Yesterday Elizabeth wanted to watch the “Wubba Wubba” song (a song sung by Sesame Street character Grover the Monster, on one the 10,000 Sesame Street videos we own), and was somewhat frustrated by our inability to find it. Partly it was the normal impatience of a 4 year-old, but it was also something else: she just takes for granted that you can always cue up the song or scene that you want, or watch things in whatever order you want.
This isn’t to say that she’s completely without a sense of narrative cohesion or linear plot development. Cinderella is to be watched from beginning to end, and she’s as fastidious about it as the Woody Allen character in “Annie Hall.” But she assumes that there are choices she can make about how to watch videos, and constructs different rules to different ones. If she wants to watch the outtakes on “Toy Story 2” before the rescue scene, as she puts it, “I can decide for myself.”
So her familiarity with DVDs has left her with a sense of the flexibility of movies: they can be entire, organic things, or collections of scenes. She watches movies the way we listen to CDs: a very few (e.g., Dark Side of the Moon) are meant to be listened to from beginning to end, but the vast majority are mix-and-match.
I found myself treating movies with the same flexibility after I got my DVD player. I don’t watch “Hard Boiled,” I watch the teahouse shootout, the warehouse shootout, and the hospital siege (the last one of the most gripping 40 minutes on film). Indeed, I treat most action movies, and anything with Keanu Reeves, the same way. I didn’t do this with videos, or did so only very rarely; but DVDs make it very easy to treat movies not as whole works, but collections of scenes. (To be fair, this is a practice that existed in one film genre before DVDs. Porn actors apparently refer to the dialogue and plot development bits of X-rated movies as “the fast-forward.” There’s nothing like pride in your craft….)
Doubtless there are film buffs who decry this approach to movies, and they have a case to make. There’s also a fascinating historical parallel. Three centuries ago, John Locke warned against the practice of chapter and verse numbering in the Bible, on much the same grounds. He warned that the use of chapters and verses encouraged “Common People” and even “Men of more advance’d Knowledge” to treat the Bible not as a grand unified text, but rather as a bunch of unconnected sayings, each of which could be read without consideration of the broader context in which it appears. With the introduction of chapters and verses, “Scripture crumbled into Verses, which quickly turn into independent Aphorisms.” This, in turn, allowed the flourishing of heretical sects, which often based their legitimacy on just a few lines of the Bible. (A contemporary parallel might be drawn to snake handlers, who are inspired by three passages in the Bible about snakes and serpents.) If you read the Bible the way it was meant to be read– from start to finish and with attention to its larger structures– Locke argued, you wouldn’t have these problems.
I don’t know if there are contemporary versions of this argument with regard to reading the Bible. But it is interesting a practice that we now take for granted (when’s the last time you saw a passage of the Bible quoted without chapter and verse citation?) was once considered deeply dangerous. Today, though, the phrase “citing chapter and verse” indicates a deep knowledge of your material, not a tendancy to misunderstanding or decontextualization.
[The extended entry contains extracts from Locke’s An Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul’s Epistles. By Consulting St. Paul Himself, in which he lays out his argument against the use of chapter and verse.
Source: John Locke, An Essay for the Understanding of St. Paul’s Epistles. By Consulting St. Paul Himself (1707). Quoted in D. F. Mackenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts (1985), 46-47.
The dividing of them into Chapter and Verses,… whereby they are so chop’d and minc’d, and as they are now Printed, stand so broken and divided, that not only the Common People take the Verses usually for distinct Aphorisms, but even Men of more advance’d Knowledge in reading them, lose very much of the strength and force of the Coherence, and the Light that depends on it….
…if a Bible were printed as it should be, and as the several parts of it were write, in continuous Discourses where the Argument is continued, I doubt not that the several Parties would complain of it, as an Innovation, and a dangerous Change in the publishing of those holy Books…. as the matter now stands, he that has a mind to it, may at a cheap rate be a notable Champion for the Truth, that is, for the Doctrine of the Sect that Chance or Interest has cast him into. He need but be furnished with Verses of Sacred Scriptures, containing Words and Expressions that are but flexible… and his System that has appropriated them to the Orthodoxie of his Church, makes them immediately strong and irrefragable Arguments for his Opinion. This is the Benefit of loose Sentences, and Scripture crumbled into Verses, which quickly turn into independent Aphorisms….
And perhaps if it were well examin’d, it would be no extravagant Paradox to say, that there are fewer who bring their Opinions to the Sacred Scripture to be tried by that infallbile Rule, than bring the Sacred Scripture to their Opinions, to bend it to them, to make it as they can, a Cover and a Guard for them. And to this purpose its being divided into Verses, and being brought as much as may be into loose and general Aphorisms, makes it most useful and serviceable.