Why cinema literacy -- Why movies are important to our culture

Woody Allen, in Eric Lax’s new book, Woody Allen: A Biography, paints a portrait of himself in his 20s as culturally disadvantaged and, more to the point, hopelessly out of tune with the young women who turned him on — those Greenwich Village bohemians with that long black hair and leotards. They read novels and philosophy and did dances to Spring; he watched Bob Hope movies and practiced magic tricks. So, in the hopes of scoring, he started reading Faulkner, Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Trotsky. He learned to be literate.

Today, Allen’s counterpart would do a crash course on the works of Woody Allen. He’d brush up with videocassettes of Annie Hall and Manhattan, and build rapport by discussing the relative virtues of the serious versus the comic Woody. Long after they proved themselves the 20th century’s most important form of mass entertainment, movies have become our common cultural touchstones. Even films and genres that were once dismissed as escapism — say, Disney movies such as Pinocchio and Mary Poppins — are now seen as revealing windows on our lives and times, without losing their charm as pop pastimes. Movies have given us a common language that unites people divided by nationality, geography, class, and age. In other words, if you don’t want to be as out of it as Woody Allen was, you’d better learn to become cinema literate.

We’ve all come to think of films much differently since the ’60s, when the germ of cinema literacy first emerged in the explosion of ”film culture” — the boom in classic film revivals; the reassessment and upgrading of Hollywood movies; the influence of European directors like Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, and Bergman; and the excitement and ferment in the field of film criticism. Now we tend to go way beyond liking films in a thumbs up/thumbs down kind of way, and moviegoing is all the richer for our being knowledgeable about the stylistic quirks and passions of our filmmakers. We’re not even self-conscious when we speak of the way Jonathan Demme’s sensibility shapes The Silence of the Lambs, his obvious affection for smart women and his feeling for the idiosyncrasies of middle America; or when we complain that Brian de Palma lacks the satiric touch and urban savvy necessary to an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s comically mean-spirited The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Lynch and John Waters are cult superstars — an oxymoron made possible by the movies.

Knowing about the traditions from which movies spring and to which they constantly refer also adds immeasurably to our appreciation of them. Dances With Wolves, for example, is hardly the first Western to give the Indian point of view. The Vanishing American, Devil’s Doorway, and Run of the Arrow all portrayed the Indians sympathetically. Recently, a newspaper item announced that Al Pacino was making a movie about a Chicago gangster who promoted the career of Ruth Etting and placed her in the Ziegfeld Follies. No mention was made of the brilliant 1955 film on the same subject called Love Me or Leave Me, starring James Cagney and Doris Day, but when and if the new movie comes out, those who remember the stars’ charisma in the original will judge Pacino’s effort with special sophistication.

As the cinema literate know, allusions to specific films and to the legacy of Hollywood turn up everywhere — in the works of modernist artists, in the novels of writers from Asia to North and South America, in political speeches, in defense programs like Star Wars, and in films themselves, where they form both the frame of reference and source of inspiration for coming-of-age stories. And just as the movies hit us from all angles, so are we entitled to approach and absorb them from as many; there are a thousand different points of entry. Movies allow us to identify with male and female alter egos, play all the parts, vicariously act out lives that are sexier, more violent, more outrageous than our own. And they can change the way we see and experience the world by intuiting our hidden fears and attaching them to the most normal-seeming objects. After Hitchcock, who can step into a motel shower or see a flock of birds on a telephone wire without shuddering?

Fortunately, the tremendous number of movies available on videocassette and laser disc — as well as home taping from catch-everything cable channels — have flung the door to cinema literacy wide open in recent years. Whenever we choose, we can study the career of a star or a director, see three Bette Davis or Robert Altman movies over a single weekend, and discover patterns in themes and mannerisms. In short, the dialogue between moviemaker and moviegoer — and between any two people who love the cinema-has never been so lively.