Sometimes I talk to my friends or colleagues about a popular or recently released movie, and I get responses like, “It was great because it had this actor and that actress,” or “I love how it had so many themes.” These are the kinds of responses that really irk me, though, because they’re so empty. And these interactions make me realize that maybe we’re all watching movies the wrong way.
Cinema is a discourse; it ebbs and flows with perpetually conflicting ideals and perspectives. So I can’t say that there’s a single right way to experience film. But I can say that, considering the innumerable right ways to experience film, it’s disappointing that so many of us aren’t engaging with the medium in a substantive manner.
To engage with a film is to interpret it. We need to interpret our own reception of the film in terms of why our sensory receptors and emotional catalysts were struck in certain ways by what we’ve experienced. A film is like any text (novel, painting, poem, video game, etc.): you can ask what each element of it does, and how it relates to other elements. It involves playing what literary theorist Jonathan Culler calls the “about” game. Beyond what actually occurred in a film, we should start asking what it was all really about. For instance, saying that Hamlet is about a prince in Denmark is refusing to play the “about” game. But, positing that Hamlet is about the breakdown of the Elizabethan world order, men’s fear of feminine sexuality, or even the unreliability of signs, are all possible answers to the “about” question. What’s important isn’t the actual answer to this question, but that you’re playing the game and, thereby, actively engaging with the film.
As an amateur filmmaker, I have experienced at the micro level what it is to be part of a team in bringing a vision to life on screen. Every time I watch a film, I imagine the filmmakers behind it with the same glee, frustration, and wonderment in discovering the film that they’ve put together.
Hundreds or even thousands of people work on a single film for months, pouring in tons of money, time, and effort. Because of all the labor and love that’s put into every film, I go into each one optimistically, hoping it will be both critically and commercially successful. Of course, there are exceptions like The Emoji Movie (2017) or Fifty Shades Freed (2018)—corporate cash-grabs deliberated on by a committee and its charts—which, while employing many people, lack that creator’s love that we should expect from our movies. But usually, I like to think that filmmakers put forth all their heart and soul each time they make a movie. As such, shouldn’t we, as viewers, give the movie the same respect that the filmmakers did? They’re having a conversation with us, so shouldn’t we reciprocate and engage with them?
There are countless elements that can cause a film to stay with you. Directors, writers, and actors all inject their own nuances into a film, and each of these might have some impact on a singular viewer or even on a creative or cultural movement. The contrary is true as well. Sometimes we interpret something that was never intended. But we’re still playing the “about” game if we do so! After all, isn’t it better to honor the filmmakers for the power of their creations to stimulate endless thought and interpretation than to reinforce what we imagine to be a work’s original meaning? Not only will this offer more respect to the film, but it will unlock extra layers of the film for you and you alone, perhaps allowing you to enjoy it more and, most importantly, understand why you enjoy and engage with it on such a meaningful level.
My favorite film of all time, for instance, is Children of Men (2006). When I first saw it at age 9, I knew it was cool and even intellectually stimulating, but did not know what about it was gripping me. Upon multiple revisits in the past few years, I’ve been more and more entertained, with each subsequent viewing unlocking another layer. The film’s engaging use of long takes, especially in gritty, unglorified action sequences, gripped me even from my first viewing, capturing the scent of fear and tension in every single moment. But upon actively engaging with the discourse of each component of the film—in this case, the camerawork—I realized that the cinematography shines a light on the sociopolitical paradoxes of our world by examining its own setting.
Through interpreting the cinematography of Children of Men, we can unlock these conversations about the nuances of civilization, the dichotomy of faith and chance, the tragedies of displacement during refugee crises, and the beauty of human life. We take this into account with the layers of many other elements of the film and garner a much deeper understanding of why it occupied our curiosity and emotions for long after the credits rolled.
Affording movies the ability to engage us on a deeper level than just the plot sequence is to celebrate the many creative minds and labor hours put into every film. Whether or not a particular film was subjectively or objectively great, it still deserves that same attention. A movie is a novel, a poem, a painting, a theatrical performance, and a technological marvel all in one, so we ought to examine it on the level of each of its parts as well as on the level of the full sum. How we ought to watch movies is by celebrating cinema in every instance. We ought to enjoy what we enjoy, but then take a step back and ask ourselves why we enjoyed it. We ought to investigate and interrogate the contours of each conversation that a given film is having with us, and offer a response.
Image Credit: Egan Barnitt