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.


By Jason Haggstrom on February 17, 2011 at 11:52 AM

Fantastic piece, Tiel, and one that I can totally relate to! I hear people say things like "I just want to be entertained," when they really mean "I don't want to think at all." Personally, I don't understand what is so entertaining about turning off one's brain—if I wanted radio silence, I'd go to bed. To me, engaging with a film is what makes the experience of movies so entertaining! You conclude by saying that "Students who devote themselves to film criticism must accept this fall from innocence as an ineluctable consequence of the discipline," but I'd like to build on that to say that the "fall from innocence" isn't something to mourn, but to be celebrated! Rather than a "fall from innocence," I see it as an "ascension from ignorance" (note to readers: the word "ignorance" should not be confused with "stupidity").

I've also been asked by numerous friends and family what I consider to be a related question: does my serious interest in movies mean that I like fewer movies than I used to? My response is always to say that it is actually quite the opposite. I feel that my continuing education of film—both in the sense of formal education and as a watcher—has meant that I no longer limit myself to picking films from a subcategory limited by genre, actor, or other such variable. Instead, I pick what I watch from the entire field. Of course, this means that I watch a whole lot of foreign films and the films of yesteryear (including those pesky black and white films that seem to turn off so many who have never even watched one). I don't care what they are about or when or where they were made so long as they are good! But this also means that my tolerance for what is the mainstream in American movie watching has dwindled significantly. I don't need to see all the latest Hollywood releases. I don't feel the pressure to be in on the "water cooler" conversations. Don't get me wrong, I love a whole lot of what Hollywood cranks out, but I can't imagine limiting myself to Hollywood (or current releases) alone. There's 100 years worth of films behind us and there are literally hundreds (hundreds!) of GREAT films that already exist that are more worthy of whatever precious hours I have on this Earth than the latest, unfunny Adam Sandler "comedy." I've just come to realize that when somebody asks me that question, they really don't understand that the sub group that defines their perception of what movies are is not what defines my perception. They only see that I don't like their movies as much as they do. A lot of the movies that I love don't even exist in their worldview.

By Holly Miller on February 23, 2011 at 9:18 PM

I can relate to both of your views Jason and Tiel. I have spent the last two years in film courses at University of Colorado Denver (UCD). I can feel my ability to view a film without looking for the meaning embedded in the mise-en-scéne quickly dissipating. Noticing camera angle and the length of a take, has become like icing on the cake in my viewing experience. Now, finding the language to accompany my observations is currently a skill I am developing. That being said, the conversations going on while a movie is paused in my living room are beginning to get very interesting. I live with my husband, my mother, and our two small daughters, whom I hope to impart some film knowledge upon as they grow up. So, each semester when screenings are required at home, there we are, in the living room, watching films that we otherwise might not have considered for the Netflix queue. And me, trying to explain the latest theory, method or reason behind something, and all the while feeling happy to shed light upon our prior “for entertainment only” point’s of view. I love what you said, Jason, “I see it as an "ascension from ignorance.” Being a film student at UCD has filled my cup to the brim, and in my current and final year in film courses, my cup is literally overflowing. However, I am still trying to explain the importance and significance of Citizen Kane to my dear husband, who continues to resist watching the black and white films with me! Sigh. The funny thing about that is when he finally sits down with me to watch an old black and white he usually finds value and enjoyment in it! All good things in due time I guess.

My favorite pass-time has turned into my favorite passion and I am proud to be taking my family along for the ride. I actually enjoy watching movies even more now than I used to. There is more to see, more to think about and talk about. It’s like learning the way a magic trick is actually performed. (I know about this because I used to be a magician’s assistant!) Once you know how the trick is done, is it still magic? That may be a matter of opinion, but for me… it still is! Likewise, movies will always be magical for me, knowing how they are made and the deeper meaning behind each frame, simply gives me more of what I love.

By Tiel Lundy on March 3, 2011 at 9:50 AM

I love the analogy to a magic trick, Holly. And how fabulous that you can put "Magician's Assistant" on your resume (although I can't help but think of the hapless Joel on Arrested Development.) In so many ways, film really is magical, the tricks of the trade even more impressive when you're able to look behind the curtain and learn how they're performed.

By Jody Thomas on March 29, 2011 at 3:23 PM

You aren't just talking about film scholarship; what you say could be applied to education generally. When you say, "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," you are talking specifically about watching films, but the same could be said of anything else you do. I'd be willing to bet that you also notice cliché-ridden dialogue at parties, deployment of stereotypes in the magazines at the dentist's waiting room, and thinly veiled misogyny at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Your critical faculties, honed in the screening room, carry over into the rest of your life. This is why a liberal arts education, and arts education specifically, is so valuable.

What's interesting is that while most would consider this way of engaging critically with the world beneficial in real life, for some reason we think of it as an obstacle to pleasure when it comes to our entertainment. As Jason says, "I hear people say things like 'I just want to be entertained,' when they really mean 'I don't want to think at all.'" As Will Rogers said, "There is only one thing that can kill the Movies, and that is education."

I wonder why people feel this way about the movies? They don't seem to feel that way about other forms of entertainment - who expects to enjoy watching baseball less over the years as they become a connoisseur? Who would claim that Poker is more fun for the novice? Or playing the piano? How about sex? Is there really anything that gets worse as you get better at it?

Of course, you, Jason, Holly and I all know that education actually leads to deeper appreciation, which is a more satisfying kind of pleasure. This is why Holly finds such value in sharing her new knowledge about film with her daughters, just like she would any other knowledge about life, and why Jason rightly uses the phrase "ascension from ignorance."

For years I have resisted learning about wine because I am afraid I will educate my palate right out of my price range. It looks like I'm going to have to reconsider.

By Hannah Valian on April 1, 2011 at 5:27 PM

I often separate the movies I've seen into pre-film studies and post-film studies. I really didn't learn how to watch movies until I took my intro to film class at CU Boulder four years ago. I admit, the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I hated it. But alas, my introduction into film studies rescued me from my mediocre taste in movies and a complete lack of aesthetic appreciation for the vast world of cinema.

Jason, I too hear the comment, "I just want to be entertained," or "I don't want to watch anything that makes me think too hard." It's tragic, really. A part of my soul dies a little bit when my roommate turns off Jersey Shore to watch Twilight: New Moon... for the 15th time. I agree that engaging with a film is the only way to truly appreciate it (or criticize it). Film studies has become a platform for me to learn how to engage with the world around me (as Jody also pointed out). I find myself constantly comparing my life to the movies (and vise versa). I love Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. because it addresses the experience of watching movies... movies imitating life and life imitating movies. Both are so influential to each other. But I suppose that observation only scratches the surface of the movie experience. My roommate would certainly agree that her life has been influenced by the critical decision Bella must make between Edward and Jacob (something about that one time she was faced with the same struggle). I am eternally grateful to have learned how to analyze a film for its contextual meaning, social implications, and aesthetic innovations. I find myself applying those same analytical tools to my everyday life. As Jody pointed out, "This is why a liberal arts education, and arts education specifically, is so valuable."

As my graduation day approaches I've begun thinking more about what I am taking away from my college education. I think the most important skill I have gained is my ability to engage critically with my surroundings. But I suppose I also take comfort in knowing that if I'm not sure how exactly to make those engagements, there's probably a movie in my library that will provide some kind of blueprint (Twilight is not one of them).

By Jody Thomas on April 25, 2011 at 9:45 PM

There's a piece about feminist readings of Thelma and Louise and Pretty Woman in April 21's New York Times Magazine in which Carina Chocano argues that her own education taught her to see the world as a "darker, more dangerous place than it once seemed." She claims that this is why people watch Jersey Shore.

By Byron Graham on April 29, 2011 at 3:25 AM

Great posts everyone; I too have been persistently befuddled by this question. Does critical thinking ruin entertainment? The people who've asked are under the mistaken impression that I had any choice in the matter. I've never taken my seat in a multiplex before screening some blockbuster film and though: alright, critic brain activate! Jean Luc-Godard famously said " Cinema is truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie." I mostly agree. I do think that watching a poorly-executed film is like being lied to by a small child. It's so obvious that you can't help but realize the kid is lying. And the little lying shit knows that you know, but nevertheless proceeds as if you believe him. Ugh. For great movies, the inverse is true. Watching a great movie is like being lied to by a comely stranger: you're all too willing to be seduced. Entertainment is submission, but the critical thinker cannot submit to obvious manipulations, try as they might.

I really hope that analogy makes sense. Late is the hour.

Anyway, knowing a movie is lying badly is an almost instinctive process, at least for me, and my ongoing film education has given me the vocabulary and context to discuss cinema with precision. I do not think that critics are driven to discuss the minutiae of filmic matters by intellectual snobbery or bitterness toward the industry; a sentiment which has been expressed both by friends of mine in an argument over Michael Bay, and by filmmakers who've released a movie to a chorus of pan reviews. Rather, I feel that the need to understand in innerworkings of a film is driven by that nagging instinct that recognizes the inherent lie of bad movies and analyzes why that odd bit of dialogue or jarring editing sequence just doesn't sit right with them. That instinct doesn't stem from an inability to be entertained but rather a desire to seek a transcendent purity of entertainment available only to those who've prepared their minds to accept it. Critics are monks at the altar of cinema. Movie monks.
And honestly; sometimes they're bitchy monks with a weakness for puns.

By Byron Graham on April 29, 2011 at 3:33 AM

By the way, I was referring above to Gene Shalit, king of bad puns and blood-angry-upping TV appearances.
I'm not a Shalit fan.

By Tiel Lundy on April 29, 2011 at 11:42 AM

I guess it's up to us to spread the gospel of engaged and critical film viewing.

By the way, Robert Stam has a great discussion of why so many people (wrongly) perceive movies to be "mere entertainment," "brainless fun," etc. It's in the introduction to his book LITERATURE AND FILM (coedited with Allesandra Raengo). I highly recommend it.

Finally, Jody, I love the analogy to good sex--so funny!

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