An Education in Film
Who really enjoys school? I wasn’t a particularly good pupil, and it really shows the determination of the Scottish education system that I can I perform any type of mental arithmetic or have the ability to spell. School always felt like a static, sterile environment, void of imagination. The point of interest during my formative years was the school’s desperate attempt to inject life into their teaching by using the television programme Ghostwriter.
If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of Ghostwriter, it was basically a live-action Scooby-Doo rip-off, when the world was an innocent place and no one had actually thought of making a real live-action Scooby-Doo yet. A bunch of kids, aided by a benevolent and invisible ghost that can only communicate through writing, solve mysteries and foil crimes. The show attempted to promote cognitive thinking while making letters and words fun, interesting and relatable. I don’t really think it worked. I do remember thinking the entire concept was creepy: Ghostwriter, this omnipresent spectre, seemed to get his kicks by teasing kids with anagrams on signage. It was just a little bit weird, but I understand what it was going for: a passive and non-threatening way of teaching literacy to children.
Around about the same period as Ghostwriter was the first time I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was fun, exciting, and even now I can’t think of a better example of escapist fiction. The Last Crusade was everything school wasn’t. The film blew me away, but one scene stuck in my head more than the rest. As Indy and his Dad travel to Berlin to recover the Grail diary, they stumble upon and become involved in a Nazi rally where Hitler is present. At the time, I had a half idea of who Hitler was. He was a real person that didn’t have a very good reputation; what I didn’t understand was why he was surrounded by piles of burning books. It was a surreal image—I didn’t know if it was an invention for the film or as real as Hitler was. What I did know was that its nuanced threat really got under my skin. So I asked my family what it was all about, and they carefully explained what book burning was and why it had happened. I was shocked; it sounded like one of the most abhorrent crimes I’d ever heard of (you should have seen my face when I later found out what else the Nazis had been up to). But Indiana Jones, for all its silliness and over-the-top action, planted a seed in my head, one that led me to ask my family and learn something that I didn’t even know existed beforehand.
Cinema has always been an excellent way of presenting complicated thoughts and philosophies in a condensed and coherent way. But let’s not think about that at the moment—not about how Stand By Me teaches you that “you have to cherish your childhood cause it won’t be there forever”—none of that stuff, just the cold hard facts, pieces of history and information that slip into your mind and stay there. The biggest problem with looking at cinema this way is that film walks the line between fact and fiction. Films will usually choose to ground their narratives in some degree of reality, so the audience will instinctively understand the plot’s context and the characters’ motivations. But that’s not why people go to the cinema. People want drama and spectacle that’s beyond their own existence and understanding. So how do you rationalise the fact from the fiction? For a child this is even harder, a case in point being that a few years before I saw The Last Crusade I asked my dad if lightsabers were real. A filmmaker’s focus should be on entertainment before education, but that doesn’t mean sometimes there can’t be a cross-pollination between both.
The premise of Shane Carruth’s 2004 film Primer is that two engineers accidentally invent a time machine in their garage. Carruth chose to ground his fantastical premise in real science: he researched physics, interviewed graduates in the subject, and made what many reviewers claimed was the most realistic depiction of time travel in cinema history. In one scene, the two men, strapped for cash and in need of palladium, strip the catalytic converter from their car and use it, as it contains the element. Now, I can’t for the life of me think of an impromptu situation where I will need palladium at short notice, but Primer taught me that, and now it’s in my brain forever. This is just one example of what the film does so well, peppering the narrative with real facts and theories that transcend the film’s quirky science-fiction premise.
I don’t think any film has an obligation to be educational, and I’m not saying film is a guaranteed way of conveying facts and information to the viewer. But it does feel like an interesting counterpoint to the age-old belief that TV and cinema rots your brain. So what has film taught you lately?