Watching Well: Intellectual Humility
With Alissa Wilkinson on July 13, 2015

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in Paris. I’m here for another three, which means by the time I leave town, I should finally be able to competently order a baguette.

Because you don’t just order a baguette, see. You first find a boulangerie—not hard, they’re everywhere—and you make sure it’s open, because they close pretty early. Then you wait in line and when it’s your turn, you greet the shopkeeper first.

Bonjour,” you say: good day. Unless it is past some magical point in the day when everyone starts saying “bonsoir”—good afternoon or evening, I think. You don’t do what my friend did and say “bonne nuit,” which is what you say before you go to sleep to the person lying beside you in bed. You’ll be greeted back pleasantly and then hopefully, you’ll get your order in. “Une baguette,” you say.

At this point I have uttered three words, but the shopkeeper invariably already can tell I’m American and switches to English, except the guy who thought I wanted two baguettes. In general, though, that’s a good thing, because usually by now I’ve forgotten to say “s’il vous plait,” please, and my only excuse is the stars and stripes running through my vein that make me dumb in any language but my own, up to and including British English. Then I dig through my wallet and hand over coins in an approximation of whatever I think the baguette cost, because I cannot count past ten in French and have to count up from one in order to figure out what a number actually means.

I do usually remember to say “merci” and “au revoir” on my way out the door, but after sixteen days of multiple interactions in shops, I am usually shuffling out shamefacedly at my inability to get a loaf of bread, the basic building block of civilization, in someone else’s language.

The first time I was in Paris, I flew in from spending the day in Rome, where I’d practiced my French under my breath all day. I landed at Charles de Gaulle and went out to the taxi stand, intending to greet my driver in his language, but instead panicked, pulled out a sheet of paper, and said, “I need to go here,” jabbing at the page.

Here would be the appropriate place for me to bemoan the sub-par American educational system. Except that I have studied French. For years. Two years in high school (after two years of Latin, which should have helped), plus another intensive semester after college. I can muddle through the museum placards, but put me in a speaking situation and I’m a mess. By contrast, and illogically, I’ve never studied Spanish, but I have a far stronger grasp of that language than French.

This is especially unnerving to me because I am used to figuring things out pretty easily. All my degrees are in very different subject areas, for instance. My first international travel experience was Papua New Guinea, and I was twenty years old and alone. I kind of like being thrown into the middle of a new discourse and figuring it out for myself.

But what I have learned is that French pushes the limits of my intellectual ability. I am a child in French. I can count to five and greet people and sort of order a baguette, but that’s most of it. My husband, who has never studied a word of French in his life, is picking it up much more competently than I am.

Right, so—what does this have to do with movies? (Besides the fact that Paris is a dream for a film lover?)

I’ve been thinking about the intellectual virtue of humility, something that is sorely lacking in our age of bombastic pronouncements and Twitter soapboxes. People who practice this virtue are willing to own up to their limitations and mistakes. They aren’t concerned with their own status or prestige. Rather, they admit their limits and difficulties, and are willing to depend upon others—even those who are less sophisticated or educated or experience than themselves—to grow.

One clear way that movie-watching, done well, can develop us into more humble people is that when we vary our diets, we’re constantly confronted with ideas, situations, culture, and people who aren’t like us. One reason I have a tremendous problem with the film God’s Not Dead is that it does the exact opposite: it regurgitates tropes without seriously grappling with the actual viewpoints that the characters in the film would actually hold if they had been written well: a Muslim father and his convert daughter; a philosophy professor; a left-wing journalist. All of the “bad” characters read exactly as if the writers didn't practice intellectual humility, as if they did not actually know any philosophy professors or left-wing journalists or Muslims or atheists. 

But I don't mean to dump all over that movie (at least, not too much). I also encounter challenges to my lack of intellectual humility in movies all the time. Some of them just seem too “smart” for me. Some of them test my limits to follow along in a complex story, or my ability to be interested in something that I find boring or uninteresting. 

Similarly, some films actively challenge my intellectual limits by saying more in their form than in their content, or by being about foreign cultures or people unlike myself—whether they are people from history, or from a different continent, or from a different historical era, or region, or part of town.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, one of the greatest things a film does is put us in a place where we are almost forced into practicing attentiveness—and of course, attentiveness is linked to humility. If I sit and listen to someone else for two hours, and if I really listen, then I cannot help but be humbled. My sense of self is smashed. I am not the subject here, anymore; I am the receiver.

How do we watch movies this way? It turns out that watching to develop intellectual virtue is pretty much the same, no matter the virtue. I plan my viewing so that I am not sticking merely to films that reinforce my sense of self. I seek out challenging movies. 

And I watch them with others, and then discuss them with others, so that I can be challenged by their viewpoints. If there is one thing I have realized is essential over the past few years, it is that watching cannot, must not be done in a vaccuum. Critics help us open up our view of a film, and of the world, in powerful, affirming, challenging ways. Conversation partners who are honest and thoughtful make us see a movie in a new way. Friends gently remind us that our opinions are not the final word on the subject—that art is part made by the artist, part made by us in our reactions.

I love Paris, and I'm hoping to return many more times. But I have been humbled here. And I can tell you that one thing I have to do, when I return, is speak the language better, or at least understand it. I will try to take lessons. I will watch French movies with, and then without, the subtitles. I will read French newspapers. This is trying, difficult work, and I don't really want to do it. After all, I have an escape hatch: most people speak English.

Similarly, I have an escape hatch when it comes to movies: I really don't have to watch anything that humbles me. Most days I don't choose to. 

But then I'm practicing pride, and that is not who I want to be. 

Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She tweets @alissamarie.

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