Cinema (IL)Literacy 101 – Merry X-Mas

It’s that time of year when film pundits present their readers with the Christmas gift of their end-of-year choices:  10 Best lists, 10 Worst lists, 10 This and 10 That lists.

I can’t do that kind of list.  Having two small children, I rarely get to see a movie that isn’t animated or involves talking animals, and more often incorporates both.

So, my Christmas gift to you is a rather different kind of list, but it needs a bit of explanation.

For some time, it has been my ambition to share my passion for movies with others by teaching some sort course in film appreciation.  This fall, I got my wish.  However, the scenario didn’t quite play out as I had envisioned.

The setting was a for-profit university generally organized as something akin to a white collar trade school.  Curriculums were very profession-focused, lacking much of the broad cultural base one sees on-campus at traditional universities.  These, then, were not dedicated film students, nor, for the most part, even those casually curious.  The bulk of them were students who had practically been ordered to take the course by their advisors so they’d have something besides Web Game Design and Network Systems Administration on their transcripts.

There was also an enormous cultural gap between them and me.  They hadn’t grown up – as I had – watching Hollywood’s backlist of classic (and, more typically, less-than-classic) movies on a host of movie slots on the local TV channels.  They didn’t have The 4:30 Movie after school, Creature Feature and Chiller Theater on Saturday nights, The Late Show and The Late, Late Show to stay up for over summer vacation.  In fact, they knew few movies prior to Titanic (1997): Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), a few of the males knew Full Metal Jacket (1987), but that’s about it. Some were even fuzzy on the Lord of the Rings movies.

At one point in the semester, frustrated at having to try to connect every topic to Titanic, Inception (2010), or the latest spate of superhero movies (since these were the only movies it seems they were all familiar with), I conducted an unscientific, informal survey to see just how much about the movies they did know.

I want to emphasize just how unscientific and informal this survey was.  It consisted of no more than me throwing out the biggest names and titles I could think up on the spur of the moment, hoping to see at least one provoke a flicker of recognition in those blank faces.

So, based on those highly questionable results, herewith my end-of-year Christmas lists for you:

TEN ALL-TIME GREAT MOVIE ACTORS MY FILM CLASS NEVER HEARD OF

Burt Lancaster

Steve McQueen

Sophia Loren

Laurence Olivier

Joan Crawford

Edward G. Robinson

William Holden

Lauren Bacall

Barbara Stanwyck

Montgomery Clift

To give them some credit, they did know who John Wayne was (though none had seen any of his flicks), two had heard of Vincent Price because of his connection to Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe movies (though, curiously, none had seen any of Corman’s Poes or knew who Roger Corman was), and, as for Humphrey Bogart, one claimed, “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of that guy,” though he didn’t know what he looked like nor could he name any movie Bogie had ever been in.

I tried a category that might’ve been a bit unfair, being somewhat more challenging:

TEN ALL-TIME GREAT MOVIE DIRECTORS MY FILM CLASS NEVER HEARD OF

Frank Capra

John Ford

Howard Hawks

Elia Kazan

Billy Wilder

David Lean

Arthur Penn

Sidney Lumet

Sam Peckinpah

Robert Altman

Again, to give credit where credit is due, they did know Alfred Hitchcock – though – again! — they hadn’t seen any of his movies.  They knew George Lucas (although they’d never heard of American Graffiti [1973]) and Steven Spielberg (likewise Duel [1971]).  A few knew Stanley Kubrick though mostly through Full Metal Jacket and The Shining (1980).  The directors they all knew:  James Cameron, Michael Bay.  Some knew Christopher Nolan.

They did make what was, for non-serious film students, a legitimate complaint:  “Who knows directors?  Give us the names of their movies!”

Which I did.  Ergo:

FIFTEEN ALL-TIME GREAT MOVIES MY FILM CLASS NEVER HEARD OF

The Maltese Falcon

The Searchers

The Wild Bunch

2001:  A Space Odyssey

Casablanca

Spartacus

The Dirty Dozen

Lawrence of Arabia

The Great Escape

A Hard Day’s Night

Forbidden Planet

Midnight Cowboy

Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

(two did own the book, but had yet to read it, and had heard that there was a movie based on it)

Cool Hand Luke

Network

As for that movie which perennially tops the list of all-time greats in American moviedom, Citizen Kane (1941)?  Most of them had heard of it…but none of them had ever seen it.

Merry Christmas!

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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One Response to Cinema (IL)Literacy 101 – Merry X-Mas

  1. NM December 30, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    An engaging piece to relay what is becoming more and more common knowledge; that there is a growing generation of apathy towards the arts and the passion for learning, true learning of culture & what it is to love, live, triumph, fail or fight is becoming regulated to instant access technology and video games. As Paula Cole sings, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”

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