act of seeing has a lot to do with a sensory perception, like touch, which is unlike reading and writing.

      I would have to say though, cinema can and should accommodate both. I’ve been watching Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce these past few days, and there’s no way his images can be felt, and the only way to interact with them is to read them. If cinema were prose then Mildred Pierce would be a novel.

      A majority of movies are designed keeping cinema’s sensory aspect in mind, and if I were given a choice I would probably prefer movies where images exist to question and understand the very nature of seeing. In the City of Sylvia is one of those great examples, where the whole architecture of the sequence of people talking is felt way before understood.

      I think everyone has a personal take. That has been my experience, and the actual need is to make them aware of that personal take. I like Roger Ebert’s lectures where people can stop and discuss, and the more I have interacted with people, asking them to ask questions, and pay more attention to what they’re seeing, the more insight I gain about the way the movies work. A basic understanding of this aspect of us, how we perceive life, and how we see, can actually lead us organically to your statement – “So in that way, the act of seeing is *not* one’s and one’s alone, because a hundred people can literally sit in the same room and watch the same film and have the same basic understanding of what the film is trying to achieve.”, rather than the other way round. Maybe, cinema should not teach us the rules, maybe, we ought to be aware enough and concerned enough to teach cinema the rules.

  • mjschneider

    I’m not sure how much you’re disagreeing with me, Satish. Using reading as opposed to writing is probably a much better analogy, and I do agree quite readily that we frequently “feel” our responses to images before we understand them (the responses or the images). But when you talk about getting people to ask questions, to dig into the images, to stop and discuss, to let cinema teach us the rules — all of this seems to fall in line with the fundamental nature of cineliteracy, which is to analyze on the most basic level how images, sound, and the way they’re put together *work*. No matter which way you slice it, what we’re both talking about is a way to train ourselves to perceive things better. It seems that you’re broadening this to life, which is great, and something that I applaud. It also seems that you’re saying a better, keener approach to appreciating life experience would apply to the way we appreciate cinema; again, yes! Absolutely.

    Maybe the problem is that I’m advocating that these things be taught in a formalized manner. (?) It doesn’t sound like we’re in disagreement about the benefits of cineliteracy as a whole, but I’m getting the impression that you feel that my approach is very prescriptive. If that’s the case, I’ll try harder to clarify my intentions, but if it’s not the case, then… well, I can still try to be more articulate about what I mean. :)

    • Satish Naidu

      Oh Matt, I guess we’re saying the same thing. The thing is, I get a little defensive when school and cinema and literacy start becoming words of the same sentence. And just to make it clear, I would advocate cinema learn the rules from us, and not the other way round.

      Let us juxtapose Jim Emerson’s TDK-chase dissection with David Bordwell’s analysis of There Will Be Blood’s sequence. I mean, yeah, one liked his stuff and the other didn’t. And although I find Mr. Emerson’s analysis stimulating, I would want readers to tell him “why” they loved the sequence, and maybe a little more effort on Jim’s part to welcome and respect some of these observations in the comments section, and not just blow opinions away. The thing is, as I see it, especially after reading your fantastic analysis of A Bittersweet Life, one cannot possibly say you’re any less cine-literate than either Jim Emerson or David Bordwell or Michael Sicinski. I mean, nobody can claim their experience of life has more value than others’ right.
      I believe cinema cannot be taught in classrooms, or at least the traditional classrooms. Filmmaking sure, but not cinema. One simply ought to watch cinema more and more and all kinds. The way I see it, we all are part of the research on how the hell it works, and why does it work the way it works.

    • mjschneider

      Don’t get me wrong; I *do* believe that cineliteracy can and should be taught in schools. But I do draw a distinction between value judgments (or personal preferences, if you will) and the basic understanding of the concrete tools of cinematic construction. If you prefer to call it “filmmaking” rather than “cineliteracy,” I suppose that works. I don’t intend that everyone will become a filmmaker, per se, but that they can, at least in some way, watch films from a filmmaker’s perspective.

      Just to go back to the Dark Knight video essay again, you and Emerson have clearly drawn different conclusions about the efficacy of Nolan’s filmmaking, but on a basic level, you can both agree on what shots are or are not in the film, what is going on narratively, etc. Any disagreements that arise flow from an understanding of those component parts and how they do (or don’t) work together. All I want is for people to be able to argue with each other on the basis of the films, rather than the basis of the “films” they make up in their own heads. I’m not saying one is better than the other in terms of one’s experience, but people should at least be able to understand the distinction, and I don’t think most people do. Or they don’t know how to articulate it. Otherwise all critical discussion essentially boils down to “Nuh-uh!” “Yeah-huh!” with no grounds for building any meaningful communication of ideas or perspectives.

      That said, I am sensitive to the fact that the whole project can go horribly wrong if implemented incorrectly. But I’m convinced that my premise (teaching fundamental cineliteracy) is sound. Maybe the traditional classroom isn’t the place for a cineliteracy curriculum, but then we should define what we mean by “traditional classroom,” and then figure out how it would need to change to accommodate cineliteracy or ways in which filmmaking might fit into established curricula.

      I really appreciate the discussion, by the way.

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