I attribute much of my success in school to Walt Disney. Of course I never had the chance to meet the man, but I’m still finishing what he started. Hours of my childhood spent watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete’s Dragon have formed a habit I just can’t kick. So I’ve decided to embrace it. Elder Anderson, my mission companion in Weimar, liked to quote his soccer coach. “That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.” It’s hackneyed philosophy, but it works for the task at hand.
One period in my History of the English Language class, Professor Oaks got started on another one of his infamous tangents. He would always get started discussing the homework, but he would end up talking about linguistic studies on dialect or sociology. Did you know that the original pronunciation of “ask” sounded like “ax”? Or that “apron” used to be “napron”? As usual, that day’s departure didn’t have much to do with Old English, but as with most of his digressions, I learned more from it than I did from the rest of the lecture. “Everything is learned in curves,” he said. “To go forward, you need to go back.”
To illustrate his point he drew a giant U in chalk on the board and gestured to it a few times with short jabs, his shirt coming untucked in the back. I’ll give you a quick run down of his argument. When children first learn a language, they learn by rote, just like a parrot. And Mom and Dad are ever so pleased. They show their son or daughter off to the family and everyone makes a big deal over them. Then it all goes horribly wrong. Little Johnny starts to say “feets” and “childrens.” Precious Susie stomps her foot and declares, “I amn’t going to bed!” And suddenly Mom and Dad no longer trot Johnny and Susie out in public and laud their skills. Something must be done. The parents start to correct their children. “Feet. Feeeeeet. F-E-E-T. Not ‘feets.’ Feet.” As if saying it in slow motion will make them understand. But of course that has no effect. In a few months, their children are back to normal—on the road to becoming competent speakers of the English language.
When the children seem to regress, Professor Oaks explained, they actually make progress. It’s a step forward to start to venture out on your own—to start experimenting with how you think the language works. Parrots don’t start formulating sentences—they stay in the rut they’re comfortable with. And once children have made the important step of experimentation, they truly begin to learn. That’s where the U on the chalkboard comes in. The two peaks are the beginning and ending of the learning process; the trough is the apparent drop.
When Elder Anderson and I were teaching the Gospel in Germany, we often had to talk with our investigators about repentance. It took me a while to figure out how to address the subject properly. There are two words in German that translate into “repentance.” Literally translated, tue Busse means to do penance for something—it’s a fairly archaic word. Umkehris the more modern equivalent. Once I had been in land for seven months or so, I was driving in Aue on splits with Elder Dodge, the Zone Leader. Earlier in the evening we had driven up to the McDonald’s drive thru. Dodge yelled English at the speaker as he ordered a chocolate ice cream cone. “Chocolate. Choc-o-late. Ice. Cream.” The poor girl on the other end didn’t have a clue. I couldn’t stop laughing as we drove away, though the ice cream was lousy.
“Great,” Dodge said as we came up to a large orange road sign later that evening. “Dead end. We’ve got to go back.”
It was my first time sitting in the front seat, and for once I could look at the surroundings in front of us. Construction had blocked the way in front of us. “But the sign says Umkehr,” I stated.
Dodge turned to me, his wry grin in full force. “Of course it does, Elder Cundick. That’s what Umkehr means. To go back.” It felt right to me at the time, but it wasn’t until Professor Oaks gave his tangent that I knew why.
After Professor Oaks had explained his theory, he solemnly told us he was convinced that that was an eternal principle. That every type of learning experience in life follows that same process. You have to go back to go forward.
When I was little, I loved anything Disney, but the live action movies were my favorites. As soon as the crazy Technicolor Mickey Mouse outline would come on the screen at the beginning of the movie, I settled in to enjoy it—no matter what. I would watch the same movie again and again, with no care for plot, characterization or realism. The experience was everything. When the ghosts in Watcher in the Woods turned out to be caused by aliens, I opened my mouth in awe instead of objecting to genre mixing. When three innocent children were carelessly pawned off on a gambler in The Apple Dumpling Game, I wished I were one of them. When Elliott changed shape and sizes in Pete’s Dragon, I only focused on his color. I was blind to any flaw, no matter how large or small. I didn’t even mind the blatantly animatronic bird singing on Julie Andrew’s finger in Mary Poppins.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have my opinions. I liked some movies, and I disliked others.Pollyanna was complete anathema—to this day I still refuse to see it, not because I’ve heard it’s bad, but because I’ve developed a mental block against it. After you’ve declined to do something a certain number of times, you convince yourself that there is a good reason you haven’t done it yet. With Pollyanna, I’m convinced that the movie has a sad ending. Maybe it does—but I’ve never asked anyone. I don’t want to be told that it’s a good movie, because that would mean that I’ve been missing out all these years. It’s not just Pollyanna, either.
Up at my family’s cabin near Kamas we have a whole wall filled with videos. Probably about a hundred movies, maybe more. Most of them I’ve seen multiple times. The Mouse that Roared,Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—we’ve watched The Sting at least a dozen times. But there are other movies—Stalag 17 or I Was a Male War Bride for example—that I’ve never seen. The Pollyanna effect strikes again. Of course, other movies I would watch once and never return to—I didn’t like them. E.T. gave me the heebie jeebies ever since my brother broke out in tears when we were in the theater. But when people tried to corner me on why I liked or disliked a film, I couldn’t give them a definite answer—even up to a few years ago. Then I took English 345, Film and Literature.
The first time he entered the classroom, Professor Cutchins reminded me of Robin Williams more than anything else. Black hair that refused to stay down and a continual smile on his face. That semester we read and watched Cowboy Literature—The Virginian, The Shootist, and my personal favorite for oddest book I’ve been required to read for school—Crow Killer—The Story of Liver-Eating Johnson. The story about a man who hunts down Crow Indians, kills them and then eats their livers raw. It’s the basis for Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson, believe it or not. For Halloween, Cutchins dressed up in Cowboy clothes—hat and all—and brought in a Zuchini-lantern to celebrate. He even lit a candle inside it for all of three seconds. He’s a good teacher.
On the first day of class, he warned us all of the trials to come. “You’re going to hate me in a few weeks,” he said. “You won’t be able to appreciate movies for at least six months—you’ll be too busy analyzing them for high angles and low angles and oblique angles, extreme close-ups and voiceovers.”
I didn’t pay any attention—I loved movies too much to be ruined by theory. After all, I was an English major, and it wasn’t as if I had stopped loving literature because of it. And in the next few weeks, our class picked apart movies from The Shootist to High Noon. I didn’t notice a change in me until I went to the theater next.
Granted, that movie was one of the worst to hit the screens in a long time, but it was based on one of my favorite books. I had read the reviews—I had heard the scorn, but I was still willing to chance it. I hated it. Not just after it was over—from beginning to end. I tore it apart as I watched. Almost every scene had oblique angles, as though the cameramen hadn’t had his V8 during the entire filming. The lighting was dominated by dark blues and greens that tried to be cool but ended up being nauseating after an extended period. The director had abandoned the book—ignoring established sci-fi conventions in favor of flashy explosions and special effects that looked like they came out of a Mr. Wizard episode.
When my cousin Dave, a fellow movie connoisseur, asked me what I had thought of the film, I unleashed a vindictive torrent. It wasn’t until he started giving me odd looks that I realized it: Professor Cutchins had been right. And he still is.
I called my wife over to the television a few months ago—Dick Tracy was on. I had watched the movie when it first came out. “You’re gonna love this, Denisa,” I told her. “It’s got everything—great make-up, slam-bang action, catchy music.” She sat down to watch—and left a half hour later. I couldn’t blame her.
I could swear someone had gone and ruined the movie I loved as a child. The acting was abysmal, the costumes laughable. And don’t get me started on the plot line. There’s a reason Madonna is primarily a singer. I guess I could blame Cutchins—but instead I thank him.
The other day I returned to Mary Poppins with some trepidation. I don’t like to watch movies I enjoyed earlier; ever since Dick Tracy shattered before my new found critical eye, I have tried to let my happy memories alone. For once, however, I was pleasantly surprised: I still liked the film. And better yet, I could say why I liked it. The pacing and the shots, the plot and the dialogue—everything worked together to make that movie a success. Sure, the special effects of the bird on her finger looked like they had been made in a garage—but that wasn’t the point. When Dick van Dyke dances with the penguins, when the chimney sweeps shoot out of smokestacks like backfiring cars, when the toys go into stop motion frenzy—these are all moments that fascinate children in body and spirit.
Since English 345, I have taken three other classes focused on exploring the relationship of film and literature; I’ve even based my thesis around the idea, choosing to focus on how film can adapt point of view. I love exploring the way movies can open up a text, showing the critic new themes and insights. If anything, my love of film has increased.
I can now turn my critical eye on and off to an extent, letting myself appreciate movies for their own sake. But every now and then I can’t help but wince at a clumsy shot or gasp at a good one. But that’s not a bad thing. I appreciate movies all the more by being able to see what’s good about them—and what’s bad. It’s true that I can’t watch Dick Tracy and enjoy it for its own sake—but I’m actually grateful for that. Professor Oaks was right, too. You have to go back to go forward.