Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A Short Guide to Being a Good Film Viewer (And Critic)

For those who take the experience of watching films seriously - abosrbing their images and ideas, reflecting upon them, and engaging in lively discussion about any and all concepts spurred from watching films (individually and the broader idea of it) - Film Analysis classes often fail at presenting the first steps of immersing your own individual experiences and thoughts into the emotive experience of watching a film. These classes condition students to look at films as passive viewers, not participants. They'll teach students to take notice of stylistic elements and observe that a particular image is noteworthy, but rarely ask why. I hope to delve into these questions more deeply with future posts, but, for now, I will provide a brief guide for how someone who is interested in studying film and/or writing about the cinema. Over time I hope to build on it and further elaborate on these points and others. But this is really meant as an introduction to freeing oneself up to the experience of watching films, not from the a stagnant perspective forced upon students in survey classes, but from a perspective that promotes asking questions about the experiencing of seeing moving images on the screen and wondering how and why it works. The answer to these questions are elusive, but we cannot begin to understand them before we can position ourselves to view films from the right mindset of opening oneself up to be part of the film. How and why something works individually in a film, or if a film works as a whole, and how we come to understand what's "good" or "bad" cinema, and where these ideologies are formed within the institution of criticism and the social processes of viewing films and enjoying them... all of that comes later. But now, for those provoked by film, for those who are interested in the medium I offer this very brief guide to how to begin to explore the many capabilities of the cinema as an art form and an aesthetic medium.

First, buy a notebook, or if a computer works for you, have it handy when you're getting ready to watch a film. When watching films, takes some notes. If something doesn't make sense to you, write it down. After the film, re-read your notes and consider them in context of the entire film. The first time watching a film, one is meant to experience it and ruminate upon that experience in an organized review or criticism or even capsule. You can analyze or think about why a film is working a certain way or ask questions as to why the images have been positioned and presented as such, but only after reflecting on the entire film can you think about the individual elements of it which build one's view of the entire film. Which leads me to the following point that the second viewing of a film (even the ones that don't necessarily strike you on first viewing) can be just as fascinating as the first. The experience is different in that you can anticipate the images - when watching a film for the first time, you are vulnerable to its actions, to how it is organized, arranged, and presented for you make sense of. You may not be aware of all of the inner workings and intricacies of the stylistic elements when watching a film the second time, but having reflected on the picture as a whole allows the viewer to pay closer attention to such elements, inviting more in-depth analysis. From there (perhaps after one more viewing to familiarize oneself with the film taken as a whole), break down the film by performing scene-by-scene analyses, which may thus in turn inform one's perspective of the film as one flowing visual narrative. Start anywhere, with any film.

Once you have assessed films in relation to each other and built a knowledge of the cinematic medium, your knowledge will inform the experience of viewing and thinking critically about a film and the broader idea of cinema. From there, you can raise questions and contemplate ideas about the conventions by which genres have been constructed and the aesthetic elements of a film that construct the experience of a flowing visual narrative. Issues of ideology, expectation/anticipation, representation, and interpretation then become more clear after you have built a knowledge and experience of cinema, at which point can you examine the relationship of the image and the viewer, the image and the maker, the experiences, values, and expectations that inform and dictate how images are positioned and seen, and cognitive notions of how an individual sees the images of a film and makes sense of it based on cultural and genre norms and practices. Then you can observe film in a broad sense, as a communication device, and examine it in light of culture, socialization, entertainment, media, etc. and examine any number of things; for example such as how the cinema has influenced other media, and vice versa; how it has been influenced by the written narrative and vice versa?

Force yourself out of a comfort zone; ask questions and allow yourself to think about a feeling that you have watching a film but might otherwise gloss over. The possibilities for the study of the cinematic medium are endless, but it all begins with watching films: serious films, popcorn films, old films, genre films, black and white films, experimental films - films of all kinds and varieties. Ask general questions of oneself regarding why you are or are not entertained by this experience, and contemplating what it is about seeing moving images that is pleasurable; furthermore, how and why we make distinction as viewers as I just made, between the old and the new, amongst genres, documentaries and fiction, foreign versus domestic, Hollywood versus indie. Those distinctions are key to the experience of constructing a knowledge and memory of films and how viewers perceive moving images and understand them spatially and chronologically. Expectation and familiarity inform and position viewers as to how to understand the images, and they also determine the principles for which the images are created. As Gilles Deleuze, David Bordwell, and others have explained, images are seen and made according to what has already been seen.

Thinking about and exploring these concepts becomes inevitable and essential to the study of cinema, and it is only the beginning. But when one is ready and willing to approach film discussion and criticism with the appropriate mindset, this process becomes second nature. The experience of watching movies is never lost on those who love movies, even ones who analyze details. Such practices enrich the experience of sitting in the dark and becoming vulnerable to a film's sensibilities. Critics and film historians do what they do because they have all felt the touch of the cinematic magic. We all react to it differently and pursue that passion in a variety of ways, but all of this analysis and exploration goes back to the central feeling of being moved - emotionally or intellectually - by the experience of watching a movie. Film lovers and critics will forever try to understand what that means and answer all of its questions. There are thousands of ways of approaching it and studying it; and as enriching as it all is, there is no one answer or one method. Therein lies the beauty of it all. The pursuit of trying to answer these questions can be just as moving and significant as experiencing the movies themselves.

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