Your brain: two exercises (pt. 1)

People don’t always think things through.  What if they did?  Questions would follow.  Answers even, if they stuck with it, and each person with a different set …

This is the first of two linked posts.  Excerpted material is taken from my 2008 monograph, Thinking About Film (Allyn & Bacon/Longman).

Exercise One: Picking movies

Evaluate the criteria that you use to choose the films that you see.  What are the things that get you in that theatre, or seated before that screen?  There are any number of sources, all at least partly valid, and all with limitations of which we should be aware.  Think of some of those sources: friends and family, grapevines and cooler conversations, commercials and trailers, reviews and awards, the reputation of participants or the subject matter that draws and repels us, the fact that nothing else is on or the rest of the screenings are sold out…

There’s a reasonably thorough list.  What do you make of it?  Have you been aware of these things?  Each component bears and rewards some further contemplation, and all of these questions are important.  Think about the friends that influence your media choices.  What are their interests and ambitions?  What is important to them?  Are they reflective, or thoughtful?  What kind of things do they tend to talk about, and what form does that conversation take?  Do they consider your preferences, whether general and social, or specifically related to media consumption?  Or, do they often try to impose their will upon you?  (We might ask the same question of ourselves!)  Are your friends hasty in judgment, or do they give room for conversation, and contemplation?

The same sorts of questions apply to your families.  What kind of influence do they have on the things that you see, and the way that you see them?  Were there too many Disney movies when you were little, or now that you’re getting big?  Have you given proper thought to how cool a Western can be?  Was the culture of your home broad and deep and expansive, or more pinched than you might have liked it to be?  Are the things that you’re feeling pinched by actually, or at least partly, a manifestation of real principle and scruple?

Are your parents reluctant to let you grow up and make your own choices?  Are they being over-protective?  In your own anxiety to grow up, or to prove that you have already done so, are you recklessly disregarding justifiable parental caution?

We have other sources that inform and motivate us.  These too should be thought through.  Have you ever considered that, as cool as a film trailer or commercial can be, they exist solely to separate you from your money?  An advertisement may well set forth a product’s real virtues, and we may decide that product to be exactly what we want, or need.  But we should think about it a little at first, and be at least a bit skeptical.  The guy selling the thing shouldn’t be the only person we consult about that thing.

How about this: have you ever noticed how some ostensibly critical conversations (reviews of movies and music and other such things) actually resemble product endorsements themselves?  Sometimes writers will try to sell you something, or convince you of something.  And they’ll use the critical object—the film, the CD, the television program—to do so.  This isn’t necessarily bad, but you want to give it some thought.  What might these reviewers be trying to tell you, or sell you?  What is the film itself selling, or the institution that distributes it?  Is it simply a particular style, or genre, or subject matter?  Or is there something more at issue, some philosophy, or lifestyle, or world view?

If you’re using reviewers to help you with your entertainment choices, there’s another possibility to think about.  Film reviews—this is frequently, though not inevitably true in local, small or medium-sized newspapers, or in reviewer generated websites—are often made up of a plot summary, some vaguely articulated or motivated praise/condemnation, and a glib summary that is quite inadequate to the complexity and contradiction of the actual film.  Should we attend to these guys?  Alternatively, when the reviews are more thorough, do we consider the nature of the review, or the experience and methodology of the reviewer?

As for awards, have you noticed that sometimes they also have a definite commercial or ideological component?  Aren’t they sometimes part of a selling strategy?  The way that film and television industries celebrate themselves has much to do with bottom lines, since the practitioners that give and receive accolades have a great interest in your patronage.  And beyond selling, don’t those awards and awards show have a lot to say about partisan politics, or national agendas, or a certain take on geopolitical reality?  We should attend to and enjoy and be wary of these conversations.

All of these questions, and others that we might add about a number of other categories, come down to the same basic things.  They should make us think.  What predilections, pressures and thought processes cause you to choose one film and not another?  How do those film choices relate to bigger, deeper, more important things?  Have you thought about it all?  Shouldn’t you do so?

We might extend this exercise a little further.  Having thought about the criteria with which you choose things, select a film that you have recently seen, and evaluate it on the basis of those criteria.  Then reflect.  Based on your experience with this particular film, how are your criteria working?  Do they lead you to the information that you need?  Do they consistently provide you with substantial and enjoyable film experiences?

Experiments like this should not be undertaken as simple exercises in self-affirmation.  We should push ourselves.  To some degree, with regard to our media choices, we are all probably lacking in discernment or discipline or courage.  We will want to take aim here at our permissiveness or excess of caution, our sloppiness or smugness or slavery to convention.  All this boils down to a culminating question: is there a way for me to make better, more careful media choices?

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