A few ideas about watching films a bit more productively, pt. 1


Here, as elsewhere/previously on this site, is some more material excerpted and slightly adapted from my 2008 monograph, Thinking About Film (Allyn & Bacon/Longman).  This publication was partly a commission, and partly a response to years’ worth of interesting experiences with nice young intro-to-film students who were really good at hating things.  Films, class assignments, teaching assistants, attempts to make the curriculum both engaging and substantial—no matter what happened or what we did, some of these youngsters were just always aggrieved.  It could have been us, partly.  Certainly, even.  Your college instructors aren’t always very charismatic, more’s the pity.  But it wasn’t only our fault.  The fact that these folks were so similarly bugged by such disparate things sometimes made us wonder if they, or rather some kind of intellectual method or mindset that they were using, were not the common denominator.

Not incidentally, many of these nice young people—and they really were nice, one-on-one, or separated from a setting in which they might be challenged, or threatened with a C+—espoused high Christian standards.  There was every indication that they were reasonably successful at living up to those standards too.  Except for that hating things thing.

What gave?  What gives?  Well, read on/check out Thinking About Film for one set of answers to these questions.  But also, to preview or give an abstract, it’s this: the ways of commerce and consumption don’t coincide with or measure up to the rigours and rewards of scholarship.  Not surprisingly, ditto on the ways of discipleship.

(Am I exemplary in either of these respects?  Certainly not.  But these thoughts may still be valid…)


Introductory film courses usually touch upon certain basic things.  One of the most important of these concerns the institution and practice of film criticism.  There are always a few students that bring some knowledge and experience to that conversation.  They have read a critic or two, or familiarized themselves with some of the many film periodicals that devote themselves to movies.  Many others have not read as widely.  Eventually, inevitably a couple of these less experienced students will end up voicing a common complaint about film and media criticism: I don’t much like film critics.  I never agree with them!

This is an interesting and in many ways understandable sentiment.  We disagree with much of what we hear in the culture around us, and this is often as it should be.  Our disagreements may stem from valid differences in disposition or sensibility.  They  may even turn on some key moral point, on a principle that we are not willing to compromise.  (With regard to film, our disagreements may also turn on the fact that a lot of contemporary film criticism is really poor, but that is a whole different matter.)

Still, for all of our scruples and self-flattery, it is not always principle that causes us to disagree with or even object to critical discourse.  There is a reality that many stubborn students feel to resist, but which is nevertheless, demonstrably and repeatedly, true.  When we are resistant to criticism, or to unfamiliar things that are being criticized (analyzed, etc.), precept is not always what motivates us.  Sometimes our critical resistance is simply and straightforwardly due to a closed mind, or a lack of intellectual industry.

Open wide … :

This is an important issue, and it extends beyond our mere experiences with the movies.  We often resist people, critics in this case, with whom we disagree.  We should probably think more about this reflex.  Is it right that we only talk or listen to those who think like we do?  A world made in our own image, which conforms and limits itself to what we know and desire, may end up being a pretty pinched and paltry place.  It is true that opening ourselves up to things that we had never contemplated can be a humbling and disconcerting experience.  It may even be dangerous.  But it is also true that exposure to a few foreign ideas and unfamiliar perspectives may actually lead us to growth and great edification.

Positive, constructive critical conversations help us to move in this desirable direction.  They can help us in our own search for interesting and substantial media, as well as in finding more effective ways to understand and gain from it.  A critical conversation like this differs from much of the tendentious, antagonistic (ill-informed, slow-footed, knuckle-headed) discourse that we usually encounter.  This is because it does not seek to make definitive judgments, or to establish a consensus of opinion.  Ambiguity and partiality are welcome.  Our discussion proceeds on the assumption that the open airing of perspectives and possibilities, for all the complications it entails, will ultimately help us understand others, and ourselves, better.

To this point the reader may agree; these are not particularly controversial ideas.  However it might be said that, as stated, they are too abstract to be of much use.  Questions naturally arise: what specifically does one do?  How can one take part?  There follow a few answers to these questions, a few basic critical principles, the consideration and application of which will equip readers for the critical work, and the fun, to follow.

A work should be judged on its own terms

It is important to know that the way things are usually done is not necessarily the way things should, or must be done.  This is extremely true of the movies.  Most commercial story telling tends toward closure, a neat and satisfying conclusion that answers all of our story-related questions and solves all of our story-related problems.  In addition a great deal of the critical writing that we find, whether the object of criticism is commercial and intends closure or not, reflects this same impulse.  There is a reason for this.  We are understandably reassured by clear answers to important questions: what does it mean?  Is it good or is it bad?  Should I spend my time and money on this thing?

But in this approach there is a potential problem.  It may be that a consumer report about a product with a very specific purpose can be appropriately and effectively made in the way just described.  It is certainly true that the people that make these products benefit from such cut and dried conversation, at least if the consumer report is positive.  But as students and teachers, neighbours and citizens, should we be satisfied by mere product ratings?

The fact is that the commercial and critical closure characteristic of the workaday production and discussion of movies is incompatible with the expansive, searching discussion that leads past mere entertainment to education.  Much of our cultural expression and many of our social interactions are being dominated by a kind of transaction approach—we buy and sell, and consume, and then rush heedlessly on.  There is a time and a place for commerce, but this approach has had an unfortunate, even dangerous effect on the way we think and interact.  The reason for this is that it really has little resemblance to what we know, and who we are.

People are complicated, groups of people are even more complicated, and that complexity is inevitably, confoundingly, and wonderfully a part of any expression of individual or community life.  It takes time and patience to get to know someone, or something that is an expression or reflection of that person.  Products may be straightforwardly this or that, but the books and movies and programs and people that are most worth our while require a little more of us.

If these things are true, then they should affect the way we read and see, and they may require us to make some fundamental changes.  Though superficial practices are all around us, we are not obligated to follow suit.  Too many critics and spectators reach for definitive judgments without first thinking about the criteria on which something should be judged.  We are at risk if we hasten to critical conclusions without giving any time or thought to the conversations that would give them meaning.

If this is the case, then two critical principles should follow.  The first of these principles is that a work should be judged on its own terms, and not on the basis of some other prevailing custom or preference or expectation.  When we consider a film or program we should try to identify what it is and how it operates.  We want to understand the way it is structured, and something of the intent behind it.  Rather than imposing upon it, we want to be reasonably open, and attend to it.

This means that a story that seeks to raise questions should not be faulted when it doesn’t give answers.  A small character-based film is not a failure because it does not resemble a big-budget special effects extravaganza.  We need not reject the Iranian feature that moves at a more leisurely pace than the action-adventure picture from Hong Kong.  An old movie is not the lesser for not being a new movie.

This does not mean that the thoughtful viewer must endorse every film that does what it wants.  Intention is just one consideration among many, and if one feels a film’s objective to be questionable, then one should say so.  For instance, films that advocate and model materialism or destructive self-absorption, even—especially—if they do so unconsciously, might be considered and then possibly condemned on their own materialistic, self-absorbed terms.  But we want to listen to the film first, and not just throw it out because of our deafness or our insensitivity to its language …



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