“Life isn’t like in the movies. Life… is much harder.”
– Alfredo from Cinema Paradiso (1988)
If any film encapsulates the experience of going to a theater and being consumed by a movie, it’s Cinema Paradiso. It’s a moving and loving tribute to the medium that acknowledges how cinema is similar to and different from its inspiration, life itself. Movies are ingrained into us from an early age, and with time our taste changes and our interests shift.
My earliest memories all involve movies. I grew up going to a drive-in theater every week, visiting video stores and perusing all of the covers, pulling the entertainment sections of the local newspapers and poring over their movie coverage, and browsing the local library for whatever books I could find about movies. When my family could eventually afford a cheap camcorder, I made experimental and weird things and just plain ripoffs of movies I adored — all interspersed in our collection of video memories between my siblings as babies, holiday gatherings, and the like.
Film is a medium in which to tell stories with images and sounds, although it’s important to understand that film is first and foremost a visual medium. There are different genres, creative techniques, and technologies, but that is the essence of the format. It’s a passive experience — compared to novels, comics, and video games — that still requires your attention. Film is art and while art captures life, movies can’t be a literal portrayal of our lives.
There is a language to movies and variations of this language. Each movie is a blank canvas for those involved to tell a story and impart the essence of themselves, the art that inspires them, and the themes that resonate with them. It’s not hyperrealism, although there are certainly creative choices that lean into realism. No matter the movie, a prerequisite is to suspend your disbelief.
I am not a patron saint of cinema. I can spend all day and then some watching movies and talking about the medium, but I’ve no desire to obstruct anyone’s enjoyment of it. What follows is what I’ve gleaned from my time spent immersed in stories, my stint working in a theater, the myriad of experiences outside of film, and everything I’ve absorbed from reading and writing about movies.
“Your taste in film is a quest. You have a palate and you must refine it to match your essence. Never settle and never follow blindly.”
– Guillermo del Toro
Be Mindful of the Movie
Can someone derive the same level of enjoyment from watching Dunkirk on an airplane today as someone who saw it on a physical film projector during its initial theatrical run? Sure. I’d prefer the latter, but I’ve watched movies for the first time on a plane and loved them. Paul Thomas Anderson once mused in an interview that something about the setting of an airplane makes one adore whatever they watch, but I digress: A medium is for everyone and it’s nice to see someone enjoying things, regardless of how they choose to do so.
It’s hard to offer an edict on how to watch a movie because of the number of options and the ever-changing nature of technology, but also the constraints of each individual. What’s feasible for one person may not be feasible for another. Regardless of how you choose to enjoy art, the most important thing is maintaining your attention on whatever it is you’re consuming. Walking through an art exhibition totally absorbed in something unrelated to the art, like your phone, undermines the art — the very reason you’re there. Likewise, flipping through a book and not actually reading the prose undermines the entire purpose. And watching a movie while wrapped up in something else entirely isn’t fair to the work.
Related Reading: How to Improve Moviegoing in 2018
No matter the format and technological advances, we’ve been consuming movies by residing in a dark room while our eyes take in light projected on to a screen and our ears take in sounds being emitted by speakers for decades. The former came first and was bereft of color, but it still stands to reason that theaters have persisted for so long because they’re a fantastic way to experience movies. It’s not just the technology that makes theaters ideal. The experience is communal. The energy of the audience adds something and the lack of it can impact a showing.
Home video formatting — the notion of being able to see a movie whenever you desire — is terrific. But it’d feel dishonest to say seeing a movie blown up on a large screen with an ample sound system doesn’t make the experience pop for me in a way that doesn’t compare to streaming or home video. Your mileage may vary and that’s okay. Just limit distractions, be courteous of others wherever you choose to watch a movie, and please turn off that hideous “motion smoothing” feature on your television.
“A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books.”
― Andrei Tarkovsky
Manage Your Expectations
The Internet has had an irrevocable impact on the fandom surrounding movies, but this fervor for film existed prior. Billboards, radio advertisements, television commercials, interviews with the cast & crew, magazine ads, movie one-sheets, and Internet-based ads. They all serve the same purpose: To get you to watch the movie. Their job ends once you walk into the theater or however you choose to consume the movie.
We build expectations. This is natural. Please understand this: Your expectations are not the movie. Once you’re in the thick of it, let the work speak for itself. You may not get what you wanted, but we seldom if ever know what we want until we have it. And what we want is not always what works for the movie.
It’s nice to want things to be amazing, but there’s a difference between building up a thing in your mind with lofty expectations it could never possibly meet, and experiencing the actual thing for yourself. Conversely, expecting everything to be dreck is on the opposite part of this spectrum, but isn’t helpful either. Be mindful of your expectations and the impact they might have had upon your viewing of a movie because no two viewings are alike. Your relationship with a movie is dynamic.
“The first prerogative of an artist in any medium is to make a fool of himself.”
– Pauline Kael
Live in the Moment of the Movie
Making art requires one to be vulnerable. Conversely, enjoying art requires one to be vulnerable. The art serves as an intermediary connection. We can not fully appreciate something if we don’t let our guard down. The artist does their part to ensure the work is framed within the right context, but it’s incumbent upon us to let the work do its thing.
Don’t view a movie as an adversary that must be “defeated.” Immerse yourself in it. Don’t concern yourself with inferring what’s going to happen next because this distracts from one’s attention. There’s a compulsion to outsmart a movie and it’s an utter waste of energy. It’s not a competition. Let the movie happen and then process it. Take whatever time you need to think about it. There’s no rush… unless you choose for there to be.
Making movies is a balance between following your emotions with intuition and referring to your intellect with knowledge and skills. Filmmaker intent matters in that it’s a storyteller taking the language of cinema — the tools of the craft, such as story structure, dialogue, tone, themes, editing, cinematography, visual effects and so on — and assembling it into a piece of art that’s trying to impart something on its audience. Whether it accomplishes this or not is what critics refer to as the “sum” of a film’s “parts.”
Filmmaking like other forms of creating art is a fluid process. Like streams of water all winding with ebbs and flows that lead to a larger body of water. All of the aspects of art coalesce during the process into what one hopes is a singular thing. A similar effect happens while a moviegoer is in a theater. Art inspires different interpretations and the end result is this complex, unified thing. As it should be.
“Sometimes on set I think I appear dazed or lost to others, but the reality is that I fall into a deep trance of concentration, willing the vision in my head to materialize all around me.”
– Anna Biller
Broaden Your Worldview
With the Internet and “nerd culture,” we seem to know how to be fans of movies, but not necessarily the history, the process behind it, the inherent nature, and the overall impact of film. These things help us understand and without understanding, what is the point of storytelling? Stories are an amalgamation of the storytellers who make them; subconscious and conscious. These influences come from the art the storytellers consume, social and political events, the upbringing of the artists, and in essence, their very lives. It’s all part of our desire to understand ourselves.
We don’t just tell stories to understand ourselves. We strive to understand the world, varying perspectives across different times and places, and the universe with all of its wonder and unknowns. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Branching out into other fields of study — Chemistry, Biology, Philosophy, Psychology, World History, Sociology — broaden your worldview which in turn impacts your understanding of movies.
Having more points of references can enhance our understanding and in turn, add to our experience watching movies. This isn’t to say that one can’t enjoy movies unless they can regurgitate the history and theory of the craft behind them. There must be substance. It’s not enough to know the objective aspects of a medium. That alone won’t help us understand. Flaunting knowledge just for the sake of ego doesn’t foster a space for learning and passion for movies, but instead sequesters it behind an impenetrable perimeter.
It’s never too late to learn. Curated streaming libraries such as FilmStruck and Mubi are great but do have a cost. If your resources are limited, libraries are immeasurably valuable places where one can check out books about movies and the movies themselves, as well as participate in introductory classes and skills workshops depending on the location. Try new hobbies. Travel to new places. Eat food you’ve never had before. This is relative to you and what’s feasible. Do what you can.
“Life is very, very complicated and so films should be allowed to be too.”
– David Lynch
Don’t Be Cynical
Cynicism adds nothing. Engage with a movie. Criticism isn’t inherently cynical, not if it’s constructive. You can like something and still criticize it. Think about the purpose. Is it to build something up or tear it down? If it’s the latter, it’s cynical. When I read polemics or hear invectives against a movie with the cruel intent to rip it apart, I can’t help but wonder if the people making these things grasp that they’re indicating that they don’t like movies. They may not be cognizant of what they’re doing, but it’s still what they’re doing, and it hurts the medium.
It’s okay to care about things. It’s okay to be sincere. You aren’t superior to the person who walks in wanting to enjoy a movie. If you were to make something and show it to an audience, wouldn’t you want them to go in with a good attitude? Wouldn’t you hope moviegoers went to the movies you love with good intentions?
Take a look at the annual calendar of theatrical releases. What you see is a small percentage of the movies that were made. Many never make it out of the festival circuit and these festivals turn down a large proportion of the things submitted for consideration. Of that percentage of the movies made are even more that fell apart at some point in the process and will never materialize. You can choose to look at it with a negative perspective, but it’s frankly a miracle that anything gets made. That makes each movie special in its own way.
“For me, a good film has to tell a good story, but more than that, it has to know how to manipulate the language of cinema.”
– Lynne Ramsay
Don’t Fixate on “Logical” Thinking
Movies are a nexus of science and art. They’re a delicate balance of emotions and intellect. The amygdala is a portion of the brain that plays a role in how we process emotions and make memories. Research shows that we are able to recall information from stories when they have an emotional charge to them. Emotions are what make stories resonate with us. You can feel more than one emotion at any given time. Things can be funny and be moving. Things can be happy and sad. Some things affect us deeper than others. Such is the nature of storytelling.
You can’t make a movie without technical skills and knowledge, and critical thinking, as well as an understanding of storytelling and art. There’s a language to cinema and each work takes its own spin on it, so understanding this language can add to your experience. Film theory, rules of the craft, technical knowledge, and the history of the medium all can inform your opinions and refine your palette.
The language of cinema is an evolving thing. As rote as it may sound, the most important thing to remember about rules is that they can be broken, if the work calls for it. They’re guidelines, not templates that must be followed to a tee. Context matters. What ultimately shines through the lens of all of the work behind a movie is the, well, movie itself. The themes the work explores. The reactions it elicits. The life it has after it completes its theatrical run. But we have this incessant urge to ignore that truth.
Film fandom organizes lists of tropes, quantifies a movie into a checklist of what it must do in order to be considered “good,” boils the story of a movie down into a list of plot points, and bundles all of this together with the initial critical reception coupled with the box office receipts to create a “complete” narrative. It’s been demonstrated time after time that the life of a movie isn’t complete after the first weekend of its release. It lives on. Its story is nuanced.
Everything can be traced back to something else. There are patterns, and while it’s interesting to recognize these things, their presence is not inherently a bad thing. Things rhyme. Artists are influenced by other things. As long as one can justify their creative choices, it doesn’t matter if something is a “trope.” Harping on logical fallacies, tropes, and the “rules” creates barriers and stymies discussion. It’s the antithesis of moviegoing.
“We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.”
– Roger Ebert
Above All, Be Kind
I can’t stress enough the need to pay good forward. Help foster the passion of others. Be patient. Do not use your knowledge and experience as tools to belittle others. Kindness begets kindness.
Contrary to what happens on the Internet, an opinion you don’t agree with is not a tacit invitation to deliver a tangent about why they’re “wrong.” We need to listen more than we speak, especially with marginalized groups. Conversations are not about “winning.” When you’re listening, actually listening and not just waiting for your turn to talk, you’re also learning.
We won’t agree on everything and different genres appeal to different tastes. This is a truth we must accept. It’s okay to disagree, but the manner in which we go about it should be respectful. You can have a discussion and work through your differences without being derisive. You can also listen to a person share an opinion you don’t agree with about a movie and, perhaps, just maybe, acknowledge their point of view without sharing your own dissenting opinion. It’s not much to expect of someone.
Movies are not like an arena battle to the death. They can coexist and inspire and engender positive things. Movie rankings, box office comparisons, objective movie data sheets are not essential to moviegoing. There is a business to the film industry, and movies are a balancing act of art and commerce. But in truth, there’s a great deal that’s kept out of the public view about the business models of not just film but other industries.
You don’t need to have your opinions validated by metrics. You can like things that perhaps didn’t exceed box office expectations. You can enjoy movies that didn’t get unanimous (or close to it) praise on review aggregators. You can love flawed things.
Moviegoing is a journey for the joy of the journey, not for the destination. To be lifelong learners, we must understand that the act of learning never ends. Our understanding is fluid and there will always be things we don’t understand. Film will continue to evolve and new mediums will emerge. Storytelling will continue to exist.
I get up every day with the intent to learn more. To do better. To soak up as much as I can about storytelling and the world around me. If you are not learning new things and growing every day, you are stagnant, and that’s a shame. We all get a lifetime; the duration of which varies for each and every one of us. Don’t squander it.