Can’t Read, Can’t Watch, Can’t Comprehend

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series by Thomas F. Bertonneau, who teaches at SUNY-Oswego. The second part can be found here.

In response to complaints about the steadily declining preparation of incoming freshmen and the performance and interest levels of college students in general, apologists often tell us that while today’s undergraduates indeed read less well than their precursors of three or four decades ago (and have read much less), they are  “media savvy.”

This claim means that although students respond less than acutely to the demands and subtleties of the printed word, they possess keen understanding when it comes to images, especially moving images, and the spoken word. According to this idea, the contemporary college student is fully competent within the emergent cultural environment, dominated by the audio-visual media, in which books (quaint objects!) assume second place.  The proliferation in humanities departments of “film-studies,” “media-studies,” and “popular-culture” courses is, in part, predicated on this chain of suppositions.

I remain strongly skeptical.

I have taught film and popular-culture courses at the college level in Michigan and New York during a twenty-year period and, during the same period, have taught literature—classics in translation, American literature (nineteenth and twentieth century), poetry, literary theory, genre fiction, and much else. Given that experience, I find no validity in the strained romantic hope that the inadequately lettered and spottily informed student will prove somehow to be cognitively sharp in domains “beyond” the book.
Readers, take note: I have not declared film studies or media studies or popular culture studies to be unfit subjects for college courses. On the contrary, put in the proper context and approached in the right way by people who are prepared to suspend their prejudices and confront the object with critical appreciation, such courses can drive the thinking and enrich the minds of undergraduates. The single most memorable course from my undergraduate experience at U.C.L.A. in the early 1970s was a German cinema course taught by an instructor who, alas, failed to gain tenure. That ambitious instructor had us reading Siegfried Kracauer and Theodore Adorno to prepare us for the films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Nibelungenlied.  

The conviction has grown on me that those who do best in a film course are those whose literacy is most developed. Those whose literacy is least developed, and whose general knowledge is restricted even when their acquaintance with current commercial entertainment is encyclopedic, perform only at a mediocre level. They miss as much in the movie as they do in the poem, play, or novel.

In this essay, I will discuss two examples. One is a scene from a defining item in the film-noir genre, director John Huston’s Maltese Falcon (1941).  The other comes from  director William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come (1936), whose scenarist and dialogue-writer was none other than H. G. Wells, one of the most prominent public intellectuals of his day. The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett’s “Sam Spade” novel of the name (1930), figured importantly in a film course (Literary Dimensions of Film) that I taught several times for Central Michigan University’s extension program. I use Things to Come in connection with my SUNY Oswego Western Heritage course, which I have taught steadily for the past decade.

There is a moment in The Maltese Falcon when the hard-nosed detective, played by Humphrey Bogart, paying a visit to con man Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), must feign chagrin and simulate a loss of temper. His purpose is to  misdirect  Gutman into thinking that he (Gutman) has gained the upper hand in their dealings. As Spade leaves Gutman’s hotel room and takes a few steps along the corridor, all the exasperated tightness in Spade’s face—seen in his scowling mouth and narrowed eyes—relents and he breaks out in a broad and satisfied smile.  

I cannot imagine that any ordinary audience member in the film’s first run, some seventy years ago, would have mistaken the signs: Spade has been as cool as a cucumber all along. He faked his anger, Gutman “bought it,” and the detective is as pleased as punch with himself for having pulled it off.  

How did the students perceive it?
First, a word about the students: The enrollees in Central Michigan’s off-campus programs at that time (the early 1990s) did not have to meet the same requirements for admission as the regular students who attended daytime classes. At that time, moreover, English Department standards of admission to regular matriculation were notoriously lax. So students in the extension programs, where the standards were even lower, often were only marginally prepared for real higher education. In written assignments, I would often receive a disorganized, ungrammatical mess of feelings and assertions.
In a class of fifteen or sixteen students, hardly any indicated, in writing, that they had understood the tactical artificiality of Spade’s anger. Only the older, “non-traditional” students and one or two of the younger students could see Spade’s display as a critical technique for misleading Gutman in order to put him at a disadvantage in trying to locate the storied objet-d’art of the film’s title.

Some students’ explanations of Spade’s erupting grin were that he was frightened by Gutman and happy to be getting away from him, or that Spade was, like most people, prone to being frustrated and angry at times and that he had inappropriately taken his feelings out on an innocent party. Not only did the students, by and large, fail to understand the particular scene, but they could not even differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys or understand the motives of the protagonist. In short, they could not read faces.

My second example is the movie Things to Come, whose screenplay was commissioned by Hungarian-born British film magnate Alexander Korda from novelist and writer H. G. Wells. It is based on Wells’ 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come. In the novel, Wells speculates fictionally about the future, near and far, in a way comparable to his reporting on the actual historical past in his Outline of History (1922) and Short History of the World (1923). Wells had begun adult life as a schoolmaster and retained his sense of educational mission even after he became the most prominent novelist of his day in the English-speaking world. He never wrote obscurely and disdained the art-for-art’s-sake style, because it frustrated the need of large audiences to understand things.

Producer Korda and director Menzies intended to make Things to Come understandable to ordinary film-goers through its pronounced allusions to well-known stories like Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and the sagas of the Middle Ages, and by its careful, even repetitive, structure.  The filmmakers wanted to motivate people to think about the future by provoking them to think about the recurrent patterns in history.

I like to show Things to Come at the end of the semester in Western Heritage because it provides a good opportunity for students to recall, summarize, and comment on their reading assignments, and thus to understand the contemporaneousness of the classics. Put simply, the film repeats things. It repeats themes, situations, and chains of cause-and-effect that allude directly to what the students have read during the semester and it has its own  internal patterns of repetition that reinforce the logic of cause-and-effect  that runs through its story.

In the final, futuristic episode of the story, a man called Theotocopoulos (named after the Byzantine painter) addresses a man named Cabal (Raymond Massey), who proposes to send his daughter and her fiancé on an experimental flight to the moon. Theotocopoulos charges him with “staging again the ancient tragedy—a father sacrificing his own daughter to evil gods.” This is an allusion to the tragedy of Iphigenia, the story of how Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter on the eve of the Trojan War to assure success in his martial exploit. My students had seen Greek director Michael Cacoyannis’ film version of Iphigenia, so they were aware of the reference.
Although the film’s allusion to Iphigenia is intentional, it is abundantly clear from the storyline of the film that neither Wells nor Menzies endorses the simile. That is, Theotocopoulos (Cedric Hardwick) does not speak for the authors; he is a rabble-rouser and a mischief-maker. In fact, another character describes him as representing “the dark ages come back.” Cabal, not Theotocopoulos, provides the speaking viewpoint of the film, which means that the lunar expedition is not a sacrifice, hence not a wicked enormity, but a perfectly justifiable scientific endeavor.

How did the students respond?
First, a word about SUNY Oswego undergraduates: Admissions standards in the State University of New York, including the so-called university colleges like the one at Oswego, select more rigorously than in the counterpart system in Michigan a decade ago.  Thus, most students at Oswego stand higher in their secondary-education rankings than those at Central Michigan.

Nevertheless large numbers of my SUNY Oswego students leapt to an erroneous conclusion. They decided that at the end of Things to Come, Theotocopoulos speaks for the film and that Cabal is therefore the equivalent of Agamemnon in Euripides’ Iphigenia, which would make him a moral monster.  

What cognitive steps lead so many students to this erroneous conclusion—or more bluntly, what defects in cognition produce the error?

In a series of articles for the Pope Center in 2009 I commented on the college students’ symptoms of what I dubbed (with no claim to originality) “post-literacy.”  The term designates a society—modern Western society including its North American offshoot—in which alluring and fascinating technologies have massively subordinated the written word, the implicit rationality and discriminatory subtlety of which form the intangible bases of what educated people recognize as the civilized achievement. One effect of literacy, especially the literacy of narrative, on cognitive development is to create awareness of continuity, sequence, and ethical causality, especially as the last unfolds in a long-term temporal scheme. Today, many college students lack this awareness.

Think of any Regency-period or Victorian novel.  The decisions of the characters early in the story bring forth their consequences with schematic obviousness in the later chapters. The plots are almost propositional. One can say that, in the upshot, Smith or Jones is finally happy or unhappy because he made this or that decision in the first place, which inevitably brought him where he ends.

To grasp the patterns, the reader must possess sufficient wit to remember in chapter two what he has read in chapter one, and so forth, right through to the denouement. The flashing screens of our techno-entertainments have grossly eroded the power of young people to pay attention with sufficient discipline to see such patterns.

Lack of focus hobbles many students when they watch Things to Come, which the screenplay divides carefully into causally related, yet nearly independent, episodes. If students were able to grasp and remember the patterns of events and meaning, they would understand that Theotocopoulos cannot be the spokesman for the film’s message.

In one of the middle episodes, depicting a Europe devastated by war and pitched back into a new dark age, a character called “The Boss” had appeared, a barbarian chieftain who shoots his way to power and whose swaggering resentful style forecasts in detail the personality of Theotocopoulos in the film’s final episode. Thus the passing remark that Theotocopoulos represents “the dark ages come back” is placed deliberately to draw attention to the kinship of Theotocopoulos with “The Boss.” If a student grasped that, then he would likely also grasp that he should distrust Theotocopoulos, and not take him at his word. Distrusting Theotocopoulos, the student would then be in a position to see through the misleading reference to Iphigenia.

Many students cannot do this because they do not view the film continuously, as a story. Rather, quite as when they read, they fail to remember at a given moment what they have previously witnessed, and they therefore have great difficulty in relating the parts of the story to the whole.

That Wells clearly molds Theotocopoulos after the model of a rhetorician in the most devious sense—a demagogue and manipulator whose  florid, emotional language fools the masses into embracing preferences that  run contrary to their well-being—only increases the pathos of the  misinterpretation.  The students can rise to the challenge of identifying an allusion (to Iphigenia) but  that is where they stop; they never advance to evaluating the allusion in  its context.  Cabal is “cool” in his presentation, logical and objective. Theotocopoulos, by contrast, is “hot,” full of bluster,  grimacing, shouting, and shaking his fist. Fascinated by the emotional  display, convinced by it, the students cease thinking.  Thus my conclusion: Being letter-shy, as it turns out, actually prevents students from being media-savvy.  The identification of letter-shy with media-savvy is a fable.    

In a follow-up article, I will attempt to deepen the analysis by exploring the sociologies of literacy undertaken by the late Neil Postman and by his older French contemporary Jacques Ellul. Postman and Ellul deserve to be known by those who take interest in the health of our culture. In a third installment, I will return to the question of student cognition in light of Postman and Ellul.