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How To Watch A Movie
(A brief, introductory guide to film viewing and the duty of the audience)
You learn a lot about art in school. Some paintings, some sculpture, some literature. Maybe some buildings and poems, perhaps a play, and if you’re really lucky you might get to watch a bit of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I remember being twelve or thirteen in French class (on the second floor of left wing of the middle school) and being shown the 1986 film Manon des Sources, sitting in a group of tweens transfixed by the beauty of Emmanuelle Béart, giggling at non-sexual (and some sexual) nudity, scandalized as our teacher stood in front of the projector and explained how she’d be skipping over the scene where a man pierces his own nipple with the hair ribbon of a young woman he’s obsessed with. While I learned little in the ways of vocabulary or grammar, I certainly gained a deeper understanding of the French Condition.
This is all to say: we are often taught about art. We are rarely taught how to look at art. Enjoying and understanding complex art is a fundamentally pretentious or elitist exercise in that it is predicated on some level of prior understanding, but that’s not a bad thing. It just means that you have to work a little harder, look a little longer, dig a little deeper to speak the language of painting or music or dance or theatre or—in this case—film.
I have no desire to “consume content.” What I want is to watch, and to listen, and to feel, and most of all to engage with art. I believe there are objective measures of artistic success, and that certain things hold more meaning and value than others. I also believe it takes work and prior knowledge to get the most out of good art, and I happily accept that some people will live perfectly content lives without active and critical film-watching. After all, like taking vitamins and letting go of old grudges, there are plenty of things which are enriching for the mind and body and spirit that I myself have no desire to do.
I’ve been fascinated by the public reaction to Killers of the Flower Moon. Scorsese’s films are far from the most avant-garde or formally experimental productions being made today, and yet (due to the box-office dominance of IP-based films and sequels and “franchises,”1 I’d reckon to guess) they are treated as if they are insurmountable knots of endless complexity. In particular, the discourses that have piqued my attention concern A.) the question of whether or not theaters have the right to insert intermissions into films against filmmakers’ wishes2 and B.) the role that “enjoyability” plays in assessing a film’s merit. Both conversations really center what the function of film is (to entertain? to captivate? to distract? to pacify?) and who a film is for (the audience? the critics? the filmmaker?), big questions which certainly can’t be resolved in 140 characters or fewer. In fact, I don’t think they can even begin to be answered without first addressing a much simpler question: how do you watch a movie?
How To Watch A Movie
“Film” as a medium is not monolithic. It’s hard to find universal metrics to assess, understand, and critique a form so wide in scope—I don’t think it would be a stretch to describe a movie like Singing in the Rain (a Hollywood studio production) and a movie like Julien Donkey-Boy (an auteur-driven work abiding by the principles of Dogme 95) as different mediums entirely. But I think film (and, really, all art) can be digested by simultaneously considering these two seemingly simple questions:
1. What was the author’s intent? And how successful is this film in communicating that intent?
2. How did the experience of watching this movie make you feel? What properties of the film affected those feelings? In short, what is evoked by the experience of viewing?
I was so captivated by the video of the young men explaining how they don’t watch films that aren’t “enjoyable,” citing the example that The Wolf of Wall Street is “really fun for an hour, […] and then it’s brutal to get through.” It’s such a funny piece of criticism, because it shows an implicit understanding of the film before completely disregarding the possibility that their emotional response was the intent of the film. They see the first hour of accumulation, extractive wealth, sex, drugs, and power as exciting and invigorating, before finding such concentrated excess nauseating and hostile, but are unable to make the connection between the formal qualities of the film which evoke this response and its politics.3 Though these young men don’t see it, they have described a film in which the author realizes his vision so successfully that the film can evoke this feeling of disgust against the will of the audience.
It can be difficult to simultaneously lean into the sensory, emotional experience of watching a film while also trying to disassemble the end product to unearth the purpose of its conception. One must be both inside and above a movie, both the doll in the dollhouse and the child with an omniscient, dioramaistic perspective. I particularly enjoy watching films twice, often almost back-to-back: first, to allow myself to just be present with a work of art, let it wash over me through what it does, what it looks like, what it “is,” and again after learning more about the context in which it was made, the life and practices of the people who made it, and what it “does.” To me, the mark of a truly great film is one that makes this uncanny distance either blindingly apparent (Rashomon, La Chinoise) or totally imperceptible (Moonlight, In The Mood For Love).
And I find that these two viewings require paying attention in different ways, first to what one feels internally and then to what is witnessing, technically, right in front of them. Everything described so far applies not only to film but to painting, sculpture, theatre, music, and dance; but as this essay is meant to serve as both an ontological and pedagogical treatise on film watching, it feels particularly important to speak to film as a unique, specific medium. Some basic considerations I keep my eyes open for:
How long is each shot? Are they drawn-out, or is the editing quick, and fast-paced? When the camera cuts, why does it cut? What, in a given scene, is the camera reacting to when it cuts?
What is framed by the camera, and more importantly, what isn’t? What can’t we see, and why? Is there anywhere the camera can’t go? Why can’t it (and thus we, as an audience) go there?
What is taking up the most space in a given frame? Why?
Where is the light coming from? What is illuminated, and what isn’t? Is it illuminated naturally or artificially?
Similarly, what can we hear? How is the audio actually mixed? Is dialogue able to overpower and sit above all other sound, or does it live amongst ambient and background noise?
Who do we believe? Are we meant to “see” the director, an external perspective, in the film, or are we meant to believe the camera and editing are neutral forces?
What—through either inclusion or exclusion—is deemed necessary and unnecessary? Why do some things happen off-screen and some things happen on-screen?
Where does the film end?
All of these questions approach film as film rather than scripts and screenshots (an approach that is all-too-popular online and—in my own experience—in far too many classrooms). Thinking about film-as-film is not only an academic exercise, but a necessary practice in visual literacy. Perhaps most importantly, it is a recognition of the labor input required of filmmaking, a recognition of editors and sound designers and lighting designers as individuals acting on their creative intent.4 To “consume content” is to fetishize a film into this abstract, unborn thing that was not “made,” but simply “exists.” Not only does this write off the really, truly marvelous feat of cooperation that filmmaking requires, but it makes these decisive acts of intent appear to be either natural states or unintended coincidences. Everything in a frame is included or excluded for a reason, and even if we do not actively dissect this as we watch, we still respond to the moods and sensations that technical filmmaking creates.
These questions can be asked of filmmaking that is challenging, experimental, and complex, as well as films that were made simply to entertain—I’ve previously written about the need for good, informed critique of culture meant to be experienced passively. But there is also a larger purpose in actively engaging with films which are not “easy.” Watching—really watching, looking and listening and thinking and feeling—a film is a fundamentally empathetic act. It is a process in which one exerts themselves, gives something up, for a chance to better understand another person’s perspective. Watching a movie to understand means being part of a conversation with an artist who feels they have something important to say.
Perhaps this willing, anti-empathetic attitude towards art is best exemplified by a TikTok trend5 from around a year ago:
(I am very grateful for my sharp, curious audience who do not need me to point out the obvious, and I am simultaneously aware that I must point out the obvious anyways for the hordes of willful misreaders who populate the internet: I know these posts are jokes. I know very well that boys can be condescending and annoying about obscure filmmaking. I know that sometimes we do just need to turn our brains off and not feel the weight of the world. But most of all I know that there is a truth to jokes, particularly when they become popular and repeated formats, that cannot be written off simply because they are presented as jokes!)(Also, wholly besides the point and purely a petty haterism, but is anything more ““film bro”” than a college-aged man saying his favorite movie is Paddington 2?)
Of these three supposedly unendurable, performatively intellectual films, two are imagined, and one is real (The Bicycle Thieves). All three are “foreign” films, as evidenced by the need to describe their national origin and not the origins of the preferred films, and all three are about socio-political conditions. And, in all three TikToks, the preferred film is a recent, major studio movie that is (perhaps most tellingly) made for and marketed to children. All three of these videos communicate the same attitude towards film: a movie is something that exists to easily evoke a desired emotional experience in a controlled, passive manner.
More importantly, the underlying message these videos communicate is that it is only performative intellectualism that would drive someone to willfully engage with art depicting experiences beyond their own, or that which requires viewers to exert intellectual and emotional effort. What a grim attitude towards community, towards self-expression, and towards politics itself! How can a culture position itself as progressive or left-wing if even the act watching a movie is an insurmountable amount of emotional labor? It is not a cultural inability to seriously engage with complicated art, but a cultural unwillingness to do so that exemplifies the true depths of our unquestioned individualism.
And certainly—there are long and difficult films that are not liberatory; after all, it takes a fair bit of ego to become an auteur. But art that is formally subversive, that doesn’t conform to a singular, commercial vision of “entertainment” cannot be entirely written off as inherently masturbatory and bourgeoisie when so often the inverse is true. That which confronts its audience, which allows a voice to scream and twist and push and pull, is the art with the most truly revolutionary potential. To reject the ease and comfort of middle-class American and Anglosphere market notions of “taste” and" “entertainment” is an inherently defiant act. And so, working with and through art becomes mutually beneficial: an audience learns, thinks, feels, and then becomes part of a community and conversation with the mediation of a film. The artist is heard, not always understood but certainly interpreted, their cause empowered by the mere fact that people want to offer something of themselves to a work of art.
There is perhaps no better conclusion than Julio García Espinosa’s 1979 essay on Cuban filmmaking, “For An Imperfect Cinema.” Espinosa writes,
“There's a widespread tendency in modern art to make the spectator participate ever more fully. If he participates to a greater and greater degree, where will the process end up? Isn't the logical outcome — or shouldn't it in fact be — that he will cease being a spectator altogether? This simultaneously represents a tendency toward collectivism and toward individualism. Once we admit the possibility of universal participation, aren't we also admitting the individual creative potential which we all have?’”
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A term whose popularity I despise! It’s so transparently corporate, financial, un-artistic… what happened to “series”?! Even “cinematic universe” is better. And I contend that it is a more accurate term for fanbases whose fervor extends beyond the screen and into advertising tie-ins and conglomerations—they really do appear to be fans of the franchises as businesses. It’s just so soulless. But I digress!
(If you were curious, my condensed opinion is: it is perfectly sensible for a movie theatre to insert an intermission… unless it is against the explicit wishes of the filmmakers. If they feel strongly enough to reject an intermission, they feel that the intermission fundamentally changes something about the film, and I don’t think it’s a theatre’s place to change films.)
There’s something to be said concerning how many people have similar responses to films specifically about the excesses of individualistic, pleasure-seeking American culture: Wolf of Wall Street, Showgirls, The Bling Ring, and Spring Breakers all received significant criticism from both audiences and reviewers for being “exhausting,” as if their overindulgence was an unintentional miscalculation instead of an artistic and political choice.
This level of active witnessing is necessary to get the most out of films that are complex, experimental, and outwardly political. This level of active witnessing is interesting and worthwhile (at least, for those who are so inclined) for films that are not intended to be disassembled. I enjoy plenty of films that are really, genuinely bad (at this point, I have seen EuroTrip and PCU too many times to count), usually because they are stupid and funny and fun to watch with friends. And, importantly, there are films which are very successful in articulating their intent that are not as “good” as films which do not fully reach their ambitions. Take, for example, Gregg Araki’s 2007 film Smiley Face, a movie which does exactly what it sets out to do: it is both funny and deeply stressful, it has an earnestness that is uncommon in the “stoner comedy” genre, its lead character is flawed but well-intentioned, offering both easy viewing and an offbeat edge characteristic of Araki’s work. It is difficult to find faults in Smiley Face, but it’s also apparent that the film doesn’t have the grandest of ambitions. I think there is more to critique in Tár, a film with numerically more moments and creative decisions that falter, compared to Smiley Face, but that doesn’t make it an inherently more valuable film.
I find it interesting that the trope of the “film bro” has shifted from a young man who (with overtones of misogynistic, petit-bourgeoisie condescension) engages with more difficult cinema (early filmmaking, foreign-language films, structurally non-linear filmmaking) into a young man who (with overtones of misogynistic, faux-populist condescension) engages with the box-office hits of Tarantino, Nolan, and their derivatives. Can we no longer even imagine our collegiate pretentious tools to at least have good taste?