From time to time, a casual bit of conversation, usually over the third round of pints, and in the company of a half a dozen friends, returns to one’s thoughts after the occasion. This just so happened to occur to me after a lively conversation held among a bunch of tn2 folks recently. We were talking about film, or rather, what happens when we watch films. Afterwards it got me thinking, so I’ve attempted to figure out what we concluded about the ways we watch movies. To take us right back into the scene I’ll describe the occasion when a little controversy caught my interest. Namely, my colleague Michael found himself defending the good name of movies upon being confronted with a statement – by none other than the Music Editor Steven – that films address us in a less honourable way than the novel.
What he meant was that the very seductive nature of the moving images we view have such power to draw us into the story that there remains far less, if any, distance for questioning the film’s message. We can see this in the popular appeal of Hollywood movies; they target a vast population who unfortunately are not equipped to critically assess and discern the complex ideological and emotional mechanisms at work.
The conversation heated up as the pints kept coming, and we explored the many avenues that his argument had opened up. Most of us are aware of the evils of the monopolistic, corporate institution that is the Hollywood movie machine. Among other things, it marginalizes international and art house output. This problem is not only exclusive to film, but runs throughout culture, politics and economics. It was also pure gold for probing ever so gently the intellects, consciences and biases present that night, but above all we implicitly had asked something quite basic. What happens when we encounter films in the different ways that we do? Perhaps the observation that movies so successfully capture our imaginations and fill them with their own logics and rationales, provides grounds for suspicion primarily because of the nature of the cinematic experience itself. In the cinema larger than life images engage the senses immediately. For the price of a ticket and the relatively small amount of time spent watching a film, we can be given the voyeuristic pleasure of desire, delay and mastery. But then in the end, having lost oneself entirely in the spectacle for about two hours, the lights go up, and the “culprit” is gone. So how exactly are we to assess the film’s impact on us after the fact? But, if we might agree that as compared to reading a novel, with a surer remove from the work of the text, films really suck us in — what of the different ways we view and “digest” them? Back in the pub, I tried to retort that despite the seductiveness of the cinematic visuals, perhaps even because of it, we recall images and begin to interact with them on an intellectual level afterwards, when some kind of a?gestation period has passed. I say so because at least from my own experience I often find that the realization of, “Oh yes, that?was what that was about,” occurs perhaps a day, a week, even a month after the viewing (I am sure some are now thinking – slow). However, we do watch many movies – a few each week for the average person. They often reference and copy others, or follow clichéd formulas that are most obvious in the rom-coms and teen flicks that dominate the multiplexes. At this rate it may be worth noting a kind of a paradox. The visual nature of the movies may aid the memory to recall them for analysis, yet the sheer load of the films that become stored in our memories, in wholes and pieces, frustrates the effort considerably.
Also there is something quite duplicitous about the way that only the initial first experience of a film contains an authentic emotional aspect. What I mean is that if I were to go now and watch Amelie for instance, when I want to laugh and cry, it is because I remember that it made me laugh and cry when I saw it first. However, for the majority of films seen in a lifetime it is true that they are not reviewed a second time at all. What remains of those is arguably, flashes of images somewhat drained of the meaning of emotional responses they are capable of provoking. It takes a second viewing of all of Hitchcock’s films for example (Vertigo or Rebecca in particular) to be able to say what the film actually does and how, in order to create such a powerful emotional impact. Since for most of us it is preferable to see a film only once to note it as good, I speculate just by the way of a little diversion, that on the wider scale what happens when we watch films collectively as a society is yet more interesting.
Often it is akin to some timed and contained mass exercise in venting emotions and instincts, which we no longer may have the room for, or the luxury of, amid the demands of modern living. That and the fact of our pub conversation happening without any reference to particular movies may indicate that the call was true – movies don’t ask the masses to take them apart and to understand their mechanisms.
We watch movies at home more and more. There, with a smaller screen and signs of daily life to keep the fictions from encroaching wholly we have a fairer chance of giving the films an honest assessment. It comes at a trade off: pause a movie to take the dog out and you’ve missed out on the thrill of a heart-stopping fright, but you can rewind and play again to see the exact trick that operates. All in all, I still think that the history of movies themselves helps us to a more discerning view, to the effect that we can obtain as much pleasure in recognising the ever-expanding grammar of filmmaking, as from the fictions themselves.