East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Cultural illiteracy


Werner Herzog, not exactly the latest newcomer, used to joke that kids coming out of film school had wasted three years and a lot of money, and thought the history of cinema started with Star Wars, they had no idea of who Elia Kazan was, or who D. W. Griffith was.

And about half an hour ago I was talking with a friend, and she was aghast: in a TV quiz show, the participant was asked to give the name of “the Sergio who directed Once Upon a Time in America“, and the participant drew a blank – this person had no idea of who Sergio Leone was.

Now I told my friend that it may not be a good idea to use quiz shows as a measure of the general state of the nation, but… damn!

This is much worse than the scenario lamented by Werner Herzog – it is what Harlan Ellison called “cultural illiteracy”. The quiz show participant not only does not know who directed Once Upon a Time in America, but should they happen to hear someone say “we had a meeting, and it felt like a movie from Sergio Leone” they would miss the reference.
And what about the every-day world of media in which we live immersed?
Try and imagine Quentin Tarantino’s films without Sergio Leone.
Damn, try and imagine Samurai Jack without Sergio Leone.

But again, we are not talking about film students, here – we are talking about the general public.
And the general public seems to be slowly but steadily fading away.

Mention film-makers that plied their trade in the days of black and white, and you’ll find they are all but forgotten. Mention a movie that came out before your counterpart was born, and more often than not they will have no idea of what you are talking about.

And yet, most of these movies are right now readily available in a variety of formats and price and quality – from dazzling Criterion Collection restored copies to quick-and-dirty Youtube streams – you only need the curiosity to go and look for them.
But that’s the point, isn’t it?
The curiosity.

It’s the past, it’s old, it was before my time, it’s boring.
The SFX are cheap, the actors look funny and talk funny.
Why should I care?
Why waste time with an old movie?

I think I’ll do more posts about old movies.
And old books.
And other things that are fading away, leaving behind a sad world peopled with hollow people.
I’ll try and promote curiosity.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “Cultural illiteracy

  1. I think I’ll start dedicating 2-3 evenings a month to get out from the TV series loop and rediscover some old movie with my daughter.
    We did it about a year ago with They Call Me Trinity and other movies from the same couple (she was seven, too early for Duck, You Sucker!) and she enjoyed them. Time to start with the Big Ones, and Leone is quite a good tip.
    It’s not that they’re not curious, it’s that the environment they grow in is slowly working to overkill their curiosity. And ours. Got to work on that.


  2. I grew up in Spain in a time when the public television always was playing old movies. As a kid, you could see Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, adventures movies like Gunga Din or Beau Geste… Now, all channels try to show only the last blockbuster.


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