A friend responded to my Dark Knight Rises review with a pithy “So, uh… do you like any movie?”
Admittedly, most of my articles on Check the Reel have either been critical (Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man) or qualified in their praise (Ted, DKR), so I understood and explained yes, my blog makes me look like a curmudgeon but I really do enjoy most films. The misunderstanding cleared up, my friend only added that critics get to him sometimes, especially the sort “with a giant pole up his butt who can’t enjoy any movie other than Citizen Kane.”
It’s a common image: the snobby critic, or “Jay Sherman,” who hates anything fun, popular, or remotely mainstream, who only cares about artsy navel-gazers, films about life, death, the universe and our place in it. Anything less than 2001 is dog crap on your shoe. I understand the “Jay Sherman” as I do every stereotype: I see where it comes from, how it’s evolved into its current caricature, and I empathize… but it all boils down to misunderstanding rather than how critics actually behave.
And that misunderstanding concerns the question at the center of film discourse. It’s what you assume when you come back from the theatre and tell your friends how you liked the movie. It’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences assumes when it awards Best Picture. It’s taken for granted by nearly everybody even as it causes so much grief and aggression.
“What do we like when we like movies?”
It sounds so simple, looks so innocent. How hard is it to say why we like films?
Try to answer with one single-clause sentence and you’ll see why. Try to explain without time to think it through and it’s only slightly easier. Most critics don’t even bother answering, at least not directly, perhaps because they hold it self-evident or hope their collective work will illustrate their definition of a good film. But the more you think about it the less self evident it gets. We think we know films in the broadest, most technical sense, and the more we focus our vision, on the how and why of film, the farther astray we go. And there’s no hope in reading through a critic’s bibliography. We live in an age of light-speed information, where websites condense 800-word reviews to a sentence blurb and number score. Most readers don’t know Roger Ebert’s history, his philosophy, writing style, and growth as a critic. They see a red tomato or green splatter and know if they should put an angry post in the comment section.
I don’t want people to misunderstand or take offense at my work with Check the Reel. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. So I write this in hopes we can find that common ground, and answer confidently when a friend asks, “How did you like the movie?”
What is Film?
Put in dry textbook-speak, I’d define a film as: “The synthesis of cinematography, sound, acting and editing to create a visually stimulating, emotionally compelling narrative experience.” Not a fun sentence to type or read but let’s run with it.
Does a good film meet this definition? For the most part it does. You can’t have film without cinematography and editing*, and though not all films have sound or actors their absence is jarring enough to remind us we take their presence for granted. If a film stimulates at all it stimulates visually – it’s a visual medium – and running through a list of favorite films you’d probably say their stories have compelled you to feel certain emotions like joy, sorrow, nostalgia, satisfaction, even frustration if you don’t mind being angry with art. Add all that together and you certainly have, at the end of it, an “experience.”
Ignoring the anything-goes world of the avant-garde, chances are a mainstream film will be “the synthesis of cinematography, sound, etc., etc.” But it’s a boring, mundane definition, a redundant ruth like “wet rain” and “hot lava.” I say “film” and you think “visual, emotions, actors,” and so on. We know this instinctively.
It’s also a problematic definition, specifically in the “visually stimulating, emotionally compelling” clause. A film visually stimulates yes, it compels emotions… Stimulates what? Compels emotions how? Now we’re getting somewhere. Let’s be cheeky then. Let’s say films stimulate the eyes, which stimulate the brain, which compels us to feel these emotions we associate with pleasurable movie-watching, and that’s true enough…
Why do we care?
I’m not trying to be nitpicky, I really want to know: why does this apparently self-evident process carve certain films into our memory but forget the rest? What do people mean when they say, “This film speaks to me?” or “I was transported to another world?” Where is that other world?
* Some may ask if a film consisting of one shot has any editing. I’d say yes: the decision not to cut the film into smaller shots is an editing choice. Plus not all editing boils down to cutting and rearranging film footage. There’s converting the film reel / digital recording into what you see on the screen along with lighting adjustments, foley, extra dialogue, credits, special effects… Until someone gives a convincing argument to the contrary, I’ll accept editing as a fundamental of film.
What is Enjoying Film?
Where people have problem then is with the part of the definition concerning the viewer. We know how a film is constructed and what technical processes make it. We run into trouble when we consider the relationship between film and its audience.
One solution is to split the filmgoing experience into multiple processes. Another friend defined for me the three different ways people respond to music: physically (the urge to tap one’s feet, sway, sing along, headbang), emotionally (the feelings and sentiment the music inspires), and logically (hearing and understanding its lyrics, chord structure, genre; consideration of its meaning). Each process blends into the other, with certain movement inspiring certain emotions – it’s hard not to be happy while dancing – and certain emotions conjuring certain thoughts: a song that feels sad or makes us nostalgic leads to logical reflection on the lyrics, melody, and memories the music connects with.
It takes a small leap to extend this system to film. Physically, we jump when something startles us in a thriller, cry during sad and romantic scenes, sing along during memorable music numbers. Emotionally, films make us happy, sad, angry, all the sentiments I listed above. And logically, we consider the film’s story and structure – shot composition, acting methods, dramatic convention, revolutionary special effects – whether we can coherently summarize these attributes or not. For those who have studied film the technical side is second nature. For others it works subconsciously and in wordless bursts of recognition, yet it’s still there.
This definition clarifies that film is not seen with one all-encompassing lens but multiple interconnected perspectives, informing each other as they work their own functions. It paints a more subtle picture of the film-viewing experience and allows us to isolate certain responses… but we still haven’t answered my question. So people feel emotional, physical, and logical responses to film. Okay, fine. That doesn’t put butts in theatre seats.
Is there a separate process from the three listed, the “enjoyment” process, which doesn’t deal with one emotion like “joy,” at least none we’ve mentioned yet ? Does this process run between the others like a tree cuts between but holds together its branches?
We’ve broken up the film experience into smaller and smaller pieces – synthesis, processes, emotions, construction – and wandered stray of any landmarks. In search of a tiny, unifying core – to continue a metaphor – we’ve lost the forest for the trees.
Why should we like only one part of the film experience? Isn’t it the sum of the parts, the synthesis of technical prowess, storytelling, and empathy which allows the movie to transcend its limitations on the silver screen, to exceed the sum of its parts and reach out to us, that…?
I think we’ve hit something.
The Magic of Cinema
Film, cinema, that thing formally known as “motion pictures,” is smoke-and-mirrors. A trick of the eye. An illusion like the one David Lynch shows in his movie Mullholland Drive. “No hay banda!” a character tells his audience. “There is no band… It is a tape recording.” A musician with a muted trumpet walks on stage. He seems to be playing a melody, our eyes and ears attribute it to him… Then he pulls the trumpet away and the song goes on. “It’s all recorded!” the cruel magician taunts us.
At movie theatres we seem to see human beings, blown up larger than life and framed across the wall, who seem to move fluidly as we do in real life. Their voices seem to be coming from their mouths, and though their action isn’t always continuous – they cut from one place to another, a new moment in a larger life – there seems to be logic to where they end up. We seem to see – and believe we see – a story unfolding from these moments put together.
But it is an illusion!
Once they were humans; now they are images burnt into strips of celluloid, run at 24 frames per minute to give the illusion of motion, or they are gigabytes holding information based on the image of a human, the shadow of a shadow reconstructed to resemble solid form. Words aren’t coming from people’s mouths but the projector at the back of the room. There is no proof one shot leads into the next but what convention tells us. We have convinced ourselves in one mass hallucination that films contain worlds, characters, action, sound…
And it’s fucking magic.
As cynical as those first four paragraphs sound, there’s nothing more miraculous than recreating reality with chemicals, data, and sound waves, convincing people this concoction is life itself regardless of what the screen shows. It could be Hobbits travelling far to destroy a wretched, world-ending ring; Jedi flying through space battling an intergalactic Empire with robots, laser swords, and furry bear-companions; a boy wizard named Harry Potter going to school for magic… We see the unbelievable and believe we’ve really experienced it.
The best part is it couldn’t happen without you. Yes, you, the individual filmgoer, the person sitting in the back row, chewing your popcorn, trying to hold your bladder till the end of the movie. Your imagination allows that world in that theatre to not only take form but become something greater. You invest it with significance.
Film is transcendence. It’s not the sum of its parts, no mere synthesis of whatever, but a leap of faith made repeatedly for 90 minutes, 120 minutes, sometimes more than 180 minutes. Every moment the viewer says, “I see him/her, and he/she is doing this/that, because he/she is a person that can feel/think/talk/move/relate…” And in the best films, those that crack our chilly, rational barrier and tap into the most primal sense of experience, the viewer leaves their body in the theatre and disappears into something greater than sensation, a world beyond the silver screen at the same time it’s right there in our mind.
That sounds like a religious experience because it is. Our favorite movies are literal escapes from the corporeal world into spirits and things both less-and-more-real. They may show us experiences familiar to this world, events we remember happening, but immortalized on film, those experiences transform. They transcend. They become personal.
After all these lofty declarations on transcendence, illusion, and faith, I’ve found an answer: films are created from our imaginations meeting another imagination, the audience-God meeting the filmmaker-God(s). Both have the power to create universes but only the filmmaker-God has the physical material. She puts it together into half of a universe and the audience-God supplies from within itself the second half, or however much it’s willing to give, and it wants to give as much as it’s inspired to. What are our favorite films? The one that inspire us to give not just another half but countless more universes of experiences and thought. We complete the world and we keep adding to it, viewing after viewing, never growing tired.
If it can muster up just another half, enough to finish the universe and make it whole, the audience-God is satisfied. Anything less – or if the filmmaker-God provides an incomplete first half – and the audience-God feels empty. But what’s important to remember from this zen metaphor-stretching is: you, the audience-God, the individual filmgoer, the person reading this sentence, are a part of every film.
Critics and “Your Personal Movie”
We turn back to the professional critic. What’s her deal? What separates her from the average person who watches a movie and then posts their opinion on Facebook?
It turns out: not a whole lot, as far as experiencing film is concerned. Of course a critic is expected to have seen countless films, enough that they know the technical language and are more familiar with tropes and cliches than most, but the same world-building and rapport with the filmmaker applies. What makes the professional critic a professional is their ability to articulate their experience in a way the reader understands how it came about, why it leads them to judge the film as good, bad, or ambivalent, and how the reader and critic’s experiences overlap if at all.
But there’s no rules or principles that say, “add x, y, z and you get good film.” Even my God-metaphor can’t describe every person’s thought process. The critic must rely on their own history, personality, and philosophy to form a cogent, articulate opinion on a movie, and that means everything anyone’s said about objectivity in media you should forget. Throw it out. Criticism of film is as subjective as… well, anything with film. You help make it; you throw a little bit of you into every film you see. You can’t talk about it exactly as anyone else, no matter how similar, so don’t bother. Talk about it like it’s your film. A personal film.
Take this excerpt from a review by Pauline Kael, one of the most influential, revered film critics because she set objectivity aside and described her personal experiences in a way you were compelled to read, forced to care about not only her but how she became a part of movies:
…after one of those terrible lovers’ quarrels that leave one in a state of incomprehensible despair. I came out of the theater, tears streaming, and overheard the petulant voice of a college girl complaining to her boyfriend, ‘Well I don’t see what was so special about that movie.’ I walked up the street, crying blindly, no longer certain whether my tears were for the tragedy on the screen, the hopelessness I felt for myself, or the alienation I felt from those who could not experience the radiance of Shoeshine. For if people cannot feel Shoeshine, what can they feel?… Later I learned that the man with whom I had quarreled had gone the same night and had also emerged in tears. Yet our tears for each other, and for Shoeshine did not bring us together. Life, as Shoeshine demonstrates, is too complex for facile endings.
Other critics like Ebert and Travers continue to endear for similar reasons: because their criticism comes from a very personal, introspective place rather than math formulas and bias-free algorithms.
Which isn’t to say you can’t disregard details of a film that are presented as fact, like plot events, characters, and so on. No arguing Luke Skywalker is secretly tuna and then saying, “But it’s all subjective!” And I don’t want to make it seem like there can’t be consensus on films known to inspire positive responses. Star Wars, The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws… these films combine technical prowess with a unique vision that allows audiences to keep revisiting each generation, bringing in new mindsets without damaging the experience.
And yet… think of the films you’ve seen which may be popular, or obscure, or any reputation, it doesn’t matter. What does is the way this film seems to connect to your life so perfectly you can’t imagine yourself without it. It helps define you. Maybe it’s a film you associate with a loved one. Maybe you saw it at a time it captured your thoughts better than you believed you could. Maybe you find something new with each viewing, symbolism you never noticed, a background detail that flitted by, and you keep revisiting to see how far the rabbit hole of discovery goes.
This is your personal movie. It matters to you, and that’s reason enough to like and argue for it.
Sometimes it’s the best reason. I’ve watched Citizen Kane and I admire it for broadening the possibilities of filmmaking, introducing unorthodox storytelling, a breathtaking new style of cinematography, and Orson Welles’ brutal portrayal of a tragic, tortured man. It is definitely a good film, possibly a great one. It deserves all its accolades.
But when I think of my personal movies, the ones that shape my identity, form my history, I don’t think of Citizen Kane. I think of Blue Velvet, seeing it with my grandma, not expecting the first Dennis Hopper scene and being too traumatized to stop it when it started. I think of cackling at a hammy line in Don’t be Afraid of the Dark with my friend Kyle. I think of the female filmgoers whooping at Channing Tatum’s naked rear and then gasping at a topless woman in Magic Mike.
I think of going the Coen Brothers’ True Grit on a date, my second viewing and the ending made me cry like I’d never seen it before till I felt ashamed, for no reason but I felt stupidly foolish. I think of Adaptation describing my insecurities and fears about being an artist in a single thirty-second monologue. I think of Manhattan describing every moment of a recently-ended relationship.
I think of the train ride home when I watched Breathless with my friend Zach and laughing every time Jean-Paul Belmondo rubbed his lip like Bogart, even though I was exhausted and about to fall asleep.
I think of Mulan, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, every other Disney animated movie from my childhood. I think of my dad taking me at age four to see American Godzilla (yes, the Matthew Broderick, “lotta fish” one) and coming out traumatized. I think of my parents watching Dumb and Dumber with me in middle school after they found the knife I’d intended to hurt myself with, using the movie to bring the family together against misery, fear, and loneliness.
I think of the beauty and innocence of “Everything Old is New Again” from All that Jazz. I think of every lovely moment in Pixar’s Up and then remembering it when my school’s jazz combo played the main theme. I think of my dad laughing his ass off while watching The Producers.
I think of others movies I’ve seen and haven’t seen yet, the films that will inform the rest of my life and – who can say? – beyond.
These are my personal movies.
What are yours?