Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Cine-literacy

Most children are being taught in school how to read, and most, at least in the more developed countries learn how to do it. But some are more literate than others, and some are illiterate. Due to such things as genetics, personal problems, bad teaching, some will never learn, or will at best learn to read just a few basic things. But at least it's something that is being taught almost every day in school. Many are also taught different languages, so at least they can read, write and speak more than their mother tongue.

But that is not the case with learning how to read movies, there are no proper efforts to teach us cine-literacy. That is something that seems to be more or less taken for granted that you needn't learn, that perhaps we have some innate ability to understand movies. I would argue that we don't. We learn to understand movies by watching them and as long as they play by the rules of our cultural context. The more films we see, the more we understand them. But only up to a point. If we don't have an open mind, or an interest, we won't understand the more complicated things, or the more unfamiliar.

At the SCSMI conference one paper, by Todd Berliner and Dale Cohen, talked about how we understand continuity editing, and they took as an example a scene from The Philadelphia Story (1940), where three characters drive up to a house, get out of the car and press the doorbell. Then a butler appears and opens the door. The question was how do we understand that they stop the car in front of the house we saw in the previous shot, and how do we know that there's a door there. In one shot, from the point of view of the door, we see them approach and press the doorbell, and the next shot we see the butler open the door (which we hadn't seen previously). My take on it is that we understand these things because we've seen many films so we know subconsciously how they are constructed, and also because the setting is one which is a part of our cultural context. But if we were to imagine a person who comes from a culture which doesn't live in houses and has no knowledge of the existence and functioning of doors, that person would not understand anything.

It might be regarded as an extreme example, but I think there are similar things going on when people from Scotland watch films from Iran, or people from Brazil watch films from Burkina Faso, and neither likes it nor understands it. And it's not only a question of different cultures, there's also a difference in time. Someone born in the 1970s might have difficulties understanding parts of a film from the 1940s, even if it's from the same culture and country that that person was born in. This is something that probably partly explains why some films that were very popular many years ago, have now lost their general appeal.

In order to be universally cine-literate you need to be fluent in many languages and knowledgeable about many cultures and the history of those cultures. Beyond the cultural context, which might be seen as a vital part of cine-literacy, as is language skills to common literacy, there are also technical and narrative aspects that need to be considered. Here again, exposure and an open mind is of the outmost importance. Some films are too complex for some people, so that they don't understand what is going on. Indeed some films are too complex for most people, which is probably because these films are so rare that we are not able to get enough exposure to them for us to be able to understand how they operate.

It's not only narrative and storytelling devices that can be difficult. Sometimes the mise-en-scène can be difficult to comprehend as well and arguably, most people who didn't understand it probably doesn't know that they didn't understand it. They were focused on the actors and the dialogue, as perhaps most are, so that they didn't pay attention to the space around the characters. And here comes one of the most intricate and perhaps more challenging aspects of what I mean with being cine-literate. If you only focus on story, actors and dialogue, you have only seen half of the film. Film is a visual medium, and everything in the image counts for something. But so many, including scholars and distinguished film critics, are so focused on the words and the gestures that they're almost half-blind to what goes on.

This is something I believe can explain a lot of wildly contradictory interpretations of films, and why person A might love a film that person B hates. One of them was just not paying as much attention to what was going on as the other. If they had, they might not have liked the film as much as they did, or the opposite, they might have liked it much more. I'm not saying that someone will not be able to appreciate a film if that person is not cine-literate enough, but I am saying that someone's experience might be very different if they were fully skilled in the art of watching films.

I'm not advocating that schools start extensive film studies programs, partly because it can be difficult to teach, and partly because there's no way of testing these skills. You can easily do a test to see if somebody's French is good or bad, but it would be much harder to have a similar test for cine-literacy. One thing might be to ask questions about what people were wearing, what colour the wallpapers had, what motivated the various characters to do whatever it was they were doing, and so on. As soon, though, as we go beyond questions of wallpaper colours it becomes more subjective and difficult to decide what is right or wrong. But it's also a question of DNA, RNA, luck, interest, ambition and personal circumstances that will decide how cine-literate you'll become, as is the case with your ability to learn how to read, write, do mathematics and play tennis and so on.

I do think though that it would be a good thing to at least make school children aware of these things, and let them debate and discuss films analytically. Since they will be of a different generation than their teachers, and hence perhaps more cine-literate in young contemporary cinema than the teachers, it might be beneficial for students and teachers alike.

Analysing and interpreting films is not only subjective. There's of course objective empirical research, but more relevant here is the fact that interpretations might be more or less valid. And the more cine-literate you are, the more valid will your interpretations be. But perhaps the most central thing, and the one most often forgotten, is the fact that when it comes to ideological, psychological and moral interpretations, there are no straight and definitive answers. Films are infinitely more complex than they appear to be, even the silliest high school comedy, even to the most trained eye.

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