I recently saw Miller's Crossing (finally!), a movie I savored every moment of. I must admit I found it difficult to follow some details of the plot; but it didn't matter. The film is an exercise in pure atmosphere and feeling. Even when I wasn't able to follow the trappings of the narrative, I felt its rhythms. The color palette and layered compositions allowed entry into the subtleties of its central character, Tommy (Gabriel Byrne, in a fine performance) as well as the thematic core of the movie, which explores the rigorous structure and ethical frameworks of organizations that thrive on death and violence.
Certain movies, like Miller's Crossing, strike me like that on first viewing; it's as if I intuitively know I am feeling the movie's deepest, most strange beauties despite having not completely familiarized myself with its details. For me, this is the feeling of seeing a great film for the first time. Obviously, feelings and thoughts differ according to the movie, but there is something about such a unique experience with cinema (or any art) that enables the spectator/reader to feel the spectrum of affect from the images in ways one cannot describe but can positively experience. It's an unidentifiable feeling, really, but great cinema sustains that abstraction and builds on it for the duration of the film, all through the motion of images. Because cinema allows the spectator to see its story played it in a controlled, deliberate manner, the subject almost becomes irrelevant to the manner in which it is committed to the viewer's memory -- visually and auditorily and imbued on her or his memory and emotive state. Virtually any kind of movie can provoke such ambiguous response to sounds and images, even ones which are traditionally simple in design and execution.
I may not be able to "figure it out" per se ("it" being a strong affective response), but if I could, then the experience wouldn't be as ambiguous or evocative to begin with. So how do we, as scholars or cinephiles make sense of these experiences in the structured ways we are instructed to? What is it that enables one to make sense of that experience of experiencing affect from watching a movie? What makes that feeling and association of images remain in memory so that one may recall the experience of a movie and put it on a Top 100 list? I just experienced the beginnings of this process while watching and reflecting on Miller's Crossing this morning; somehow I knew it would stick with me based on how I was seemingly inside the images. Recent theatrical experiences (within the last year) during which I had that same intuition include seeing Ratatouille, Pan's Labyrinth, The Descent, and Miami Vice.
Of course, writing about such experiences with cinema both involves the writer in that intangible experience, while also separating her or him from it. While reflection on the experience and active retrospective helps preserve the memory, it also removes one from that immediate experience insofar that the writer structures thought as well as forces that piece of moving images to adhere to the logic of criticism and structure. That is the real paradox, for it captures both the intoxication and the agony of what we do as writers, critics, scholars, and (yes) readers and viewers.