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William C. Altreuter
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Monday, August 16, 2010

Although we did other things over the weekend, we also watched two of my favorite movies, M*A*S*H and The Godfather. CLA had seen neither, (actually, none of her sisters have either), and watching her watch both gave me some insight into the way the students in my class experience media. The art of cinema does not seem to exist for them as a point on a continuum for starters. They are used to the way movies are now, and watch the way they have always watched. One of the things that is great about M*A*S*H is the way it breaks down movie conventions. It is really a very experimental work, hidden in a genre film. The unconventional camerawork and the overlapping dialogue looked like nothing else anybody had seen back in 1970, but now we see these things frequently-- they have become part of the movie maker's bag of tricks, and audiences today usually don't even recognize that these techniques are comparatively new. The structure of the movie, which is more or less episodic, with no real plot arc, was likewise something unusual in its day. Altman was making a point with this, I think, but then as now it is quite easy to miss that point. The existential repetition of the characters' lives-- punctuated with sports, drinking, and sex-- is a variation on something like Waiting for Godot, and in fact the episodes of sports, drinking and sex are as repetitious and ultimately indistinguishable each from the next as the scenes set in the operating room. In order to understand this, however, it is necessary to engage in the film. Altman invites us to do this by way of the mumbled, overlapping dialogue, and the scenes filled with background activity-- he is trying to force the audience to pay attention, and when we are rewarded with the subtler humor that runs underneath the slapstick comedy that is set up in each of the little episodes that he strings together. This is not the way people typically watch movies on TV. Television is background for multitasking. I have always disliked the television adaptation of M*A*S*H for exactly this reason-- it is all foreground, as subtle as a pie in the face. Altman is all background-- both versions want us to know that War Is Hell-- but Altman may be telling us something more.

Although they may seem an unlikely paring, The Godfather has several points in common with M*A*S*H. Both are good examples of first-rate movies made from literary works that were genre pieces, and both have become so completely incorporated into the American cultural idiom that it can be difficult to see them for what they are. It's a bit like Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein"-- once you've seen Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman having dinner and cigars it is hard to understand the menace projected by Boris Karloff. One of the things that is notable about The Godfather in its day is that it was part of a larger trend in cinematic violence. Like Bonnie & Clyde, or the things that Sam Peckinpah was doing at the same time the violence in The Godfather was shockingly graphic. It seems to me that The Godfather retains its ability to shock because its scenes of violence are so well-composed. There is the finale, of course, which works beautifully because it is cross-cut with the baptism, but it was Sonny's assassination which drove CLA from the room. A and I remained-- neither of us can stop watching The Godfather once we start. Its brilliance, of course, is that it is only a movie about the Mafia in the most superficial sense. Coppola is really interested in exploring ideas about family, and power. What I like best about it are the scenes with Tom Hagen, the family's consigliere. It would be interesting to make a movie from that character's point of view, I think. He's pragmatic, and he has his own opinions about how things should be done, but he is also a lawyer who knows that decisions belong to the client.

| Comments:
So then, since CLA watched The Godfather only until the violent scene cited "drove her from the room", how exactly does that tell us about how her generation watches, or chooses not to watch, movies?
 
My original intention last fall was to screen the movies we were discussing-- probably on Sunday evenings. The UB person I was dealing with told me not to bother, because the students wouldn't come. That was probably true, so I told the students that they should watch the movies on the largest television they could find, and that they should do so in a room with the lights dimmed. They should watch, I told them, straight through-- no interruptions. That almost certainly never happened. Some of them watched the dvds on their computers, and several watched them in the form of YouTube clips. I guarantee that all of them were doing something else when they watched, at least some of the time.

When I do it again among the things I'll do differently will be to show fewer movies, require more writing, give pop quizes-- and screen the movies. I'd assumed a greater degree of media sophistication than was justified-- they need to be trained to watch properly.
 

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