November 21, 2004

Graduating from the Cinematic Kids’ Table (A guide)

Strategies for Watching the Great Films

You enter the theater ready for a film to take you in. The lights dim, the seats around you fill, and the smell of popcorn on other people’s breath is almost bearable because of the experience you’re about to have. But, of late, the experience has hardly been worth the time and money and is never worth the popcorn breath. Movie-going lately has begun to make you feel like you’re trapped at the kids’ table on Thanksgiving Day. Your knees don’t quite fit under your Aunt Sophie’s card table and as the movie patron’s to the left and right of you blow bubbles in their chocolate milk the aromas from the grown-ups’ table begin to waft in your direction. The adult fare appeals to you and you look longingly in the direction of the dining room table, but you have no idea how to make the switch.

This is the story of thousands of cinematically discontented souls. They are tired of the clichéd, over-sweetened Hollywood offerings and they know there’s more out there. But they’re either afraid to try something unfamiliar or they’ve tried to approach great films without a proper guide. They tried the caviar and of course, they hated it, and retreated back to the hot dogs and hamburgers served at a theater near them. The truth is that there is much more to film than what 90% of America is seeing. Beyond the films of Jerry Bruckheimer and Ron Howard lies a lush forest of diverse and rewarding cinematic art. However, “going it alone” with no game plan will almost certainly result in frustration. There are strategies, highlights and insights that should be considered before popping the French classic Ordet into the DVD player and hoping for the best.

Your Favorite Movie Might Suck

Before the journey begins, however, it is important to first dispel a myth about film. Since it is the art form of the masses, and there are so many viewpoints about what makes a great film, most people have come to the conclusion that any opinion is as valid as the next. This is not entirely true. While no one would attempt to lessen the importance of a personal experience another person has with a film, there are standards of good filmmaking that have to do with effective direction, cinematography, dialogue, plot, acting, lighting, sound, editing, music and much more. The people understand a good deal about each of these areas will often have a better idea of whether a film is truly “great” or not. Of course, there are differences of opinion even between the people who know the most about movies. However, it’s interesting to note there is usually agreement about the specific merits or detriments of a film and disagreement usually stems from differences of opinion about how important those good or bad elements are to the film.

The Spiritual Discipline of Good Taste

Finally, nurturing artistic tastes is more than an exercise in increasing your enjoyment of film, it is, in fact, a spiritual endeavor. If God is the first and greatest artist, than all art is in fact, an imitation of his very nature, and the more people understand and appreciate filmmakers’ efforts at playing “creator”, the more they’ll understand about their God and their world. Art appreciation is the sister of theology, whether the appreciator knows it or not. If it is true, it is God’s and therefore, it is worth personal investment.

Hollywood Has Programmed You

It is old news that attitudes greatly impact perception of events, and film viewing is no different. In fact, the bulk of Hollywood filmmaking has so programmed its audiences that even the slightest divergence from the formula has viewers bristling. This has a dual effect. It makes the larger populous rave about the films that fit in the Hollywood schema and it makes them crucify those that do not. As a result, anyone wishing to wander off the safe, paved road of films must be prepared for the prejudices easy walking has implanted in him. There are several things that most viewers find very irritating or intolerable because they are so accustomed to something different.

The first of these prejudices is subtitles. Most of this generation’s opposition to subtitles is a throwback to previous generations’ attitudes that films should be purely entertainment. “Words on the screen mean I have to think.” First of all, subtitles barely rely any extra thinking. People who can read, will read automatically. A literate individual cannot look at a word and not read it. It is instinctive. A driver on a highway has roughly 20-30 seconds to view a billboard filled with information, yet they are able to read and process all of it in that time. Secondly, if someone is truly looking for films where they don’t have to think, there’s no need to move to the greats, the current box office fodder is perfectly suited for mindless viewing.

The second prejudice that’s a major obstacle is pacing. Hollywood has programmed its audiences perfectly. They could set their watches to the plot twists, car chases, one-liners and romantic episodes. In fact, many producers and directors don’t even read an entire script when considering it. They know that the first conflict should be somewhere between pages 8-10, the love interest will be on pages 27-30, and so on. Older films, art house films, and foreign films do not follow this trend. Some of them take their sweet time getting anywhere. And many would argue they are better for it. Be prepared that a film that feels “slow or dull” may be intentionally designed in a way to produce a solemn, peaceful or wistful mood. If there are no car chases in the first twenty minutes, it’s probably on purpose.

Black and White
The next big prejudice is black and white films. In any living room in America, when a movie begins and the first shot shows no visible colors, someone in the room invariably groans, “Is this whole thing gonna be in black and white?” Most people believe that black and white film making is a primitive form of cinema and that movies have long-since moved beyond it. “If the Good Lord meant for movies to be in black and white, he wouldn’t have invented Technicolor.” Right? Not exactly. While it’s true that color was not an option for films in the first half of cinema’s lifespan, many directors still opt for it today. It is no longer seen as a lesser form of film, but rather an alternative to typical full-color films. In fact, it is often effective in communicating a mood or theme (the interplay of shadow and light, simplicity or the absolutes of good and evil) that color couldn’t convey as effectively.

Outdated acting and visual effects
The last cinematic prejudice that should be overcome is outdated acting and visual effects. Indeed, much of the acting from films before about 1965 looks downright ridiculous. However, remember that the current generation is obsessed with realism. The actors must be so real that television audiences have opted for people that aren’t acting at all in Reality TV shows. Even imaginary characters must be extremely convincing. Many complained that the CGI Spider-man didn’t seem affected enough by gravity as he webbed his way from skyscraper to skyscraper. Um…He’s not real! When viewing older films, it’s helpful to remember that often the realism of the event was not as crucial as the story or tone of the piece. As for visual effects, older films do require the viewer to suspend disbelief a bit further for the good of the narrative, but with the really great films, it’s definitely worth it.

Prejudice Attack Strategy

The key to attacking these prejudices is to hit them one at a time. You don’t want to start with Kurasowa’s Ikiru, because it’s subtitled, black and white, slow-moving, and contains almost laughable performances by its primary actors. Pick films that have only one “strike” against them. The Elephant Man, for example is black and white, but it is in English, and the acting is exemplary. The pacing is a little slower than one might be used to, but it’s a great starter film for overcoming the black and white obstacle. Ideally, when someone sees enough films with the “offending” element, not only will it no longer hinder her enjoyment of the films, but may perhaps become part of what she appreciates about them.

Setting the Stage for a Successful Viewing

It would be a serious mistake to believe that a proper mindset is all that’s required to have a good movie experience. The setting is equally important. The W’s of film watching go beyond the obvious “What”; of equal importance are the Where, With whom and When.

Whenever possible, a film should be watched in a theatre. There are some fantastic art houses in most every major city that show great films from times gone by, countries far away and filmmakers well out of the mainstream limelight. (Look for one near you here.) If you can’t see a film on the silver screen, rent it and be sure to get the widescreen version if possible. A television is not the same shape as a movie screen, so to fill the TV screen with picture; pieces of the frame are trimmed from the top, bottom, and sides. The so-called “full-screen version” of a film, ironically, is not the entire original shot, and not how the filmmakers intended the film to be seen.

The bad news is, once a person decides to see these films they’ve removed themselves from the largest movie-watching demographic. Acquiring these films at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video is not always easy. However, there are a few alternate sources for movie viewing. The library is an invaluable resource for older and foreign films. For the newer independent films, and for hard-to-get foreign films and documentaries, there are two outstanding DVD subscription services ( and that have an enormous stock that will include more obscure titles. If these services don’t have the film, it may not be available for North American DVD players. This part of the world has been determined Region 1 and almost all DVD players sold here will play only those discs.

With whom
It’s so important that anyone approaching a great film does so with movie-watchers equally dedicated to the cause. If a fellow film-viewer is not ready to look past some of the prejudices mentioned earlier, he will start to hem and haw early on in the film, and this will only detract from the experience. Secondly, it is crucial to find a comrade who’ll reserve judgment on the film at least until it’s over (even better if he/she waits a few days to allow further processing.) Anyone who says “This is stupid” or “I’m bored” before a movie is over is not giving the film the attention and patience it deserves. Until a suitable companion is found, it may be wisest just to watch these films alone.

It is clear that a person’s state of mind when watching a film is integral to the amount of value and meaning he takes from it, so it is crucial that anyone engaging a challenging film be aware of his mindset while watching. If the viewer finds himself getting drowsy during the film, it might be wise to stop it and resume it at another time. The piece-male viewing certainly does not a bad film make. In the same way that many books cannot and should not be read it one sitting, many of the greatest films may take a number of viewing times to make it through. And, of course, multiple viewings are always recommended. Especially if a film is hard to understand or disliked, it is very valuable to revisit it despite feelings of frustration on the first viewing. It’s important to find a time when disruptions will be minimal and brain functioning will be optimal.

Discussion; Getting Your Hands Dirty in the Film

Often more rewarding than viewing a film, is meaningful discussion about a film. And those admitting they are learners in the process will reap the greatest benefits. There are far too many people whose only purpose in discussing films is to voice their opinions on every film they’ve ever seen. When a person moves past the “liked it” and “hated it” form of discussion and starts analyzing what a film is trying to do, how it is trying to do it, how effectively it does it, and whether it is worth doing, then he has become a true student of the art form. It is, in fact, quite common that a person’s opinion of a film will change after they’ve discussed it. And that’s okay. It will often be that a person was either charmed or disenchanted with a film on first viewing, and discussing it with others will help her see elements or themes she may not have noticed that change her overall opinion of the film. However, whenever one’s overall opinion of a film is challenged it’s wise to watch the film again with the “challenger’s” thoughts in mind and see how the initial opinion holds up. No one is required to like films that are widely considered “great”. However, it would be foolish for a viewer to dismiss a classic or critically-acclaimed film as “lousy” just because it didn’t connect with her in a single viewing.

There is an outstanding web discussion on film and other art forms at that would be great place to start. The participants range from professional critics to filmmakers to just plain old film lovers. These are very intelligent folks who know their stuff when it comes to movies, but they are also a welcoming bunch. They’ve just published a fascinating list of the Top100 Spiritually Significant Films, most of which are definitely “grown up” fare. However, face-to-face interaction is so valuable, as well. A recent addition to the mid-west’s Cornerstone music festival is a concurrent film festival entitled Flickerings in which films are viewed and discussed and lectures are given on various directors and film movements. But even a film discussion group based out of a church or local bookstore can be extremely rewarding.

Once You’re Had Great, You’ll Never Go Back

Once someone has truly engaged a few great films, she’ll start to recognize the power and meaning in the higher forms of the art. It will be hard to go back to the kids’ table. Many “popular” films will be ruined forever by someone who has “seen the light.” Just like Plato’s cave-dwellers, the shadows on the wall aren’t nearly as impressive once the three-dimensional world has been experienced. However, it’s important to maintain a gracious attitude. There can be great truths found in popular Hollywood movies, and it would be wrong to minimize a person’s personal experience with a movie, even if most critics would call that movie trash. If Speed 2 changed someone’s life, there’s no need to diminish or belittle the movement of truth or the Holy Spirit that occurred within that person while viewing that movie. However, that doesn’t make it a great film. And gentle coaxing can show him the way to the grown-ups’ table where those encounters with truth are richer and more frequent. That’s not to say there is no such thing as quality kids’ food. For example, Spiderman 2 is like a really great dish of ice cream; and grown ups like ice cream too, after all.

No comments: