If there’s one thing I love more than seeing a great movie for the first time, it’s sharing a movie that I find great with someone whom has never seen it before. It might be part of something essential in human nature: a desire to share an experience that one finds profound with those whose opinion you trust and value. Whether it be something intensely moving, shockingly original, incredibly interesting, intellectually challenging, or unprecedentedly hilarious, introducing a valuable cinematic experience to a friend can induce the most rewarding of feelings for the cinephile.
This is exactly the experience I had, in varied forms, over the past eight months as I hosted a weekly movie series for my friends and roommates here in Austin called, “Movie Mundays.” In my living situation this past year in Weird City, I found myself in a unique context for movie viewing outside the FSR crew: amongst my roommates and our extended group of friends, I was surrounded by people who love movies, know movies, and can speak intelligently about movies, but these were also people who – unlike myself – possess healthy, full lives outside of movie-watching. Thus, unlike my group of friends in film school and outside my circle of fellow film bloggers here in Austin, amongst those I live with and our extended social circle I found a group of people with an active interest in film but unexposed to a lot of what I consider to be “essential” viewing (this is not to suggest, of course, that, unequivocally, zero of the attendees had not seen any of these movies before, but by and large most movies were an introduction for most of those attending each week).
I structured Movie Mundays (intentionally misspelled as they didn’t always take place on Mondays) around several themes, showing six to ten movies surrounding a certain theme before breaking off into another. Over the thirty or so movies screened since October, the themes included “Post-Apocalypse/Dystopia” (screenings included Dr. Strangelove, Brazil, Blade Runner: The Final Cut), “Revenge” (Olboy, Cache, Harakiri, The Limey, etc.), and “Misfits, Outcasts, and Icons” (Bronson, F for Fake, Dead Man, The Jerk, The Long Goodbye, etc.). Movie Mundays taught me a great deal about hosting a screening series, managing expectations, learning what people want to see and what they respond to, and, ultimately, illuminated for me – for better or worse – exactly what my particular taste in film is. Here’s what I took away from the experience:
The management of your viewers’ expectations is one of the more difficult things to balance when planning a screening series. The experience of some films benefit from no context at all (think about how your expectations differ when you have or have not seen a trailer before the film advertised), while others require it in order to de adequately appreciated or understood.
Take, for example, several films we screened in the “Misfits, Outcasts & Icons” series. One particular week I showed the brilliantly awful film, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, with no context whatsoever. I didn’t say it was an awesomely bad film, didn’t specify the genre or when it was made, nor did I even list the film’s title on the screening calendar (so my audience couldn’t even seek out information about the film if they wanted to), thus creating a total vacuum of expectations going in. This method proved incredibly effective, as the blank slate allowed for only surprises not only regarding details of the film’s hilarious badness, but the eventual revelation that it was an awesomely bad film in the first place. The same held true for the substantially more polished documentary shown in this series, Errol Morris’ Mr. Death, which appears initially to be a film about an oddball electric chair engineer but veers in an unexpected direction benefitted by a spectator’s lack of knowledge. However, in the screening of Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties several weeks later – a film that is, by comparison, obscure and far more challenging in its explicitly violent sexual content as well as its freewheeling tonal changes between screwball comedy and the horrors of the Holocaust alongside portrayals of shocking interpersonal violence – specific contextualization is more or less necessary, not necessarily in order to understand the film, but to prepare your audience for tonal changes or challenging themes, provide a historical understanding of its existence, and/or simply justify it as important enough to be included in the series for one reason or another.
As stated before, it’s a hard thing to balance, because you don’t want to pick films that require so much context that you make the setting of the screening series feel less like a social gathering and more like a classroom. The directive of a screening series is not necessarily to entertain, but to stimulate a conversation of some sort. I for one would rather an audience speak openly about how much they dislike a film than leave saying nothing at all. And that leads to the next topic…
…For a solid variety of films inevitably brings a variety of reactions. So while expectations do need to be managed and context does require assessment depending on each particular film, a variation in what you bring to the table is necessary to prevent the expectations of your spectators from remaining too stabilized within the realm of comfort. When choosing topics or themes, it’s helpful to make sure they aren’t tied too specifically to a given genre, country, or historical era. It’s also helpful to change up the tone of the film every week regardless of the topic, as a comedy or “lighter” film might be a good way to manage mood after two weeks of heavier fare. For instance, in my “Revenge” series I showed Cache one week, Harakiri the next, and livened it up by following them with Commando, thus showing three movies with a connecting theme but from different decades and countries – and succeeding a couple of dense films with a big, dumb, fun action movie.
Also, let your audience pick the film every now and then, especially if they aren’t responding to a few of your choices. Listen and consider their feedback and suggestions, otherwise it becomes reduced to nothing more than a series of films that you like, with your spectators simply humbling you through participation. Gauge and take seriously their reactions, and mold future screenings based upon them. Pick movies that your audience can crack jokes during (Commando) as well as those that they shouldn’t (Cache). After all, a screening series should be a collective social event, a site of group participation within a cinematic experience not so different from the classical, some would say essential or original – location of film-viewing: the social experience of the movie theater.
You’ll Learn More About Yourself Than You’d Like To
In the end, Movie Mundays was determined mostly by my own subjectivity. No matter how much you feel you may know about cinema or how objective of a viewer you think you may be, you ultimately can’t escape the limiting parameters of your own personal taste. While I may feel like I possess an extended enough of a palette to put together a varied film series, I was constantly reminded that my audience was subject to the defined or undefined particulars of that taste. I had seen each of these films previously in an inescapable context, and appreciated them, connected to other films, within a specific moment in my life; so in manifesting a screening series I, in a sense, forced these films out of that context and into a new, regimented one, somehow expecting the same reaction. Sometimes it worked, others it didn’t. Some films looked different, or less profound, to me after having not seen them for several years (Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge surprised me in this regard), while others look better with age (Soderbergh’s The Limey was far better than I’d remembered). Themes overlap in unexpected ways (there seemed to be a link between the homoeroticism of Arnold Scwarzenegger’s films between Commando and in his brief, first screen role The Long Goodbye), while other repeated themes and overlapping subject matter illuminated the limits of my taste.
Instead of being an occasion where my film knowledge is passed onto my friends by introducing to them films they may not have seen otherwise, Movie Mundays ultimately became an education project for myself, allowing me to either question or reinforce my love for movies that I find in high regard, permitting other perspectives on such films that challenge my own. Most importantly, Movie Mundays rewarded me with the realization that an extensive knowledge of film runs the risks of rendering my taste narrower and more specified rather than broader or more open. This screening series reminded me, like the minds of my friends who willfully watched whatever I bestowed upon them each week, that an openness is the only way a film can ever have a chance to possess any meaning whatsoever in our lives.