What is a Movie? • Sullivan's Travels

Greenscreening Series #01

How would you describe a movie to someone who traveled from the past? What movie would you show them, and why?

August 12, 2022

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This Time on Greenscreening

Sullivan’s Travels (1941), written and directed by Preston Sturges

Synopsis: Tired of churning out lightweight comedies, Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) decides to make O Brother, Where Art Thou?,  a serious, socially responsible film about human suffering. After his producers point out that he knows nothing of hardship, Sullivan hits the road disguised as a hobo. En route to enlightenment, he encounters a lovely but no-nonsense young woman (Veronica Lake), and more trouble than he ever dreamed of. -Criterion Collection

Don't worry, it’s a comedy with a tinge of satire. You can watch the trailer here. Check out the trailer -- but be aware the film is much better than the trailer.

Sullivan's Travels is available to rent on Amazon and a few other places. Check for streaming on Reelgood. You can probably find a DVD or Blu-Ray at your library as well.

What is a Movie?

If I asked you “what movie should we watch?” or “seen any good movies lately?” you’d know how to answer me. We have a shared context for what it means to watch a movie, and generally, we all form opinions about the quality of the movies that we see.

But if I asked you “what’s a movie?” you might find the question more difficult.

Is a movie something that you watch in a theater, with a group of other people? Streaming services and the covid-19 pandemic have made watching movies at home even more common than they were 10-20 years ago, during the era of Blockbuster and late fees.

Maybe your answer would veer towards duration - it’s something you watch that’s longer than a tv show. But how long is a typical movie? In 2020, the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees included The Irishman, which ran 209 minutes, as well as Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, which clocked in at just over half that at 108 minutes (and if you go back to 2004’s Before Sunset, you have a 79-minute Best Adapted Screenplay nominee, and critical darling).

Is a movie determined by the use of a certain type of camera, professional actors, and elaborate special effects? Director Sean Baker has shot critically acclaimed movies on iPhones, and throughout film history, movements like Dogme 95 and Mumblecore have sought to challenge our assumptions about how movies should be made, or how they should look.

Maybe we can define a movie in relation to something similar but different, like a television series. Movies tend to tell a self-contained, complete story, whereas a TV series unfolds a story across multiple episodes, or groups of episodes called seasons. But then, consider the prevalence of movie sequels, and suddenly movies can be episodic. And Marvel and DC created the concept of the cinematic universe, where individual films contain overlapping characters and storylines that combine to tell a broader story (in Marvel’s case, 21 films made up the Infinity Saga, from Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame).

So the definition is actually getting fuzzier, not clearer. 🤔

Perhaps the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can help, since they award Oscars and set strict rules for a film to qualify for its awards. To be eligible for the Best Picture award, a movie must: * Have a running time of more than 40 minutes * Open in a commercial movie theater in a major metro area (Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, and San Francisco) and run for seven consecutive days in the same venue

So at least for purposes of awarding Best Picture, a combination of duration, format, and means of exhibition is what really defines a movie for the Academy.

At least for now. With the rise of streaming, and with theaters largely closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Academy shifted its eligibility requirements. So we'll see how things continue to evolve.

Immersed in a language we don't speak

One of my earliest movie memories is seeing Tim Burton’s Batman in the theater. The film premiered in 1989, so I would have been 5 years old. I remember it being loud and dark and kinda boring whenever Jack Nicholson wasn’t in the scene. But what's maybe most significant about this memory is that I don't remember my parents having to explain to me "this is a movie."

Two key implications from that. 1) I already knew what a movie was. And 2) I was essentially a self-taught moviegoer. At least until I went to college.

I think this is pretty common for most people born in the West (and several other parts of the world). We learn about movies through experience, and become fluent moviegoers from a very early age, probably as far back as we can remember. And so the question "what is a movie" is difficult to define partly because we don't ever have to think about it -- we and those around us know what a movie is, and have always known what a movie is.

I could be wrong about this. Perhaps this is part of parenting. Tiffany and I don't yet have kids. Maybe my parents actually did sit me down and explain movies -- if so, great job! and sorry I don't remember!

One of the goals of this series is to help us think about the language of movies, the context around how this language was developed over time, and for us to look together at what films are trying to say, and how they’re saying it.

And just as importantly, as we move through film history, we’ll see that filmmakers, critics, and audiences have been asking the question “what is a movie” since its beginning. We'll see that every film participates in an act of self-definition, declaring “this is what a movie is,” and sometimes “this is what a movie should/can be.”

This question is at the center of this week's movie, Sullivan's Travels.

Reflection Questions

If you feel inclined, send me your answers to one or two of these via Discord:

  • Imagine you're Kate from the film Kate and Leopold (2001, James Mangold), and you meet an English Duke who has been transported from the year 1876 into modern day. How would you describe a movie to Leopold? What movie would you show to Leopold, and why?
  • What's your favorite type of movie watching experience? Consider things like what kind of movie you're watching, where you're watching, and who else is there. And on the flipside, what's your least favorite type of movie watching experience?
  • Do you feel like movies should serve a purpose? After watching Sullivan's Travels, what do you think Preston Sturgess was saying about the purpose movies should serve? Do you agree with Sturgess?
  • In the film, the character John Sullivan sets out to make a film called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers used that title for one of their films, which was based on The Odyssey and set in the American South in the 1930s. (also: I highly recommend this film, if you haven't seen it) Why do you think the Coen Brothers chose the title?

Further Reading / Viewing

Supplemental Resources:

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