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How to Watch a Movie

How to Watch a Movie

Articles - Directing

“When cinema
was invented, it was initially used to record life, like an
extension of photography. It became an art when it moved away
from the documentary. It was at this point that it was acknowledged
as no longer a means of mirroring life, but a medium by which
to intensify it.”
– François
Truffaut

Movies are much more than mere entertainment. To most of us, they’re
the closest we come in our daily lives to an experience of magic.
Within the dark catacombs of a theater, movies create their own
mystique, where time and logic don’t apply. There is no gravity
to tie us to the world as we know it; we are held together only
by the grace of the director’s eye.

As Truffaut recognized, if a movie skillfully crafts this other
world, it intensifies our lives. It creates a fool’s paradise where
we dream our way through all the events before us, immersed in
the crazy continuum of present, future and past.

Movies are more than mind-altering experiences,
however. The Italian futurists and surrealists realized early
on that film had the capacity to be great art—in effect, moving
paintings. The French, however,knew from the beginning that film
is true art. Most Americans, obsessed with film grosses and the
business end of cinema, have yet to fully grasp the fact that
film is an art like no other.

Art, especially cinema, helps us understand
the interrelationships between culture and society. It reveals
a wealth of information about how our civilization works and
even indicates cultural trends.  True
art is vitally important because it challenges us to think beyond
ourselves and ponder the mysteries that have confounded humankind
from the beginning. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are
we going? These are the questions that great cinema addresses.

Although films may entertain, they also educate,
indoctrinate and even captivate the mind. The great films enlighten
us and form much of the world’s perception of what American culture
is all about. Because of its importance, film should be studied
not only by so-called film experts or reviewers, but by average
moviegoers, as well. This means that each member of the film
audience should strive to be a “critic.” It means that the viewer
must stay alert and assume that every moment of every film is
an intentional, relevant concoction of the dreamweavers.

Cinema should be viewed with greater thought
than the vast majority of us give it . Realizing that a movie
can be experienced from a variety of perspectives—cultural, ideological and aesthetic—the
knowledgeable filmgoer should approach the experience with a receptive
mind, open to the possibility of not only entertainment, but enlightenment.

If you as a viewer truly take film seriously, a notebook can come
in handy. Don’t be shy about writing down your observations while
watching a movie. Encourage others to do the same. And whenever
possible, try to see films with friends so the experience can be
thoroughly discussed afterward.

Here are some basic elements
to be aware of when viewing a film:

1)  Direction. When watching a film, always
ask: Does the director have control, in the sense that it is his
or her vision you’re seeing? As Hitchcock once said: “At times,
I have the feeling I’m an orchestra conductor, a trumpet sound
corresponding to a close shot and a distant shot suggesting an
entire orchestra performing a muted accompaniment. At other times,
by using colors and lights in front of beautiful landscapes, I
feel I am a painter.”

Great directors such as Hitchcock, Kurosawa, Polanski,
Kubrick and Scorsese, to name a few, have been accused of being “control freaks” when
making their movies. Technicians as well as artists, these directors
who maintain control have studied every aspect of the process. Every
section of their films is developed and presented with precision. Nothing
escapes a great director’s eye, nor should it escape yours.

Suggested viewing: Citizen Kane (1941), Vertigo (1958) and Chinatown (1974)

2) Screenplay. Even a great director will
struggle with his or her vision if the screenplay is not sound. The old
saw is still true: “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” What’s
on paper, then, is an essential element of film. Originality, creativity,
logical narrative and plot, continuity, composition and development of
three-dimensional characters are some of the key ingredients in a good
screenplay. In other words, does the screenplay effectively communicate
a story through dramatic action and dialogue? The so-called “acts of
God” or leaps of faith used
by many screenwriters to find bridges between scenes are not found in
the best screenplays. Transitions in scenes should make sense. If not,
film continuity fails.

Some of our greatest authors have written for the screen,
including F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Graham Greene. Some
newcomers who seem to have mastered the screenwriting craft include Alan
Ball, M. Night Shyamalan, Andrew Kevin Walker and Darren Aronofsky.

Suggested viewing: The Big Sleep (1946), Amadeus (1984)
and Fargo (1996)

3) Cinematography. Although they’re much more,
movies are primarily visual experiences. The Europeans (and a few Amercian
legends such as Ford and Welles) understood this from the beginning.
The great Italian directors such as Antonioni, Bertolucci and Fellini
epitomized visuality in their films. The astute cinematographer understands
the fundamental relationship between the camera and the human eye.
Maybe more importantly, they realize the camera is an extension of
the human eye. Thus, viewers should watch for cinematographers whose
camera is never static; where the camera transforms itself into the
eyes of the viewer.

Suggested viewing: Shane (1953), Kundun (1997) and Signs (2002)

4) Editing. Good directors shoot much more film than
they can possibly use. It’s the editor’s job to realize a film’s potential.
Creative editing is not merely visual, but aural. For instance, music
or extraneous noise can be used to create the illusion of continuity.
Astute directors are intimately involved in the editing process to
assure smooth transitioning in the flow of the film and to ensure that
their film creates a seamless whole. This is no small task, since the
standard fiction feature can be composed of as many as 1,000 separate
shots.

Suggested viewing: The French Connection (1971), Blue Velvet (1986)
and A Pure Formality (1994)

5) Acting. Judging good
acting is, of course, like recognizing obscenity—you simply know it when
you see it. Some actors are consistent craftsmen, while others are largely
the creation of strong directors. What we know about many exceptional
performers is that they do not “act.” They
return to us film after film, completely submerged in their characterizations.
This intensity, combined with a memorable face, is what some have called “star
quality.” Humphrey Bogart’s craggy countenance, with his immobile upper
lip, mannerisms and ticks, marked his appearances on the screen. There
are others who hide themselves in their characters. Montgomery Clift,
Marlon Brando and James Dean blazed the path for actors such as these.
Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Edward
Norton exemplify this type of acting. Watch and identify the elements
that constitute a great performance.

Suggested viewing: Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941),
De Niro in Raging Bull (1980) and Ellen Burstyn in Requiem
for a Dream
(2000)

6) Lighting and Sets. As the German Expressionists
have shown, the entire mood of a film can be determined by lighting,
the way shadows fall, the type of sets used or the actual location
where the film is shot. One cannot imagine The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari without
these ingredients. The Hollywood film noir classics of the 1940s inherited
this concept and created a magnificent, lasting and influential genre.
The amount and style of lighting depends on the type of film being made,
but the effect of hard lighting and shadows in horror films, for example,
can create a stark, emotional response in the audience. This was used
effectively in Hitchcock’s Psycho, as a single, swaying light
bulb reveals a mummified figure—to the audience’s macabre delight. Kubrick
and Welles were masters of the use of light. More recently, this skill
can be seen in the work of director Ridley Scott.

Suggested viewing: The Third Man (1949), Blade Runner (1982) and Seven (1995)

7) Special (Visual) Effects. Movies have always had special
effects, but with
the pervasiveness of new technologies many believe that film has entered
a somewhat troublesome era. With computer-generated special effects,
young moviemakers increasingly believe that actors (and even stories)
are not required. The danger is that special effects in film are becoming
like fireworks—sound and fury,
light and noise, but no substance. If there is any threat to film as an art
form, it is the unrestrained use of technologically-heightened special
effects. Except for where it is absolutely essential to the plot, no
film’s success should hinge on its effects.

Suggested viewing: Jurassic Park (1993), Forrest Gump (1994) and The Matrix (1999)

8) Soundtrack. Sometimes the best soundtrack is none at
all; at other times, the right musical accent in a scene elevates the
film and allows the viewer to relate to the characters or story on a
deeper level. While a good soundtrack should never be overwhelming, many
classic films would be far less memorable without their soundtracks.
One example is Carol Reed’s The Third Man. What would the film
be without Anton Karas’ haunting zither score? Amadeus is a similar
case. Without the near-perfect touch of Mozart’s music, the film would
never be the classic that it is.

Though it’s true that the best soundtrack is often so subtle that it
is almost unnoticeable to a viewer’s ears, the opposite can also be true.
Who could argue that without the thumping beat of John Williams’ Jaws score,
that film’s ability to scare would be far diminished.

Suggested viewing: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The
Graduate
(1967) and Jaws (1975)

There are, of course, other elements of cinema that
can be just as significant as those mentioned here. The point is that
cinema is our most influential art form, and thinking viewers  should
take care not to be mindless consumers of popular culture in general,
and cinema in particular. Although movies do divert us from the reality
of the everyday, they can do much more. We need only to develop the
critic within us in order to elevate our celluloid experiences. MM

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