How to Watch Movies Intelligently
By Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast
The Pleasures of Films
When the average American college student puts down seven bucks for a flick or pops a cassette into the VCR, chances are he or she means to be entertained. That’s understandable since most of us have been taught that movies aren’t supposed to be taken seriously. The movies are where we go to escape reality, to identify with glamorous people, and to experience thrills and chills we hope never to encounter in the real world.
So it’s not surprising that when typical Americans are asked about a film they’ve watched, the vocabulary of evaluation tends to be limited to words like “boring,” “exciting,” and “O.K.” We tend to judge movies based on how they made us feel. Were we scared? Were we crying in our Kleenexes? Were we laughing? Were we outraged? Did we feel good at the end?
This approach to the movies isn’t entirely bad, since the sensual pleasures associated with films are quite human: the indulgence of fantasies, the suspense of drama, the triumph of heroic figures, and the sheer joy of color, motion, and sound. Movies provide us with experiences that our regular lives often seem lacking and they give us a chance to imagine how the world might be experienced in the shoes and through the eyes of others.
However, movies are filled not only with emotions and feelings but also with ideas and assumptions. Movies provide familiar story plots that help us make meaning of our own lives. They provide order to the chaos of our world. They suggest to us what and who we should value as well as what and who we should neglect. In short, they teach us how we should be and act. But because we Americans tend to consume movies rather than think about them, most of us are not very good at figuring out who they are telling us to be or what they are telling us to do. Of course, most of us don’t want to think when we watch a movie and so most movies are made in a way that encourages us to forget how to think so that we can just suck up the experience!
As members of the Bluffton College academic community, though, we are interested in understanding the cultural forces that shape and mold us, so that we can make some choices about which values we want to accept and which we want to resist. There are few cultural products more influential in contemporary American life than Hollywood films. If we are to free ourselves from the cultural power of popular movie plots, we must go beyond consuming films to thinking about them. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the films. In fact, most students say that learning to think about films helps them not only to be more critical of the film’s ideas but also to have more fun when they are watching movies. If we want to think about the films we watch, we need to start noticing two different aspects of movies that most good filmmakers try to hide from us: how the film is made and what values it promotes.
The construction of films
It is important when we watch a film to remind ourselves that it is an artificial construction. The people on the screen are projections from a televison screen or a film projector and what we are seeing is the result of thousands of hours of scripting and directing, acting and shooting, and cutting and splicing. Of course, filmmakers work very hard to help us as audience members to “suspend our disbelief” (that is, to forget that it’s just a story) by making sure we don’t ever see any of the equipment or camera crews that are always part of every filming context. They also work very hard to keep us from noticing how the film is pieced together from footage taken in many different places, from many different camera positions, and over a much longer period of time than we experience in watching it. And because we’re used to thinking that seeing is believing, that pictures don’t lie, it is easy to feel as if what we are seeing is really happening.
In order to be able to think about a film, we have to resist the “suspension of disbelief” in order to pay attention to how the film is put together. A simple way to start is by noticing when one shot ends and another begins. In film studies parlance, a “shot” is any “unbroken, unedited length of film.”1 Most popular films are made up of shots that are relatively short in length, cut by an editor and joined together with a series of other shots. When we watch a film carefully, we notice, for example, that in most dialogue sequences, we are first shown a shot of one partner, then a shot of the other, so that the camera (and thus we) are positioned directly between the two actors or actresses. This method of showing conversation is often called the “shot/reverse shot” technique. Most of the time a sequence like this is pieced together from many separate shots taken at different times by the same camera and then edited to appear as if the sequence were one continuous stream of events.
Beyond being attentive to the way separate shots are pieced together into sequences, we can observe the various camera angles that provide the perspectives for our watching. It is standard in the shot/reverse shot technique to use an “over-the-shoulder” camera angle which makes us as audience members feel as if we are right in the middle of the conversation. Realizing that in real life we are seldom if ever positioned between two people the way we are in such sequences helps us remember how artificial and unrealistic film constructions actually are. Many other things happen in films that we realistically will be unlikely to ever see in real life: people making love in front of our eyes, car chases at 100 miles per hour, and aliens and asteroids attacking the earth from outer space.
When we start noticing how the film is shot and edited, we can also start understanding how the film manipulates our experience of watching. The shorter the shots, the faster the pace of the film and the more frequently our attention must shift. When we get used to fast-paced films like this, films with longer shots and fewer cuts can seem slow and difficult to watch. But, of course, such fast-paced films also make it harder to think! Films that constantly use close-up shots of the characters create a higher level of intensity and intimacy than do films which focus more on landscape, geography, and other aspects of context. A film that shows us many shots of the characters may make us feel as if the individuals in the story are the most important agents of the plot whereas a film that shows us much of the surroundings may remind us of the importance of place and situation in shaping the lives of human beings.
While the classical Hollywood style of editing has always tried to hide the construction of films from the audience through continuity editing techniques such as “shot-reverse shot” and “over the shoulder” camera angles, some more recent films have challenged this technique. The most recent example is The Blair Witch Project which constructs realism not through professional continuity editing techniques but rather by giving the impression that it is an amateur film shot with a home-movie camera.
In addition to manipulating us, of course, these film techniques are artistic practices that can in some instances be described as profound works of art. It is good sometimes to simply admire a film for its sheer beauty and creative power.
The Ideology of Films
Once we have come to understand films as artificial constructions that are pieced together by filmmakers, we can more easily begin to ask questions about the ideological agenda of a film—what values it promotes. Because films are cultural products—shaped by the historical context of their making—they can tell us much about the values and commitments of their makers and their audiences. An ideological analysis of a film that appeals to me (or that I really hate!) can also tell me a great deal about my own conscious or unconscious values.
In order to understand the ideology of films, we need to recognize that most films tell the same basic stories over and over again. Typical Hollywood romance films, for example, tell the story of two people of the opposite sex who were meant for each other but who, for various reasons, are distracted from actually getting together until the end of the film. Once the lovers overcome the distractions and hitch their wagons together, the story ends. As we know, most people spend more time being hitched than getting hitched, so we have to ask why so many films focus only on that one narrow slice of romantic love: the falling-in-love part. Could this have something to do with the unprecedented divorce rate in American society, for example?
Another story that Hollywood films tell again and again is a story about redemptive violence. Action-adventure films, for example, repeatedly tell us the story of an evil threat to civilization that is isolated in a particular individual or group and is finally eradicated through the sometimes reluctant and sometimes eager use of violence by a heroic figure who does violence on behalf of the good. John Wayne, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Samuel Jackson are familiar actors who have played such figures. Does this obsession with violent solutions to social problems bear any relationship to the amount of gun violence that exists in American society, from Columbine High School to office buildings in Atlanta to a Jewish community center in Los Angeles?
The myth of romantic love and the myth of redemptive violence are only two common examples of popular ideologies that are reinforced and reproduced in Hollywood films. Perhaps the most pervasive myth perpetrated by Hollywood is the agency of the lone individual in righting the wrong and saving the good. Mississippi Burning, like many popular films about struggles for justice, featured a heroic FBI agent who almost single handedly brought the killers of two civil rights workers to justice during the 1960’s. Historians of the civil-rights movement know that this struggle for justice was accomplished more by the work of persistent collective movements of agitation and protest than by heroic F.B.I. agents, but American popular ideology prefers stories of individual heroes over the struggles of collaborative activists.
While we can’t cover all of the popular Hollywood plots in a short essay, this small sampling ought to help us notice some of the most familiar themes that show up in Hollywood films. Paying attention to such familiar plots can make us appreciate those few films that actually try to resist popular ideology. Some of the films we watch in Studies in Cinema tend to reinforce these popular values while others seek to challenge popular ideologies. That means that many of the films will at first not seem as “fun” as, say, watching Bruce Willis save the earth from a killer asteroid so that his character’s daughter can be united with the love of her life. As you watch these films, then, rather than trying to decide whether the film is “boring” or not, it may be more helpful for you to ask whether the film reinforces or challenges popular assumptions about romance, violence, evil, the enemy, the individual, and other aspects of contemporary life. Instead of dismissing films because they are slow-paced or follow unfamiliar plots or include unusual characters, it may be more inspiring and personally transformative to ask what surprised you about these films and why. For these Studies in Cinema films, in short, it will be worthwhile to move beyond the question “How did I feel?” to the more difficult question: “What do I think?”
Thoughtful Questions to Ask About Films
1. Did the filmmakers use continuity editing (hiding the construction of the film) or did they use postmodern editing techniques that expose the making of the film to the audience?
2. How long was the typical shot? How did the length of the shots contribute to the feelings and emotions produced by the film?
3. Did you notice any typical or unusual camera angles? How did these camera angles contribute to the level of intensity or anxiety (or any other emotion) created by the film?
4. Did the film challenge or reinforce popular stereotypes about different kinds of people (i.e. men, women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Caucasians, gays, lesbians, heterosexuals, college students, rural people, urban people, fathers, mothers, children, etc.)?
5. Did the film challenge or reinforce popular Hollywood plots (such as the story of redemptive violence, the power of romantic love, the agency of the lone individual, etc.)? In what other ways was the film similar to or different from popular Hollywood films?
6. By what ethical assumptions (beliefs about right and wrong) did the main characters of the film act? Put differently, what values guided the characters’ decisions? Do you agree with these ethical assumptions or values? Should Christians (people who presume to follow the way of Jesus) act by the ethical assumptions or values portrayed in the film?
1 Robert Kolker, Film, Form, and Culture (Boston:
McGraw-Hill College, 1999), 33