Woody Allen, in Eric Lax’s new book, Woody Allen: A Biography, paints a portrait of himself in his 20s as culturally disadvantaged and, more to the point, hopelessly out of tune with the young women who turned him on — those Greenwich Village bohemians with that long black hair and leotards. They read novels and philosophy and did dances to Spring; he watched Bob Hope movies and practiced magic tricks. So, in the hopes of scoring, he started reading Faulkner, Hemingway, Nietzsche, and Trotsky. He learned to be literate.
Today, Allen’s counterpart would do a crash course on the works of Woody Allen. He’d brush up with videocassettes of Annie Hall and Manhattan, and build rapport by discussing the relative virtues of the serious versus the comic Woody. Long after they proved themselves the 20th century’s most important form of mass entertainment, movies have become our common cultural touchstones. Even films and genres that were once dismissed as escapism — say, Disney movies such as Pinocchio and Mary Poppins — are now seen as revealing windows on our lives and times, without losing their charm as pop pastimes. Movies have given us a common language that unites people divided by nationality, geography, class, and age. In other words, if you don’t want to be as out of it as Woody Allen was, you’d better learn to become cinema literate.
We’ve all come to think of films much differently since the ’60s, when the germ of cinema literacy first emerged in the explosion of ”film culture” — the boom in classic film revivals; the reassessment and upgrading of Hollywood movies; the influence of European directors like Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, and Bergman; and the excitement and ferment in the field of film criticism. Now we tend to go way beyond liking films in a thumbs up/thumbs down kind of way, and moviegoing is all the richer for our being knowledgeable about the stylistic quirks and passions of our filmmakers. We’re not even self-conscious when we speak of the way Jonathan Demme’s sensibility shapes The Silence of the Lambs, his obvious affection for smart women and his feeling for the idiosyncrasies of middle America; or when we complain that Brian de Palma lacks the satiric touch and urban savvy necessary to an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s comically mean-spirited The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Lynch and John Waters are cult superstars — an oxymoron made possible by the movies.