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Inexperienced Movie Watching (Or, How To Fix The Education System)

I posted before about a feature in my last failed blog / website, Philosophical Appliances. I tried to start a recurring thing that I called "The Film Snob Experiment."  The idea was that each week I would watch a movie that is generally thought of as an art-house / snobby film and then write my reaction to it, probably try to take it down a peg or two, and then try to document how my reactions changed over the course of a year.

In retrospect, it was one of the worst premises imaginable for a recurring feature.  Maybe it would have worked if I was an established film critic on the level of Roger Ebert (may he rest in peace).  The problem is that it ultimately it just boiled down to, "Random Nerd on the Internet Complains About Good Movies."  Try selling that to some strangers.

I think one of the reasons I was motivated to write it is the same reason I often bitch about Shakespeare - there's a tendency for people to place certain works on a sort of "holy" pedestal where they are above criticism.  Meanwhile, everything else is fair game to be as much of a dick about it as you want.  It doesn't seem fair, especially when I personally cannot stand the "holy" work.  I felt like there needed to be some kind of second opinion on the record.

That was years ago.  As I age, I feel like each year might as well be a generation.  The person I am now is so much wiser and improved upon the person I was even just last week.  Looking back on my opinions from two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago - God help me, twenty years ago?  It's gut-wrenching to have to face my previous self and say, "I disagree with you."  (Actually, I posted about all of this before, too.  Hope I'm not going to keep repeating myself too much.)

That's not to say that all of my opinions have changed.  I still can't stand Shakespeare, for example.  (Let me go on about that a different day.)  Some of the things I felt way back when are things I still feel now.  In fact, some opinions are even stronger now that I've had the experience to bear them out.

Mostly what I find is that much of my negativity has been subsiding.  As I grow older, I find less to complain about and more to enjoy.  At least part of this is because my experiences as an adult allow me to sympathize with a greater breadth of stories.  This is a pretty crucial thing to keep in mind when you discuss "Great Works," especially when you are trying to discuss them between different generations.

Let's use The Scarlet Letter as an example.  This is a classic work of literature that doesn't need my introduction.  It's a very deliberately-paced, somber, brooding story about guilt and a bunch of bullshit that an adulterous woman has to put up with.  It touches on things that adults can easily relate to: betrayal, social norms, individuality, balancing one's ethics with one's emotions.  It is a great work adored by millions.

Because we all love it so much, it is often required reading in high school.  It was specifically assigned to me and my classmates in the tenth grade, when we were all right around fifteen years old.

Let's stop and think about this for a minute.  What the hell is a fifteen year-old going to relate to about Hester Prynne?  No, no, no, don't give me any of that nonsense about how students have to deal with peer pressure and teen pregnancy.  That doesn't even come close to what The Scarlet Letter is about.  Even the most disturbing, broken, coked-up, violence-ridden, STD-laden, inner city high school life doesn't hold a candle to the complexities and subtleties of Hester's life and society.  If you are fifteen years old in today's society, you will not get The Scarlet Letter.  You might understand it, but you won't get it.  And you're almost certainly not going to like it.

I read The Scarlet Letter as a teenager and I loathed it.  Seven years later, I read it as an adult and loved it.  My reading comprehension improved a bit during that time, sure - but what really changed my mind about it was simply living my life.  I just needed more experience.

This is why generations will disagree on virtually any creative work.  When somebody looks at a classic piece of literature and puts it on the curriculum for a sixteen year-old, they're not thinking about it from a sixteen year-old's perspective.  To an experienced and well-read educator, of course The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece.  But you've had twenty, thirty, forty or more years to come to that conclusion.  You have perspective.  Strip all that away and what you have is a really long book set in the past where they say the "N Word" a lot and talk like idiots.

If the goal of educators is to encourage "the masses" to become more interested in classic works, then I think there's two very important things we need to do.

1) Stop putting classic works on the holy pedestal.  Aside from the erroneous implication that any work could be perfect, you are giving the message that each new generation's creative output will never be able to reach that standard.  You are also heavily implying that a generation's opinions are wrong.  Just because somebody is inexperienced doesn't mean that what they feel isn't valid.

2) Scaffold off of what people already know and love.  It's so much easier to go from something you like to something unfamiliar but similar than it is to go from something you like to "not even close."  Encourage people to think through, document, and respond to their own opinions, and they'll grow in their ability for introspection and comprehension.  You can use any work as the basis for instruction or for a good thematic discussion.  Why do we have to keep falling back on Shakespeare, as if some fifteen year old with a learning disability who also learned English as a second language is going to even come close to understanding Julius Ceaser?  Toss it out.  Discuss some comic books and video games to get a baseline of concepts like "character" and "plot," and then build from that instead.

These are important points to bring up on a blog that is about movies for the sole fact that film critics are educators.  A critic's job is to educate the public about a higher standard of thinking when watching film - or when absorbing any literature, for that matter.  If a critic isn't willing to accept these points and approach the field with some level of empathy for the various experience levels of their audience, then how can they ever hope to teach us their wisdom?

Inexperience leads to some bizarre opinions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Everybody has to start somewhere.  What a great world this could be if we were happy to explore those opinions in more depth.