Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Literal Mindedness Around the World

Here's an anecdote from Lawrence Rosen's Varieties of Muslim Experience: Encounters With Arab Political and Cultural Life from the University of Chicago Press.

Some years ago a group of young men in the Moroccan city where I was working asked me if I would join them at the showing of an American film so that I could explain anything they did not understand. When I asked the name of the film, they told me that it was West Side Story. I decided to go along. At first the young men were captivated by the film. Two gangs approached each other. Then one man pulled a knife. Then someone from the other group pulled a knife. And then they both began singing. The Moroccans turned to me in astonishment: What kind of men do you have in America, they asked, who start singing when they should be fighting? My attempt to explain musicals was a complete failure. Films, they insisted, are lifelike, and therefore they must be "true" -- they must show things as they are; otherwise they are just "lies."

Musicals don't often come up for discussion in the blogs I follow, but the attitude Rosen encountered in Morocco reminded me of the resistance often offered to genre cinema in general, or to any movie that opposes a sense of spectacle for its own sake to the prevailing linear, literary or simply literal-minded standards of popular taste. The Moroccans' American counterparts might not denounce certain movies as "lies," but they will call a lot of stuff "stupid" for basically the same reasons. It might be a musical, it might be science fiction, or it might be an Italian giallo, but the response will most likely be the same. To the extent that it deviates from conventional narrative expectations or a complacent sense of the "real," it's stupid, or worse. I'm not trying to say that there's no such thing as a stupid movie or even a stupid concept -- only that many people's standard of stupidity is, well, pretty stupid.

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