Literature is a cultural device, created and deployed as a means of expressing some important, inherit truth about the environment in which it was made. Whether through historical fact, or fictional (metaphorical) truth, literary texts expose one’s mind to ethical values, moral beliefs, and philosophical substrates contemporaneous to the author’s time. Literary theory is a relatively new process of criticism used to understand more deeply the value and methodology of various forms of literature, and it is taught most effectively at the graduate level. These are methods which allow people to scrutinize the media they consume and analyze information from other sources. Skills of this sort prove invaluable in the internalization and dissemination of current events and practiced philosophical systems. As such, it is a massive disservice to delay the acquisition of these skills until well after high school, at a time where such interpretative, analytical abilities are tantamount to survival. Perhaps it has occurred to you at this point that I am not merely talking about words on the page. Literature is not defined by the arbitrary boundaries imposed by luddite scholars and ardent traditionalists, but is instead beholden only to the mediums in which it is employed: books, poetry, drama, and film. This article will discuss how film must be considered as literature for the greater edification of our younger generation, but also how other forms of media might be read in the same way. I will sometimes be referring to films as texts or literature here; consider this my first act in consciousness raising.
Let me take a moment to address what I see as a problematic rebuttal to what I’m about to argue. Obviously, there are films which are thematically meaningless. Some movies are an artless stream of images with the intention of being mere entertainment. By no means do I want to suggest that all films have the same level of cultural value. However, you’ll find this to be tautologically true for novels and poems as well.
Traditional literary criticism is most concerned with the reading of poetry and novels. But, films have their own schools of critical theory which are deployed for the most comprehensive understanding of a film’s narrative structure, and historical and cultural backdrop. Such readings of films can reveal something previously unseen, or help to reconstrue an already analyzed facet. Obviously films and novels are different, and so the ways we read them and how we interpret them ought to be different. For instance, a movie is almost never made by a single person, whereas a novel or a poem very often is. This, within itself, turns the idea of “authorial intent” on its head. A great deal of damage has been done to the validity of film as literature by thinking that the two mediums can be read in the same ways. Books, for example, are linguistic mediums focused primarily on the aesthetic of word. Films, on the other hand, are visual and aural projects which require a different kind of analytical lens in order to see what the film is doing.
Imagine you’re watching a film—your favorite film: the lights flicker brilliantly in the darkness around you while the sonic action of the movie is projected out to you in crisp stereo. Now, stop everything at what you consider to be the most valuable moment in the film; the moment which gives you the greatest amount of joy and satisfaction. That moment in time, what basically amounts to a fraction of a second, is a rich sensory experience composed of hundreds of manhours of work. The director, writer, actor, cinematographer, and editor all play important roles in how that moment was perceived by you. This is the first step in reading film. A film is not a purely creative form of expression, but a synthesis of narrative, visual and aural art, and linguistic, theatric and photographic technique. It is an utterly collaborative experience which, at the moment of its conception, becomes susceptible to a multitude of voices. As I said, this means that “authorial intent”, the direct aesthetic and thematic mission of a text, cannot be assumed based on the facts about the director or the writer. It takes a contextual close-reading, a parsing of thematic choices and aesthetic decisions, to really understand the “meanings” of a film. In literary circles, it has long been known that reading is an interpretive act, composed of the interaction between the authorial voice and the imaging mind. While the inclusion of the reader has been undercut by the visual aspect of film, there is perhaps no one moment in a novel more interpretively complex than, say, the “Rosebud” scenes in Citizen Kane.
Films, like novels and poems, are products of their time. One of the great things about reading books is their ability to take their audience to another place and time, and reveal something ubiquitous about human nature. Films can do the same thing: they provide us with innumerable insight into different philosophical and ethical systems from different parts of the world while saying something important about the culture in which it was made. The 70’s was a time of intense social disunity and political unrest. It goes without saying, then, that some of the most pivotal films of that era reflect deeply imbedded cultural truths, and suggest complex philosophical solutions. Shaft, for example, in all of its ironies and metaphors, is representative of a transition in the American civic conscience: the image of a black man trying to reconcile the triumphs of the previous decade with the harsh realities of racism in his everyday life. How do you think that squares up with today: when African-Americans are experiencing an economic renaissance, and yet black boys are being slain in the street by police officers? In light of that cultural reality, it makes sense why Blaxploitation, inspired by films like Shaft and Superfly, are coming back into popularity. Like traditional literature, film and society inform each other in a kind of textual dialectic: one feeds into the next to create a more perfect image.
Films can provide reflections and refractions of everyday truths, showing us what we care about at any given moment in time. We can see this through the calls for change in the #oscarssowhite and #metoo movements. It is obvious to us, in these ways, that filmic fantasy can have a huge effect on common fact. It only stands to reason that this could be a powerful tool in the hands of the next generation of Americans. Forget the simple taboo of films or television as trash, and start seeing these mediums for what they truly are: culture, writ large, upon the screen.
(Title edited image via Citizen Kane)