As a person who loves books and reads them with a critical eye, it is difficult for me to admit how bewildered I often am when I go to the movies to see a new film. Be it a mystery, fantasy, science fiction, or drama, more often than not I find myself scratching my head, and craning my neck to see if other people in the audience are scratching theirs.
How can this be? Books, after all, are far more challenging than any film, dealing as they do with the intricacies of language. By all rights then, these movies should bore me with their hackneyed dialogue and familiar plots. But they don't. They confound me.
All of this is made more interesting by my interactions with my teenage son. Ever since he was little, I have tried to groom Alyosha to be a reader, but it never took. Bright, amiable, and artistically talented, he came to all these virtues without ever having opened a book that a teacher hadn't shoved at him. He says he doesn't understand them.
"How then," I once asked him, "can you follow the generational relationships of all those 'Star Wars' films?"
His reply was a shrug, as if to say, "Some people have it, and some people don't."
Soon thereafter, I asked Alyosha if we could see a film together and then compare notes. He recommended "Mission Impossible."
"What's it about?" I asked as we drove to the cinema.
His cryptic response: "Spies."
As we sat in the darkened theater I could feel Alyosha glancing at me from time to time, assessing my comprehension. I found myself nodding reflexively, giving the impression that I was taking it all in, when in fact I was irretrievably lost within the first 10 minutes of the film. After the spectacle was over, we walked outside together, with Alyosha as mum as a sphinx.
Then he looked at me. "Any questions?" he asked.
Yes, I had questions, and they were legion: "Why was Tom Cruise being framed?" I queried.
"Did he give the enemy the real list of American agents?
"Why did Jon Voigt sell out?
Alyosha held up a hand and slowly shook his head, the message being, "What am I going to do with you?" Then he made a few stabs at explaining the plot to me, after which I said "Oh," even though I was as confused as ever.
In my own defense, I'd like to say that I don't believe my inability to fathom these films is entirely my fault. I think they try too hard. Dialogue is interwoven with special effects; actors play multiple roles; there are flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sidewayses. I think the whole intent is to get the viewer to say, "Wow"; but all I feel is woe.
When I open a book, on the other hand, I like to think that I am in control of the story, to the extent that I can read at my own pace. In complicated or emotionally engaging passages, I can put the book down and think for a few moments before resuming. But films - especially modern films with their relentless flash and dash - are runaway trains: Once I have planted myself in front of the screen I am in it for the duration, my only option being total abandonment of the experience by walking out.
Short of this, I can do little more than accept the fact that I often don't "get it," while my son usually does. But it is very difficult for me - a reader, a writer - to be so sanguine. Darn it, I should be able to understand these films. In an effort to redeem myself, I recently suggested to Alyosha that we watch another film together, not divulging that my ulterior motive was to show him that I really could understand what was going on.
"OK," he relented. And before I knew what hit me, he popped in a video of "The Matrix Reloaded." I think I bore up well under the film's supercharged images. When it was all over, Alyosha prompted me with a, "Well?"
I launched into my analysis. "So Neo is The One," I began. "Only he might not be. In any case, those agents assume that he is, which is why all the metal octopuses are chasing him in the make-believe world which is actually the real world, only the people who look like they're in the real world don't know that the real world exists underground. Right?"
Alyosha regarded me with something resembling pride. "That's the first correct thing you've said," he declared.
I threw up my hands. "I don't even know what I'm talking about!"
"I know," said my son, with a hint of compassion. And then, "I think you should stick to books, Dad."