Meditations on Movie-watching...
I'm often asked if my training as a film scholar has taken all the fun out of watching movies. "Can you just watch a movie for entertainment, or are you always analyzing it?" people ask. I used to say that there were some films I could watch uncritically, simply enjoying the two hours of escapism. Now I know that isn't true.
My critical faculties are like involuntary muscles, always engaged; I can no more turn them off than I can tell my heart to stop beating. An independent art-house drama or an Adam Sandler comedy—it doesn't matter: the film scholar in me is always in the room, making evaluative judgments about the dialogue; considering the setting's historical context; or thinking about the film's deployment of stereotypes. So ingrained is this way of watching a film that I cannot give in to even the most captivating of stories.
My critical approach to movie-watching is not without its domestic provocations. Just ask my husband, whose tastes in film tend toward obscure straight-to-DVD action-adventure films. In a heightened state of perturbation, I sit there mocking the cliché-ridden dialogue, until one or the other of us can't stand it anymore and has to leave the room. Unless you too take perverse pleasure in deriding egregious screenwriting, it's really not very much fun watching one of these movies with me.
So does my inability to simply watch a film for entertainment constitute a loss? Am I missing out on one of life's simple pleasures? True, I'll never be able to sit through another screening of Con Air, and I now find little charm in American Beauty's mordant humor knowing that it sustains the film's thinly veiled misogyny. On the other hand, I'm far more sensitive to how representations in something like a seemingly frivolous romantic comedy can have profound (if stubbornly unacknowledged) effects in real life. Moreover, I derive far greater satisfaction in the many fine films out there because I recognize their triumphs. A well-placed shadow; pithy dialogue; dynamic editing—these are details that, once upon a time, I might have appreciated intuitively, but now I am fully cognizant of them and understand how they allow us to make meaning of a film. (And if you don't already know what makes Citizen Kane the greatest American film ever made, I can tell you.)
Students who devote themselves to film criticism must accept this fall from innocence as an ineluctable consequence of the discipline. A converted disciple of cinema studies, you will never again watch a movie in the same way.