My boyfriend majored in film studies in college, and while he no longer works in that industry, he does, from time to time, suggest to me that we watch anything, anything, anything at all that does not have an X-Man or a CIA agent in it, and I gather all my powers about me to veto with a terrible strength. I’m a tv girl. Not even a good-tv girl. Not even a pay-attention-to-tv girl. Just put Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives on in the background, and let that sucker marathon.
I do feel bad, though, that my boyfriend has to watch all his “real” movies either by himself or over the dull wheeze of my having fallen asleep, so over the weekend, we watched the first two episodes of The Story of Film: An Odyssey on Netflix.
Guys. Watch that show.
It’s directed and narrated by Mark Cousins, of the delightful Irish accent that, yes, it took me half an episode to get past it, but you really settle into it after a minute, and the upward turn at the conclusion of every sentence just feels so optimistic, and isn’t that what art can be, and isn’t that fitting?
But accent aside, each episode is an education. Though I know it’s a crash course, something about the slow, methodical narration, the attention to pacing, etc. make it feel more substantial than just that. A primer, yes, but not a crash course.
And something occurs to me that I think is more important than learning about movies so I can humor my boyfriend.
Yesterday, during my half hour break between classes, I got a call from both of my speaker-phoned parents. They wanted (let me take a moment to collect myself) for me to explain to them, over the phone, how to save a Word document to a flash drive. The call lasted 23 minutes, at which point I had to go teach, and I don’t believe they succeeded in saving the file to the flash drive. I tried saving it from Word. I tried having them open two Finder windows and drag the file from one folder to the other. Nothing. Just two people of a Different Generation talking over my instructions, insisting they didn’t know how to drag windows (yes they do, I’ve seen them do it, you know how to do it), and mumbling under their breath about how they hate Macs, how Apple is a terrible company, how they can’t believe this computer is so terrible.
I was pretty terrible. When I can teach them something in person, I can restrain my frustration. I can try to teach them concepts or I can just complete the task for them myself. But over the phone. Trying to explain things like “dragging windows” over the phone is a Biblical test for me, and I usually fail, as I did yesterday. By the end of the call, I was alternately crouching and leaping in exasperation, raising my voice, and being a generally awful child.
And then I started thinking about The Story of Film, and how in the early days of the medium, the innovations I would never even have thought to consider innovations absolutely shattered people’s understanding of the possibilities of the form. Take Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film Life of an American Fireman:
Skip ahead to 3:37. You’ll see a scene outside a house that transitions inside, where a woman realizes her house is on fire, calls for help out a window, and passes out on the bed. Then, firemen enter and save her, a ladder appearing in the window to aid in her safe evacuation. When the indoor scene concludes, the perspective shifts back outdoors, where we jump back in time and see the firemen go into the house while their colleagues raise the ladder to the window. We see them save the woman from an external point of view.
Years later, Porter would re-edit the film, splicing the external and internal perspectives together into a continuous timeline. It was, according to Cousins, the first time this had ever been done. It was an experiment: will audiences be able to follow the narrative thread when perspective is disjointed? It was a sea change. And yet it’s something I would never even have thought to consider a ”technique,” it seems so obvious.
Consider, too, the Lumiere Brothers’ 1895 film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:
The story goes that when audiences first saw it in theaters, they panicked, believing a train was actually hurtling toward them, slowing, but nevertheless in their path.
My parents came to this country with seven dollars in their pocket, and built a life for themselves. My father owns his own accounting firm, and my mother runs his office management. They put two kids through private school and college, they own a house I worry is too big for them (downsize, I say, it’ll be easier to manage!), they drive fancy cars — they’ve made it. They’re not dumb people.
And yet saving a Word file to a flash drive is, for them, a train hurtling toward them from across time, from La Ciotat Station. And even though I’ve more or less been raised in the age of personal computers, let me tell you have much trouble I had getting this Tumblr formatted: a lot of trouble.
Things that are easy for me are hard for them, but ask me how to file a tax return, and I will turn to dust right in front of you. My Daddy does that for me. Ask me how to socialize an infant into something vaguely passing for an acceptable human being. Ask me to do it two to creatures at the same time, while they’re fighting each other and occasionally turning their combined forces on me. My folks, they’re pretty sharp.
My favorite moments of insight in art are those that teach me to be nicer, and through this process of trying to be nice to my boyfriend, I’ve had a little spark that taught me to be nice to my parents. That’s what art is for.