Friday, June 18, 2010


The devaluation of history and culture

By Edward Copeland
There's a funny anecdote that I tell frequently about when a friend and I were perusing Blockbuster late one night a long time ago, trying to find some classic we hadn't seen, to rent. This was so long ago, there were no such things as DVDs and I even held my nose and didn't worry about the lack of proper aspect ratio (for a good read on the topic, check out this piece by Glenn Kenny). As we searched, a group of young teens also searched for a rental, dissatisfied with the remnants in the new releases, when one of the young men suggested "the older movie" Apocalypse Now. One of the young women in the group, in complete seriousness, asked, "Is that in color?"

I don't know if the answer had been yes if that would have ruled out Coppola's film right then, but there always has been a tendency among every generation to act as if anything that happened outside of their lifespan didn't really count, but it appears to me to have grown worse, egged on by magazines such as Entertainment Weekly which compiles lists that do their best to avoid including anything that occurred prior to the publication's existence, justifying it by saying they rely on a "new canon" instead of confirming what I suspect is the real reason for the unforgivable omissions: young writers who lack a suitable cultural education to draw from when they compile such lists.

In my freshman year of college, I had an intro to journalism class where the professor on the first day, gave us a quiz with a list of titles and wanted us to fill in the authors. It covered all mediums and wasn't for a grade, he just wanted a sense of what we knew. I tend to write the first thing that comes to my mind so when I got to the title The Stranger, I naturally wrote Orson Welles instead of the Albert Camus he was seeking, though I'd argue that Billy Joel might have been an acceptable response as well.

The U.S. educational system has degenerated enough when it comes to teaching proper knowledge of history, but cultural education isn't even taken seriously as something that needs to be taught, let alone is. It's high time that we not only turn out students who know the basics (and we're not that great at that either) but we have to emphasize cultural literacy as well and it's high time that we recognize that great films should be required learning alongside the classic works of written literature.

Forgive me if this rambles at times and seems to lack cohesion or a sense of direction. I had the idea for a certain piece early in the week, it soon morphed into something else and I had intended to work on it awhile before I posted it, but I lacked any other copy to publish today, so I put it in the best shape I could in a short amount of time. If I'd given myself more time, I probably would be happier with it, but I always tend to be my harshest critic.

It's easy to dismiss the idea of requiring a basic film education, given that it is a popular medium and produces a lot of junk, but the fact that many best sellers aren't worth the paper they are printed on (or the digital reader they scroll on)doesn't diminish the written word as a whole, especially the many centuries of great works that had nothing to do with the Twilight series. I'm still shocked and appalled when I run into people my age or older who haven't seen films such as Casablanca. What have they been doing for their first four decades or more?

Recently, Jim Emerson wrote at his Scanners blog in an entry titled "Who Killed the Movies?" of a certain existential fatigue he was experiencing, one that is not uncommon to movie lovers and especially those who make their living as critics and often have no say in what films they have to take in, from the sublime to the ridiculous. I've felt that way before at many points in my life, especially when I was younger and for some reason felt it was my duty to try to see EVERYTHING, spurned on by a numbers contest with a high school friend over who could see more movies in one year. It got out of hand when he got a job at a movie theater and started using the perk of being able to get in to free movies even at other theaters and would skip school to attend morning critic screenings. It made me mad because of his unfair advantage, but also because I realized I was sitting through such unbelievable garbage just to boost numbers. The real depressions would come later when I was writing reviews for publications and I wasn't necessarily picking the films I had to review and, being the low man on the totem pole, ended up with a lot of the turkeys. Sure, they were free and I got my revenge in print, but it's a high price to pay for lowering the collective value of a medium I love. Still, once I stumbled upon a good one, it would lift my spirits enough to keep going and would never seriously harm my belief that film is a great artistic medium, even when wasted.

It's been decades since I was in high school, but they did make a point of introducing us to a lot of the important works of Western Literature (yes, anything outside of Europe got short shrift, but considering where things have degenerated now, I feel fortunate we got what we did). Three out of four years of high school we were taught a Shakespeare play (Romeo & Juliet, Julius Caesar and either MacBeth or Hamlet, depending whether or not you were in the honors English class). We went over the top poems and poets (as well as The Bard's sonnets), Chaucer and we did get some of the top novels such as Twain's Tom Sawyer, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. We even got to read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately, we also got some real clunkers such as Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, A Separate Peace by John Knowles and the torturous I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, the only book I've ever fallen asleep reading while sitting up in a classroom desk. We also struggled through James Fenimore Cooper's The Unvanquished. I wonder what they teach now. I do know that in the case of myself and many of my friends, unless you took courses in college and, even then, if that wasn't your course of study, it was up to you to seek out the classics. It's always been the case that you have to truly educate yourself in film, but sadly that's also true with much of literature because our society places so little value on it.

Of course, even history is up for grabs now, when you have politically biased boards of education such as the one in Texas seeking to rewrite history to match their own ideology instead of just teaching children what really happened. Who was that Thomas Jefferson guy again? What slave trade? Those people abducted from Africa were just part of a trade program involving rum and molasses. Joe McCarthy was vindicated and a hero! The Texas outrage, treating history as something that is subjective instead of objective, reminds me of the quote by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." It also had me thinking back to my pre-college days and the silliness of standardized tests such as the ACT divided into math, science, English and reading. Nowhere is there a section that finds it important that incoming college students have even a rudimentary knowledge of history or literature of any kind. The SAT even blows off science, just concentrating on math, critical reading and writing. To show you how silly the multiple choice ACT was, I scored highest in the science section, which really was my weakest school subject. Of course, if education standards start going the way of Texas, I guess science and facts won't matter much anymore anyway, unless a burst of rationality breaks out somewhere.

Now, I won't even pretend to hold the answers as to how to improve this country's piss-poor knowledge of history. It's hard to get them interested or educated about current events when the so-called cable news networks will drop all coverage of other, important news because Michael Jackson inevitably drops dead about 15 years after most people expected to hear that news at any time. News priorities have gone completely haywire. The newspaper I used to work for actually had a larger Page One spread on the "been waiting for that shoe to drop" death of Anna Nicole Smith than it did on Gerald Ford. When I was in elementary school, we actually had a current events contest provided by a local TV station and most students knew what was going on. In high school, my American history teacher had her students read the local paper and then gave current event quizzes once a month for extra credit. One of the questions would always be the current unemployment rate. Does that happen anywhere now? As newspapers die, could it?

However, as far as trying to seriously create a mass curriculum on the history of the film, on that I do have some ideas. Obviously, all opinions on a movie's worth are subjective, but that applies to literature as well and there is no reason that some titles can't be agreed to and rise above petty critical fights. Besides, encouraging students to think for themselves can never be a bad thing, no matter what Texans and many home-school advocates think. A good place to start might be the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. Since its authorization in 1988, it has added 525 titles worth preservation by the library to ensure that future generations will have access to important films. There are some unusual choices contained in there, but there also are a lot of movies that most would agree everyone should have some familiarity with: All About Eve, All Quiet on the Western Front, American Graffiti, Annie Hall, The Apartment, Back to the Future, The Bank Dick, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Birth of a Nation, Bonnie and Clyde, Casablanca, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, City Lights, The Crowd, Do the Right Thing, Dog Day Afternoon, Dr. Strangelove, Duck Soup and many, many more with a list that grows longer each year. It also includes important animated works and newsreel footage and other moving images such as the Zapruder film and the Why We Fight series from World War II (I knew I could sneak some history in there). What it does lack is anything that isn't American and that is something that would have to be corrected in any serious curriculum, unless universities get exclusive reign over studies of foreign films.

Of course, no curriculum could cover all the films anyway and since they include more recent films as well, you have to assume that the close-minded, busybody parents among us would object to many titles. Hell, if titles such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1984, Call of the Wild, To Kill a Mockingbird and most works of Ernest Hemingway still are routinely challenged as unsuitable reading material for students, you can just imagine the shitstorm some of the titles on the National Film Registry would raise. I mean, some have R ratings. I remember in ninth grade after we read Romeo & Juliet, we watched Franco Zeffirelli's film version and at the crucial point, my teacher had to stand in front of the TV set to spare us the traumatizing sight of Olivia Hussey's bare bosom.

There would be plenty of possibilities for subject synergy: read Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and then watch Martin Scorsese's extremely faithful film version and discuss the two mediums. When studying Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan, see how it relates to Welles' Citizen Kane. On the historical side, you could use Kane's fictional take on William Randolph Hearst to lead into a discussion of how the real Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer used their papers to pump up the Spanish-American War. Also for history, use newsreel footage of parts of the Why We Fight series to accompany teaching of World War II. With a kindly "fuck you" to Texas, use real footage of the McCarthy hearings and Edward R. Murrow's dismantling of the disgraced demagogue on the airwaves. Imagine the positive press corporate sponsors could receive by helping to subsidize the material. Believe it or not, television has worthy culture as well.

Now, I do not want to leave the impression that I'm just a cranky middle-age man raging against those young vulgarians who dismiss things that don't relate to them. In many ways, it isn't their fault, because the people with the money who market to them design it to be that way and the youth certainly can't be blamed for the failures of the education system. Why should new generations seek out films that are 20 or 25 years old when Hollywood produces unnecessary remakes of so many of them that soon after the original? A Nightmare on Elm Street came out all the way in 1984 — did they have color then? (OK, neither film should be part of public education, but you see my point.) Besides, I've run into many a person older than myself who are ignorant of history and culture and have no excuse. Years ago, at a newspaper I used to work for, we were going over the stories at the news meeting and one that was mentioned was that we would be covering a speech that night by Kurt Vonnegut. A senior editor who is about 15 years older than me literally had no idea who Vonnegut was. This was a man who came of age and went to college in the 1960s and the 1970s, yet a literary icon such as Vonnegut drew a blank. I wish I could say that man and that story were isolated incidents, but I've encountered many older than me that didn't know things that they should — and many of these were supposed journalists in the news business who had an appalling lack of information about recent historical events. One thing that drew me to journalism is that I'm a news junkie, but I was amazed how few news junkies existed in the various newsrooms in which I worked. Why did they even choose the career? No wonder news is dying.

The biggest problem to the idea of teaching film as literature to public school students really extends beyond the rabblerousing of cranks and the resistance of educators is the state of our nation's economy. Teachers are losing their jobs across the country and school districts are being forced to make budget cuts and, inevitably, among the first things to go are arts programs and there's no doubt in my mind that even if film education was considered part of English education, the requisite costs would doom the idea. Doesn't that make it an excellent opportunity for the movie industry to give something back? If they helped with the study materials and films themselves, what a lucrative marketing tool they could have. Imagine if a teacher assigned a weekend homework assignment of seeing a certain film at a theater and a studio provided vouchers for the students so they didn't have to pay. Granted, one would hope it would be a worthy film and not the latest Transformers, but you get the idea. How about encouraging the industry to do more mass re-releases like they used to do? Remember when Disney used to bring back their classics every seven years or so. Certainly, a plethora of serious writings exist on most important films to help teachers along.

The idea I'm suggesting is not a full-blown film study course of the type you would take in college, but just of integrating the medium into the studies of other literary works you learn (or damn well should be learning) before you graduate high school. The value that seems to have been placed in this country of late on ignorance, spurned on by our political leaders, is truly frightening. It's truly outrageous how freely misinformation is allowed to be spread because it's to the gain of both parties and the news media either is too lazy or ignorant to call them on it. How many times do you hear it repeated that the IRS will fine you if you do not purchase health insurance under the new health care reform when the legislation specifically prohibits any punitive measures. The GOP continues to spread the lie to get people angry and the Democrats let them because they fear if the truth was widely known, the plan falls apart because people won't purchase the insurance. Both parties should be ashamed, but do politicians know what shame is anymore? As columnist Mark Shields once said, "Stupidity is not a victimless crime."

Children need to be taught more than just how to score well on a test on the basics, they need to know where we came from and I'm not talking about evolution. You know the saying: Those who do not learn from history...

While Hollywood certainly churns out a lot of crap, the worldwide film industry throughout its history has produced some exquisite works of art that deserve to stand alongside the greatest works of written literature. A better educated populace, even in areas of culture, can be the first serious step in dealing with the politicians who treat us like morons and the ignorant masses who fear that their children and others might form their own ideas and the ability for critical thought.

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Hear, hear! Well said, my friend.
Alas, I can't find it right now, but I believe @ebertchicago linked to the blog of a high school US history teacher that folded film into his curriculum, and he said everything you would want someone in that position to say. Alas, I've forgotten his blog, but perhaps someone else remembers?

i've also been really concerned about this. I think it was when i noticed entertainment weekly's "reasoning" (i.e. excuses) as to why they only will talk about things within the past 25 years.

it wasn't always that way even at entertainment weekly.

but yeah, it's ridiculous. Even if you try to educate yourself, it can be disheartening because cultural history is much more electric if it's experienced as a group -- just the way current popular culture is.

I saw RASHOMON for the first time a couple of years ago and though i understood before seeing it that it was a cultural literacy film i was s-h-o-c-k-e-d watching it how absolutely essential it was. It felt to me a bit like PSYCHO in that everything afterwards is affected.

it's so sad that we aren't teaching these things

i love your idea about the studios pitching in but since they're so piss poor on even keeping good prints of their product available, why would they ever give back to schools and young children's education?
I finally got so frustrated with Entertainment Weekly and its obsession with Twilight and reality TV that I didn't bother to renew my subscription when it expired in February -- and they kept sending me issues and letters with FINAL NOTICE through May. I've finally stopped getting them.
Sean, I think this is the post you were talking about:

Ed: At my Texas high school in the early '00s, we studied plenty of classics (Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, All the King's Men, Wuthering Heights, Catch-22, the list goes way on), including, like you, Shakespeare three out of four years (R&J, Othello, Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Hamlet). We also studied history and science though, so who knows what kids today will learn, but my point is that not too long ago, there were still high schools even in Texas that educated students.

To your larger point, like many, I wish I was taught in high school or earlier (not just more but anything at all) about film. As it is, and I don't think I'm alone, my film education has been entirely self-taught, at least insofar as I'm the one seeking out the films themselves and tracking down criticism and reading up on film noir or what have you. I fully support all efforts toward cultural education. I also look forward to numerous cable news segments on "The shocking truth about what they're showing your kids!"
That's reassuring, Brandon. Of course, all I've heard about that crazy Texas Board of Education screwing with is history and those changes haven't taken effect yet. I haven't heard anything about them meddling in other subjects. One thing I wanted to put in my piece that I forgot to was how some really religious students raised a ruckus when we were learning about Emerson and Thoreau. Ahh...wouldn't it be nice to live in a nation of grownups who were confident enough in their own beliefs that they didn't fear things they thought might challenge them?
While it's from a distance, and yipes, she lives in Arizona, I've been sending a niece DVDs sometimes as gifts, in part to let her know that there are movies beyond what's available in the multiplex, and lives similar but also different beyond the U.S. I don't know how frequently she's actually watched them, but she has Offside and Kiki's Delivery Service in her collection. As you can also guess, the films chosen have positive female protagonists.
Historical-cultural amnesia isn't confined to just movies (not that that was your implication). Watch any week of ESPN and you'll notice that the greatest teams and athletes in any field of sport are all currently active. What a coincidence! I'm all for cross-pollinating academic fields -- film and literature, history and sport -- and wish it happened more often. Terrific, thought-provoking post.
I agree with everything you have to say, and would probably take it even one step further - the teaching of literature needs to change so that students are actually being taught great works of literature, as opposed to what teachers and the Board of Ed. believe they can stomach. Even more shocking than the fact that so few people of my generation are familiar with the great films is that so few are familiar with the great books.
I don't know how frequently she's actually watched them, but she has Offside and Kiki's Delivery Service in her collection.
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