This month we’re looking at contemporary trends in social media which have damaged the perception of film as both a form of art and entertainment media. This week, we examine how finding the deeper meaning behind a film can enhance your experience of watching it.
You walk into an art museum and see an abstract minimalist installation. To the uninitiated it seems like a splatter of paint colors on canvas. It seems like it could have been made by a child. Yet here it is, being celebrated and revered as fine art. Some people walk away confused. Some appreciate how different it is. Others are disgusted by the lack of sophistication.
The same type of reactions apply to almost every film ever made. Some of them get more of one type of reaction than another. Some of them may be the very definition of mixed reception. In the case of both art and film the reaction to viewing that art or film can be just as important, if not more so, than the content of that art or film itself. Movies to which we react positively could have a significant impact on our lives. They may inspire us to change how we live, take up a new hobby, see the world,…etc.
Reaction to art, and to film, is a representation of our understanding of that work. As I discussed last week, poor reactions to movies can represent poor understanding. Consider the opposite. If you love a film, it is because that film resonated with your life on a personal level. Perhaps it is the associations we have with that film – where we were in life when we first saw it, or who we watched the movie with. Perhaps a film we love is because of the people who made it, the people who starred in it, the message of the film, or the people who wrote it (or the book it was based on).
But there is more to a movie (and art) than your first reaction towards it. Sometimes your immediate response to a work is love or hate, but you learn something new about it which changes your mind to the opposite opinion. Sometimes current events may change the way we look at a film, for the better or for the worse. Sometimes other works (comics, TV shows, music, etc.) cause us to reexamine something we initially dismissed, and look at it in a new way where we can appreciate it better. The point is, the merit of a movie can be more than just how much we get out of it personally upon our first viewing. This is something which should be kept in mind not only when you are viewing film, but also when you are exposed to other forms of art and media as well.
Ultimately, what you get out of a film is comparable to what you put in. It starts with just making sure you are paying attention. If you aren’t paying attention, don’t expect to comprehend the full intended impact of the film. Modern films have all sorts of techniques to lure you in and make sure you are paying attention. Most of this work happens before a big movie ever hits theaters (or your TV screens). Movie studios hype up their releases with trailers, teasers, and yes, teasers for teasers. Movie posters, tie-in advertising campaigns, merchandising…all of it is designed to grab your attention and make sure you place importance on paying attention to this film. These days it seems like without a certain amount of advertising, people can easily right off a film as not being important, without actually seeing the movie.
When you finally do get to viewing the film there will be music, special effects, action sequences, and flashy editing all working to keep you engaged and entertained. But, when you think about it, all of these attributes are built to keep you watching, but not always 100% engaged. You are watching to see what happens next. The film is laying everything out for you, you’re not necessarily thinking about how it was made, why it was made the way it was, or how well it is executed. Really, you become immersed in your own sensory feedback.
At this point, upon initial viewing, your judgement of the film is based entirely on how well the film conveys its sensory appeal. If there is a misstep in execution, a poorly written line, a hasty edit – these things can momentarily break you out of your experience. If there is a character who is annoying, offensive, or just rubs you the wrong way – it is a distraction. Similarly, if the film is not engaging the sensory inputs you expected it to, you can become bored. All of these things will negatively impact your perspective of the film.
But to fully comprehend a film, you need to do more than just watch it. Watching a film and judging it on how well it entertained you is only the base level of film comprehension. In many ways, that can be important. For some films, it is the most important aspect. But like a controversial piece of modern art, your initial gut reaction is only part of the picture. How a film makes you react is at least just as important as why it was made in the first place. It’s like taking a quote out of context. The quote itself can make you feel a certain way, but you can’t fully understand the quote, and its intent without knowing the whole picture. Film analysis can help you determine a full picture about a movie.
Now there are plenty of resources out there which talk about film analysis. They talk about the theories to use when approaching film, what to look for when watching a film, even walking you through specific films and analysis of individual scenes of particular importance. I’m not going to go into any of that detail here. Your approach to film should be your own. You can read about these approaches if you are interested. I feel like when we start talking about film analysis, some people’s eyes start to glaze over. Film is of course supposed to be a form of entertainment. Why do we need to make it more complicated? Why can’t we just enjoy it for the experience?
Those are good questions I can’t answer for you. I think for every person, you have to figure out what you want to get out of film. If you are okay just glazing the surface and taking what you will off of the top, go ahead and continue to do that. But, since film is so varied, I think there is something on a less immediate level which should appeal to everyone. It is just a matter of taking the time to find that which resonates with you. When you do find something that works for you, it can often bring about a higher level of appreciation of film.
What does that mean, exactly? For starters, you are no longer just consuming film for its sensory impact. That aspect is still there, but now you are able to add to it, and even supplement it. There is excitement when you realize a connection for the first time, or comprehend how a filmmaker has achieved their intended purpose. You begin to see things in a new light. Instead of complaining about how annoying Uncut Gems is, you appreciate it for how well it suffocates you.
Learning about methods of film analysis opens the opportunity to see the same film in different perspectives simultaneously. Not only does this promote a better understanding, and perhaps better appreciation of the film, but it allows you to realize how opposing perspectives can both be valid. You will begin to understand viewpoints on film which previously were against your own. Even if you do not necessarily agree personally with those perspectives, you can at least understand the reasoning behind them. Talking about film becomes less personal. We are no longer trying to defend our emotional gut response to a film, but instead introduce new ways to look at the same thing in a different light.
Film analysis can be as simple as looking up some information about a film you intend to watch or have already watched. I often ignore trailers as much as possible because when I go to watch a film I want to not have any expectations, and let the film come to me naturally. But, going into a film with some basic knowledge beforehand can allow you to appreciate more subtle details. Likewise, on the back end, reading or watching videos of analysis for a film you have already seen will allow you to look beyond your initial reaction to the film. Part of what I enjoy about film is how other people can come up with ideas about a film I would never have thought of. It speaks as much about the intelligence of the people making these observations as it does to add layers to the film itself.
Finally, an important part of analysis is considering why the film was made in the first place. Like the abstract art in the museum, to better understand the piece, we need to know the motivation which caused it to be made in the first place. For film, sadly, motivations are often commercially driven, but at the same time people don’t spend vast amounts of money and work tirelessly because they don’t have a passion to do so. Part of film analysis is finding that passion which went into the creation of that film in the first place. That love of story or characters, themes or images, wit of dialogue, and humor of jokes is really the heart of the film. And once you do find that spark, it is almost like you get to share part of that passion.
For more on this topic, check out: How Personal Bias Leads to Bad Film Reviews, Not Great Ones