(A note of thanks to staff at the University of Reading, where I presented a paper that is loosely on a related topic to this post on 1 November 2012. In particular, discussion with Simone Knox, John Gibbs, Lisa Purse, James MacDowell and Ian Banks, allowed me to think critically about what I had discussed at Reading, such that this blog post might come into existence.)
I teach a module to first year film students called Reading Visual Aesthetics. The first exercise that we get students to do for that module is to describe what they see in a ten-shot sequence taken from a film.
When I first taught this module, I thought that the exercise might be a bit pointless; perhaps more time should be spent on analysing rather than describing. However, as time has gone on, the more I appreciate what a fantastic exercise this is to get students to undertake.
For, what is excellent about this exercise is how it reveals and/or exposes how we take for granted – or look unthinkingly – at many of the things and objects that surround us in everyday life, but which perhaps we should not take for granted.
This year, we showed a ten-shot sequence from the opening of The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, USA, 1998) – and as happens every year, many of the students wrote their description pretty hastily and then sat in the classroom looking bored as the two-hour time limit that they have clocked down.
This in spite of my exhortations to check through work, to keep looking at the sequence (which we show 15 times over the course of the two hours – it becomes etched in your memory) and to keep writing down details that they see. I always insist that the exercise is harder than the students think, but nonetheless this does not stop many students from assuming that the exercise will be – in the parlance of our times – a piece of piss. And by and large those who believe this do most poorly on the exercise…
Which will lead me to the conclusion that I will make at the end of this blog and which is outlined in its title: smart people are stupid (in a good way) and ‘stupid’ people – by which I really mean lazy people – are smart – but in a bad way.
This blog is not about the poor spelling that I find in these descriptions, nor about the common errors that film students make with regard to film terminology (for example, barely any students correctly identified the opening sequence’s crane shots as crane shots, but instead called them pans or simply camera movements; this is not to mention how editing remains practically invisible to most students – and filmgoers more generally – with barely any students making mention of the dissolves that feature in this sequence).
The kinds of errors I have just mentioned are common, particularly to students just starting out in film – and they are common enough these days that I almost feel no point in commenting on them, especially – sadly enough – the spelling.
(Indeed, a quick comment: I had to read nine essays before finding one that spelt the word cigarette correctly. However, I should make clear that this is not a criticism of the students at my university in particular. I have come across poor spelling at all of the institutions at which I have taught film, which include Oxford, St Andrews and Roehampton. So anyone inclined to make any assumptions about the latter university and/or its students as a result of its not being so well known as the other two… well, desist immediately.)
Instead, what is interesting is the nature of the descriptions made. Or rather, how many things that are right before our eyes are often invisible to us, or do not seem worth commenting upon.
In the opening sequence of The Opposite of Sex, we see a firebrand Dede (Christina Ricci) trash her stepfather’s funeral and run away from home with the help of her quasi-boyfriend Randy (William Lee Scott) to Indiana, where she hopes to stay with her half-brother Bill (the wonderful Martin Donovan). There she meets Bill’s boyfriend, Matt (Ivan Sergei), whom we see towards the end of the self-same opening ten-shot sequence (he opens Bill’s front door in shot nine).
So, what sort of details from this sequence did barely anyone talk about?
Well, we can start with quite general things. Only one student mentioned that the characters speak in American accents, with no one making any reference to their race (all of the characters are white in this sequence).
Well, isn’t this obvious, you’ll perhaps say to yourself, since this is an American movie about white people? So obvious that it is not worth mentioning.
Well, yes. On a certain level it is obvious that we are dealing with white Americans – if you know anything about the film in advance – but that’s precisely my point. We should look at things precisely as if we knew nothing about the film in advance. For the minute that anything is obvious to us, we start regarding that thing as natural and we no longer question what surrounds us.
If, when asked to describe what you see in a film sequence depicting white Americans, you feel that someone being white is not worth mentioning, nor that someone is American (let alone from which part of America, what class their accent seems to betray, etc),then their whiteness is (after the venerable Richard Dyer) invisible, or naturalised.
Now you might say that you would not pass comment either if the characters were black and/or spoke with Russian accents. You – you will tell me in your best thinking or unthinking David Brent impression – are colour blind.
Well, aside from the fact that so-called colour blindness negates difference (something that we should do at our peril), and aside from the fact that I would probably not believe you (since I don’t think colour blindness exists – or if it does, it only speaks, as it does in the case of David Brent, of a condescending and predominantly white attitude towards racial difference), I think that we must describe what we see in the best and most appropriate language that we have.
And since we see someone’s skin colour, we should during a description exercise describe it.
Failing to do so implies that anyone who reads the description shares a similar white or white-centred outlook on the world, and the implicit assumption that the world is white. By virtue of this being an unthinking assumption, it also is only a few steps away from suggesting that the world should be white and/or white-centred.
Similarly, to feel that an American accent (even perhaps the fact that the characters are speaking English) is not worthy of comment also belies the belief that all movies are American, that America is somehow the natural home of cinema.
In other words, if it is considered ‘natural’ (well, naturally the film is about white Americans) that a film like The Opposite of Sex is about white Americans, then whiteness and Americanness are naturalised. By which I mean to say that they are normal, not necessary for comment, while all that deviates from this norm is, well, abnormal, deviant and somehow unnatural.
I can imagine some people having a hard time agreeing with, so I am going to bring forward three other examples that hopefully will make more clear what I mean.
During this sequence there are two night-time shots, one featuring Dede packing a bag in her bedroom, and one featuring her sneaking from her house, across a lawn and to Randy’s car. In the first shot, we see a bedside lamp and in the latter we can see lights from the house’s interior as well as a flash of Randy’s headlights.
What is interesting is that many of the sequence descriptions that I marked suggested that the lighting throughout the sequence is natural lighting.
That students put this in spite of repeated explanations in class that more often than not what looks like natural lighting is as a result of very powerful lamps is not the point that I wish to make. Rather, the point that I wish to make is that we know absolutely well that neither an electric bedside lamp nor a set of car headlights is natural lighting.
These are man-made phenomena. And yet they are so commonplace to us that they have become naturalised; we mistake as natural something that is man-made and, to a certain extent, artificial.
So if we end up mistaking manmade inventions like electric lighting for nature – perhaps a typical occurence for those humans who are surrounded everyday by such items – then perhaps we can see how this also becomes the case in terms of whiteness and Americanness. So commonplace are whiteness and Americanness in cinema that we take them as natural – when of course cinema could be very different.
Perhaps another way to think about this is that if electric lighting has become so commonplace as to be natural, then we should understand that nature is perhaps malleable and not absolute or fixed in nature. In this way, cinema need not predominantly depict whiteness and Americanness – but for some reason it does.
So we need to think about why this is the case – and we can perhaps then begin to construct a different cinema that is not so white-centred and Amerigocentric, but which instead is more ‘democratic’ and egalitarian.
The second of my three examples is the notion of costume. One student did very insightfully put that the costume in the film mimics the fashion of the late 1990s – or words to that effect.
We often unthinkingly assume that films should be about the contemporary age (and perhaps we do not even question the constructed nature of costumes in, precisely, costume dramas and period films).
And yet costumes in films – and costumes in general – are constructed and they tell us information about where and when they come from – even if most of the time we do not bother to analyse such things.
Finally, a couple of students noticed a yellow car in one shot that shows Dede approaching Bill’s front door (though none identified it as a Volkswagen, which surprised me; nor even as a hatchback, which disappointed me).
Only one student, however, said that this is a funny detail since we might typically associate a little yellow VW with a gay character – and Bill is a ‘real life homo’ as Dede tells us in her voice over during this sequence.
My point here is not to deconstruct why a yellow VW hatchback might be deemed gay – though such an argument no doubt deserves to be made elsewhere, since the link between the one thing (yellow VW hatchback) and the other thing (homosexuality) is certainly not natural, but a cultural construct.
Rather, it is to say that I am surprised no one commented on the car at all.
I have no empirical evidence for this, but I suspect that most students notice Bill’s yellow VW hatchback and that it conforms to Dede’s characterisation of him as gay in the voice over.
That is, while the visual joke that is made might well have been lost on some viewers (particularly those who precisely do not see the link as natural between a yellow VW hatchback and a gay owner), my guess is that most viewers ‘got it’ but did not feel the need to describe the car or the ‘appropriateness’ of the car’s colour – again because the point is supposedly too obvious.
This despite the fact that students have only been asked to make a description!
Now, here is where we send this blog in the direction of its title and conclusion – but we’ll do this by turning to what various scholars say in film studies about the experience of film viewing.
The great David Bordwell – and many cognitivist film scholars before and since – have long argued that the brain is working overtime during film viewing and that it really is a miracle of intelligence that people can work out that a shot of a woman at a desk after a shot of the outside of an office block means that the woman is (most likely) inside that office block and working at her desk.
This is no doubt true – and its truth pertains to the yellow car gag from The Opposite of Sex, too. It is a miracle of intelligence that people ‘get’ that the yellow car is a visual gag that reaffirms that Bill is gay (while at the same suggesting to us that what we are seeing is Dede’s version of events – as affirmed by her self-conscious voice over – and not necessarily, therefore, a trustworthy account of events. That is, in Dede’s head Bill of course has a yellow VW hatchback because he’s a complete flamer – but this is not necessarily the truth, nor how Bill would see things, nor necessarily as things are or were).
However, while it is a miracle of intelligence that we get the joke so quickly, automatically even – i.e. without having to think about it – it is also problematic precisely because we do not think about it.
Why do I say this?
I say this because the making-automatic or natural of associations and thoughts (manmade lighting = natural; contemporary clothing = natural; predominant whiteness and Americanness = natural; yellow VW hatchback = gay) has what I shall call a profoundly ideological aspect to it.
This is most clear in the “yellow VW hatchback = gay” idea. Yellow VW hatchbacks are of course not gay – but the association between a stereotype of homosexual American men as liking bright colours and small, relatively sporty and European cars has been made natural that not only did most people see the joke, not only did (I wager) most people get the joke, but when specifically asked, so natural did the joke seem that only one student even thought to comment on it.
We might say that finding a yellow VW hatchback to be gay is harmless. Ostensibly it is, and I do not think The Opposite of Sex a homophobic film – though it certainly deals with explicit homophobia as a theme. Nonetheless, we make these kinds of unthinking and automatic associations the whole time – and sometimes they really can be of a problematic nature (historical – unthinking? – shorthand would reach for World War Two Nazi propaganda here: it is unhealthy when a society starts to associate Jews with rats).
So you may not think that there is a particularly worrisome ideology about the yellow VW hatchback joke in The Opposite of Sex, but there is an ideology at play nonetheless.
(And it is Dede’s – problematic – homophobic ideology that is on display here, since it is she telling the story and she who would paint Bill as a typical flamer with a yellow VW hatchback – even if at play there is also the film’s own, non-homophobic ideology that creates some distance between us and Dede – we hear her voice over and so know that she might be manipulating events such that we see things her way and at the same time we learn not to trust her, meaning that we are not necessarily sharing her homophobic perspective but rather laughing at it as we see the yellow VW hatchback – making of The Opposite of Sex a very sophisticated film indeed.)
My argument is not that ideology = bad. I am of the view that one cannot escape ideology – but I am also of the view that ideology becomes dangerous when unthinkingly do we accept as natural, unchanging and as a given something/anything that is not natural, precisely because nature is malleable and susceptible to change (as opposed to being, precisely, unchanging).
Ideological perception – seeing the yellow VW hatchback as gay – needs to be thought about explicitly. In other words, we need to make un-automatic that which is automatic in our minds; we need to bring into thought precisely that which is otherwise unthinking. Because, as mentioned, otherwise we run the risk of some form of Nazism, or fascism.
Or, put less hysterically, if we just accept the world in an automatic or unthinking fashion, then we are not looking at the world for ourselves, but we are seeing it as others want us to see it. We are willing accomplices in our own subjugation to a version of reality that we could change if we wanted to.
(A sidenote – aimed mainly at film scholars: it is beginning slowly to be acknowledged – but the kind of automatic thought whereby yellow VW hatchback = gay means that we see films, and perhaps reality itself, as a system not of stand alone objects but as signs (yellow VW hatchback is not gay, but that we see it as such means that yellow VW hatchback has stopped being a yellow VW hatchback and has become instead a sign of homosexuality). In other words, that we see semiotically means that semiotics – and film as a language, language here being defined as a process, as the making-linguistic, the making-semiotic of cinema and of reality itself – might well rear its head back into film studies – even if it was precisely against such a semiotic approach to understanding cinema that David Bordwell and other cognitivists adopted the cognitive framework in the first place!)
If we are seeing the world not for ourselves but as others want us to see it, then perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in, of course, film viewing. That most students did not put into words the yellow VW, or the edits that of course they did see but to which they did not pay attention, makes this most clear: we see the film, but we do not see through the film. We see what the film shows us, but we do not see the film itself. We see the content and the story – but not its form, or how it is being told – even though this form, which exceeds our attention, is incessantly before us, right before our very eyes for us to see – if we had the eyes to do so.
When we have the eyes to see the invisible links, to rethink the associations that are otherwise automatic, then we begin to learn. Learning is the confrontation of the new – it is the rewiring of neurons in the brain, the making of new associations. The minute we stop learning, our brain will begin to atrophy – since only the same old clusters of neurons will fire as we begin to see the world in an automatic and unthinking fashion.
The minute we start thinking, or rewiring neurons, then we are no longer (as much) prey (be that willing or unwilling) to ideology; we move into changing ideology – we become political beings – as well as social, ecologically-embedded beings working on the construction of reality, of what is deemed natural, whether or not everyone agrees with the direction in which we want to change things. We bring into our conscious mind that which previously was unconscious – we become smarter – we develop the possibility to control our own destiny – we develop free will – we develop our capacity for freedom, both of thought and of deed.
So here’s where the title and conclusion of this blog post comes into play.
When our automatic perceptions rule our existence, in some ways we are functioning in a very smart fashion; we are efficient and do not need to waste energy consciously thinking about stuff since we can negotiate and navigate our way around reality in a smooth and energy-saving fashion.
But this is, after Daniel Kahnemann, also laziness. So ‘stupid’ – or what I really mean is lazy – people are smart. They are efficient and don’t have to, or don’t want to, think about things. But I see this, laziness, as being a bad thing. Why? Because it is not to get involved in the world, it is not to think and to re-think reality and what surrounds us, to fulfil one’s potential – to waste one’s life, in short.
(Note: a footballer gets so good at football that it becomes unthinking to them. My point is not that we should resist automation entirely – because sometimes being able to naturalise or automate skills, such as controlling and passing a football, are good things. But we should not rest on our laurels and we should always work at improving our game, on acquiring new skills. What is true of football is true of thought, even though thinking is frowned upon in British society and even though our government is prepared to take away much of the investment in education – sport for the brain – at the same time as pouring money into sport, even though sport by definition can employ or make employable far fewer people than can education as a whole. Scholars may not be as famous as David Beckham – but they are as good at what they do as Beckham is at what he does. A.J. Ayer is as big a man as Mike Tyson.)
Smart people, on the other hand, are a bit stupid, because they expend energy on analysing, rethinking, and asking questions. However, while intelligence is therefore not necessarily efficient (and therefore runs counter to the capitalist ethos and ideology that drives our society, if not our whole world, making the question of education and thought a deeply ideological one!), intelligence is the means to freedom, to thinking new things, to invention. It is by definition experimental; it is by definition somewhat speculative. But unless we create the conditions – for ourselves and for others – to realise our potential, then that potential is just going to be sat wasting away.
I imagine a film sequence description that one day will become obsessed with trying to take into account the particles of air that are in the frame of the camera, but which are too numerous to mention, and each quivering blade of grass in the wind – in addition to all of the large or human scale objects that we can see.
And while such a description might not get top marks (since in dedicating its energy to elements of the film that most people overlook), I will surely know that there is a keen, inquisitive and free intelligence at work – even if its intelligence is signalled in the very stupidity of its description (the description being stupid because mildly inappropriate). And I will expect future great things of that person.
Indeed, what importance are grades? Truly original work cannot really be graded at all – since it will at first seem entirely inappropriate and stupid to the person marking it. But university – perhaps education as a whole – is not and should not be about grades (which is to impose upon people a fixed – automatic and unthinking – system of thought that has its final goal, or telos, decided in advance, or a priori). That education and university are about grades is a direct manifestation of the capitalist and unthinking logic that is invading every last aspect of our world. So it is time to rethink such things…
So don’t worry about grades, but instead worry about thinking, about fulfilling potential, about working out what your brain and your body can do, what you can do in, with and for the world, about bootstrapping yourself into conscious thought, about being different, about becoming free.
(But please, dear students, don’t take this as an excuse not to make any effort, to be lazy. On the contrary, stupid intelligence of this sort cannot be lazy – but lazy intelligence is perhaps one of the most stupid things around.)