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10 Tips for Smart Film Viewing

  • Excerpted Material
  • 2011 20 Apr
10 Tips for Smart Film Viewing

From Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies

Films are one of the most powerful forms of popular culture. How can we view films more intelligently and reflectively? The following 10 tips should help.

1) Savor Them
Movies are for enjoyment, so—first and foremost—enjoy their many varied pleasures. There's the eye-candy wonder and dazzle of WALL-E, Avatar and District 9, and the spectacle and majesty (and tragedy) of The Mission, The Thin Red Line, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

2) Focus on Story
Always at front and center is the chief pleasure of the story, full of mystery and surprise, whether in the wit and fun of Star Wars or for that matter in the dark and sorrowful ones such as The Godfather. The big story question is threefold: Where does it start? How does it end? How does it get there (what happens)? We love stories and can't seem to get enough of them. Stories structure our world, showing us good people and bad via comedy and tragedy, farce and triumph.

Movies give us—literally—some kind of picture of the world visually and narratively that inherently tests our own individual assumptions of how the world works. We sometimes wonder if pure fiction might in fact be more true in its depiction of the world than reams of statistical analysis about everything under the sun.

3) Don't Overanalyze

While you're watching a movie, avoid the temptation that guides such as this one put before you: thinking too much and overanalyzing. Too cerebral an approach to viewing deflates the film and actually gets in the way of your responding to how the film works to convey its pleasures and meanings. Films appeal to a whole range of human responses, especially what we can call the emotional, affective, visceral, imaginative, intellectual and—as this guide explores—religious. In any case, what is important is the film experience. Save the analysis for later.

4) Examine Cinematic Elements
Likewise, the time to examine the story and style is afterward, though sometimes viewers can't help but notice some unique uses of lighting or camera angles. Needless to say, cinematic elements such as lighting, palette, casting, acting and production design are all terribly important; usually, however, if you notice them while you are in the theater, it means they're not being used very well. These often disrupt the suspension of disbelief that makes watching films so enjoyable. While we always know we are only watching a film, we do not like to be reminded of that fact while watching. That is true, no matter what the genre—self-conscious art-house films, romantic melodramas or cheesy sci-fi flicks.

5) Be a Virgin
Don't read reviews before seeing a film. Do enough background investigating to determine whether a film is to your taste and worth seeing. You can take a look at ratings and Internet scores at sites such as Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. If you are still uncertain, perhaps consult a critic or a friend; but if you learn too much about a film, the likely result will be that you will see the film through some critic's eyes instead of your own.

6) Lighten Up
Remember that not every film has to be serious. Movies, similar to sports, are meant to be fun; escapism is OK—at times downright necessary—given the pressures of life in the modern world. Most movies out there are meant to divert and nothing more than that; they are a convenient and pleasing minivacation. Transformers is intentionally mindless and, as are most action-adventure flicks, is a live-action cartoon for underdeveloped males. Every taste culture—whether composed of snooty cultural elites or Oprah fans—has its guilty escapist pleasures.

7) Guard Your Heart and Mind
A caution: The above does not mean that movies, especially very likable ones, cannot be corrosive. That is true for example of slasher, slice-and-dice horror movies, especially those featuring gratuitous sexual violence. Movies about the pleasures of violent retribution are also in that category—from Clint Eastwood's early Dirty Harry period to the Mel Gibson of Lethal Weapon II, Braveheart and The Edge of Darkness. I suspect Judd Apatow's immensely popular comedies such as Knocked Up and The Hangover, with their exaltation of pubescent male sexuality and overall stupidity, do more harm than good, even though they all supposedly have conservative, traditional values featured in their conclusions. Some of that is taste, to be sure, and some of it is serious business. Given the artistry of motion pictures and the medium's persuasive aesthetic power, movies can be potent advertisements for whatever their producers want them to be.

8) Trust Your Gut

Films are first and foremost affective in their impact: They make us feel particular ways. We feel certain emotions, whether joy or dread, because of things we've seen in the film; and subsequently those emotions, if they are strong and memorable, prod us to think. With most films, understanding or interpretation simply seeks to identify what in the story occasioned the feelings that we take away from the theater. That's a good place to start personal reflection or group discussion. Did I like it (or not), and why? Filmmakers do what they do to make viewers feel and think in particular ways. If this is mystifying, remember that for a number of millennia now, philosophers have been—and still are—disputing the power and effect of art.

9) How Do Films Work?
Film is a construct. That term simply means that movies, at least fictional ones, are made-up things, constructed our of cinematic materials—much like a high-rise apartment building of various ingredients—to serve a purpose. A good part of understanding film is simply recognizing all the elements the filmmaker manipulates to evoke feelings and thoughts in viewers. If a film is done well, viewers don't notice all that cinematic inner construction just as they don't see the steel superstructure, the wiring or the plumbing of that residential high-rise.

10) Savor Extras
An entertaining and usually informative source to spur understanding in film lies in the extras that come on many DVDs. These range from commentaries by the director and actors on the film to the making of featurettes. On occasion, deluxe DVD editions such as those that come with The Lord of the Rings or the Narnia cycle come so fully supplied with featurettes on varying aspects of production that together they amount to a small course on filmmaking. The marvelous Criterion Company puts out classic films with unique features, including documentaries and commentaries by leading film scholars. If you are getting hungry, these can make a wonderful buffet.

Excerpted from Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies, by Roy Anker. Excerpt provided by permission from Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.