My husband and I have fairly different backgrounds. Yes, we both grew up in upstate New York in rural towns. We both had dairy farmers for neighbors. We grew up in variations of the large family — mine with five children total, and his with thirteen and a cousin who came to live with them when her mother died. Both of our mothers stayed home and did the work of a housewife.
But our differences are also many. My father was a physician, his a high school teacher. While my parents did not live lavishly – it’s that Scottish influence – we did do things like go on family vacations and occasionally go out to eat. His family did neither. Vacations were only done with a few children at a time, and those happened in later years. Eating out at a restaurant was almost unheard of.
I can’t remember if we were dating or newly married, but I suggested we enjoy the fine dining experience of Ponderosa. If you’re not familiar with Ponderosa, it’s a buffet-style steak house. Bud was not sold on the idea. I convinced him that we had enough money (and coupons), but he still was somewhat hesitant.
We had gone out to dinner before, once to a fancy restaurant where we had seen a waiter drop a tray of food down the stairs, and often to little sandwich shops and other college student fare. Why the reluctance to go to Ponderosa? Bud finally confessed that he didn’t know how. He didn’t know how things worked in restaurant like that. How would we order? How would we get our food? What if he did it wrong?
Once I convinced him to go, he found it really wasn’t that hard. Although I haven’t been back to a Ponderosa in years, we did go back a number of times, mostly because it fit our budget at the time.
I tell you all this to tell you that I envy Jeffrey Overstreet (author of Through a Screen Darkly) having a teacher like Mr. Demkowicz. Mr. D. taught his high school class how to watch a movie. He taught them to regard the cinema as an art form, not just a form of entertainment. The movie used to introduce this concept was Babette’s Feast. Overstreet says,
Most entertainment is assembled for the purpose of satisfying common audience appetites. A lot of these movies have been commissioned and assembled by a committee, not an artist, with more than a little thought invested in what will sell the most tickets….
Mr. D. presented Babette’s Feast in a way that told us this was not just a centerpiece for a class party. It was going to be more than entertainment. It was an experience to share. We would be invited to share our impressions of it… There was a sense that we would learn from the experience.
How have I reached 53 years of age and never seen that many movies are meant to be far more than entertainment? The answer is that, just like my husband didn’t know how to eat at Ponderosa, I didn’t know how to watch a movie. No one ever told me.
And I kept doing it all wrong. It would be like to going to Ponderosa and not understanding that the meal was more than the strip steak they brought to the table. It included the salads and sides and fried chicken and ice cream machine.
I can’t believe I’m comparing Ponderosa to fine art.
But then, when Overstreet talked about repeated viewings of movies because of the layers and layers of meaning, the movie that came to my mind was Napoleon Dynamite. Don’t you think that, in a way, that fits with the Ponderosa analogy?
Yet, I love Napoleon Dynamite, and every time I watch it I see something new that makes me laugh. I just never thought of it as great art, but I suppose there is something great about it.
So I’m learning how to watch a movie. Finally.
And I’m only three chapters into Overstreet’s book.
Won’t you join me in this feast?