How do you watch a movie?

That’s right folks, I have not clue as to how to watch a movie. Oh sure, I can put my brain into neutral and watch an action packed summer spectacle with no problem. However, I really like watching a Cohen brothers or Shyamalan film, but I’m not sure why I like it.

I have this nagging suspicion that there are layers in these movies I would appreciation if I could figure out how to “watch” the film the right way. Now it’s art (sometimes) so enjoyment comes first but anyone able to help me dig a bit deeper?

This question is near and dear to my heart. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy answer for you.

Basically, it comes with time and experience. To give you an idea, I see a minimum of 200 movies per year, usually more. As I watch a movie, I’m keeping track of the cinematography, the editing, the performances, the production design, the score, and more, while simultaneously following the story (which I’m trying to keep separate from what was probably written on the page as the original script). Thing is, though, I can’t point to a specific time when I was suddenly able to do this. It just sort of developed.

Some of it comes from seeing lots and lots and lots of movies. Eventually, you begin to recognize that you’re seeing the same half-dozen stories over and over (with rare exceptions, which you treasure), so you start looking for the variations on the themes. And in order to differentiate these variations, you need to know something of the vocabulary; for example, it’s helpful to know something about editing to know how Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven handles its revenge motif differently from, say, Will Penny.

Another part of it comes from seeing the same movies multiple times. As a red-blooded American kid, I must have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark a dozen times in the cinema. You can’t sit through that many repetitions without noticing things; I don’t know how many times I’d seen the film before I finally saw the almost invisible edit that jumps in on Belloq while he’s sitting at the edge of the ceiling entrance to the Well of the Souls mocking Indy below. Noticing something like that can only help increase one’s observational skills, which of course can apply to any movie. Likewise, I’ve seen Fellini’s 8 [sup]1[/sup]/[sub]2[/sub] seven or eight times, and I see something new every time.

A third part of it comes from paying attention to who’s making the movie. If you’re keeping careful track of the director, cinematographer, editor, etc., you can start to notice common elements to the work. Paul Thomas Anderson moves his camera in a very different way compared to Stanley Kubrick or Stanley Kramer or Jane Campion; if you look at a specific filmmaker’s work in a bunch, it’s a lot easier to see these signature elements, and then to isolate them when looking at other filmmakers. And then you can start to recognize the difference between a legitimately groundbreaking film artist like David Cronenberg or Wong Kar-Wai and talented craftspeople like John Badham or Penny Marshall.

Another part of it comes from knowledge of how movies are made. I’m going to mention editing again, because, to a very large extent, filmmaking is editing. The more you know about it, the more you recognize just how much control there is in this aspect; you can radically change how the audience perceives an actor’s performance by choosing how you juxtapose an overemotional take in scene A with a cold and flat take in scene B, or vice versa. Good directors (and editors) know how to craft a performance, and a story, and a movie as a whole in the editing room. At the same time, it’s possible to hide a bad performance or a clunky story with flashy editing (see Underworld for an attempt at this).

Yet another part of it comes out of choosing challenging movies. If all you ever see are titles that are nationally advertised and open on 500 screens or more, then sure, you’ll see some good movies now and then, but you’ll very rarely see anything that expands the medium or tries to do unusual or innovative things with it. A lot of valuable experimentation happens around the fringes, if you know where to look; Russ Meyer was doing MTV editing twenty-five years before there was an MTV. And this doesn’t mean you have to go out and look at Brakhage or Anger or Barney or similar experimentalists right out of the gate, either; you can find good challenges just in subject material, as in Nil by Mouth, for example.

And still another part of it comes out of reading quality criticism. By noting what experienced and intelligent critics are looking for, you can start to look for the same things. The Reader’s own Jonathan Rosenbaum is an excellent film writer, to name one; there’s others available on the web (I’m occasionally impressed by these guys, for example) and in print. One big warning sign that what you’re reading is a review instead of a critical essay? A rating. Responsible film critics recognize that it’s impossible to boil down any movie, no matter how shallow and disposable (say, Daddy Day Care) to a single dimension of judgement. Newspaper editors tend to impose this to serve the skimming public, but note that none of the New York Times writers bothers with a scale-of-one-to-ten or one-to-four-stars or anything like that.

The real trick, I think, is to come to the movie on its own terms and its own territory. Try to figure out what the film’s objective is, and then decide (a) whether it meets that objective and (b) whether that objective is worthwhile. The biggest mistake made by inexperienced or irresponsible film critics is to review a movie other than the one they looked at: the “I wish it had done this instead” syndrome. That’s a giveaway that they’re responding with their own biases and preconceptions, rather than looking at the movie fairly on the ground it’s attempting to occupy.

Is this helpful?

WAAAY better than I could’ve done, Cervaise, though I didn’t realize I watch roughly twice as many movies as you do in a year. . . I’m still catching up though.

Though all of Cervaise’s points are excellent and will be of great value to you, Grey, if you follow them, I think the most important point is this: simply watch more movies, and re-watch the ones you think might be worthwhile to do so. You can only accumulate the necessary “vocabulary” of critical movie watching by absorbing as much film as you can.

It’s like a movie is a point on a map: if your view is limited to just a point or two, you have very little context even to understand those two points. Cast your eyes wider, and ever wider, and eventually you will have a bird’s eye view of the entire map and you can begin to see the relationships between the points, the shapes they outline, the roads that link them, etc. It simply takes time and attention to develop that bird’s eye view.

That said, watch a lot of Hitchcock. Then watch Keaton’s “The General.” Then just keep going. Watch DVDs with directors’ commentaries, too; they’ll give you some insight into the process, and the intentions of the filmmakers.

A recent DVD commentary track that I found extremely illuminating, believe it or not, is the one that accompanies the special edition of Starship Troopers. There was such a wide gap between the filmmakers’ intentions (dark satire about war and Fascism, playing off of Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films, and US WWII newsreel propaganda) and many audience members’ understanding (stupid movie about bugs), that it’s interesting to consider that gap.

The commentary on Texas Chainsaw Massacre was fascinating too, in an entirely different way.

Watch Scorsese’s documentary, something like “Martin Scorsese’s Journey through American Cinema.” It’s a masterful and quick (five hours to cover so much ground!) survey of films and what they say, and HOW they say it. It will give you a GREAT shopping list of things to rent.

Then watch his followup, a journey through Italian films, and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini’s films.

Rent “That’s Entertainment III” for an astonishingly fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the golden age of Hollywood. Watch “The Celluloid Closet” for a look at how subversive imagery, specifically imagery of homosexuals, was smuggled to the audience under the censorious gaze of the Hayes code.

Rent “The Passion of Joan of Arc” for a stunning lesson in the power of camera composition, and the worlds of meaning a simple still face can convey.

Rent “Rashomon” for a meditation on the honesty of the film image: just because you see it doesn’t make it true.

Find a copy of “La Jetee,” I think it’s on the “12 Monkeys” DVD, for a quick (~20 min) exploration of the power of the image itself, and the nature of narrative, removed from the dynamic of film.

Rent the original “Cat People” and the original “The Haunting” for a masters’ course in implied, rather than explicit, imagery: the ability of film to create images in your mind without putting them on the screen.

I could of course go on; maybe more later.

I set up two DVD players.

One plays in Reverse, the other in Forward.

I cue each player to the exact midpoint of the film.

Then, I play them, overlapping and superimposing the images and soundtrack from each player onto one monitor (no, not the lizard).

I’m sorry, what was the question?

If there’s a school near you that offers an Intro to Film/Cinema class, take it and see. You may not have the vocabulary/experience to translate what you see at the moment. Whereas, in a Film class, you’ll learn all about shots and editing, how to set up a scene, etc.

At least, that’s what we do in mine, heh.

I generally remove my butt plug for comedies/horror, leave it in for drama/porn. I don’t have a couch, so I try to retain a headstand for the entirety of the film. For 3 hour epics or borefests(or great porn) I take breaks every hour.

The first time I watch a movie I don’t pay real close attention. If it’s good enough, then I watch it a second and third time. Then I really get into it, I try to pick out all the metaphors and symbolism. But like you say, if it’s just some action packed car explosion stuff, my brain is in neutral.

I think if you overanalyse a film, or why you like a film, you take a lot of the pleasure out of it.

But then, you can also underanalyse, i.e. vegetate and let it wash over you (though for certain films that’s not such a bad thing).

I guess there’s a balance you have to strike.

Movies that force me to think very hard in order to even understand themselves are I think missing the point. But I also don’t want to be spoonfed blatant symbolism.

I say, enjoy film for what it is - an entertainment - and read up on who and what styles you like online, especially reviewers and arty wanky people, then draw your own conclusions based on when you’re either nodding or shaking your head.

Funny, I just had a mini-revelation about the way I view movies a few weeks ago. I realized that I’m probably as far opposite of a Cervaise, for example, as may be possible.

I generally watch movies as if I’m watching a documentary. As if all of the events in the movies really happened the way they are laid out on film. There is no need to analyze the editing, the pace, any of that - after all, it’s just camcorder footage. (This may be even more strange considering that I generally don’t like fiction set in the “real world.” Give me vampires, time travel, alien worlds or anything unrealistic and I’m a lot more likely to be interested.)

I’m not sure why I do it that way, but I always have. There are other things in my life which I find it hard not to overanalyze (and I’m learning that the very act of overanalyzing over time kills my love for those things), but with movies I’m just an open receiver with minimal processing of the input.

The only thing that gets me is suspension of disbelief. Whenever a movie does something so bad that I suspend disbelief (and it takes a lot), that puts me into “critic” mode instead of “viewer” mode. I couldn’t even put together a coherent argument on why most of these things kill my suspension of disbelief when they happen, but once it’s done it’s done.

I should point out that most people have seen a lot more movies than I have. I’m amazed that people watch hundreds per year. I’m not sure I’ve seen a hundred in my lifetime.

This sounds very much like my situation. On the upside when I do see a movie it tends to not be the Armageddons but the Kunduns. Mind you, I did go to Lost in Space; my wife is still holding that over me. :slight_smile:

Cervaise, it was actually the reviews on your linked www page that started me thinking about this. I would take the advice you, lissener and others have given, but I simply don’t have the time right now. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to at least try to get more out of it.

I should’ve phrased the OP “What are the shorthand tools used by director/editors that I should look for and appreciate in films”. Until I read some of the reviews at “Movie Geek Central” I had never heard of the idea of Left Side=Dominant Right Side=Passive. Are there other basic film techniques that should be understood to help get more out the experience?

Those clues are not universal; few directors this side of Kubrick pay close conscious attention to such things. Watch the documentaries in my first post, above; they’re a pretty quick plunge into the guts of filmmaking.

Pick up a beginner book on film theory (usually pretty dry) or an “intro to cinema” book, more interesting (and with more pictures).

I learn just by watching, now, but it’s difficult for me to separate what I learned in four years of film school (at a liberal arts college, so drama, literature and history all feed into it) to what I learn when I watch a movie.

You don’t have to learn just from watching “good” cinema… every movie has some good qualities and never forget that you can learn from mistakes just as well as from successes.

I come from a cinematography background, so I think in terms of visual style, for the most part. See a shot you hate? Analyze why you got that visceral reaction from it. Maybe the director meant for you to hate it (not likely in Hollywood blockbuster, more likely in a indie or older film) or just screwed up. Same goes for one that takes your breath away.

Also, watch the movie without music, if you can. (I miss laserdiscs!!) You’ll see how much the music adds to a film and how much it can detract if not appropriate.

I work in Television and Film production. Recently wrapped principle photography on a short I directed.

I’ve been in the biz over twenty years and made 8mm films when I was a kid.
There was a point in time many years ago when I was in learning mode.
I analyzed every film I saw. I studied direction, performance, cinematography, editing, etc. I eventually noticed that this perspective was taking away from what I believe to be the true film watching experience.

So, believing that I had soaked up enough knowledge, I consciously decided to just sit back and enjoy. To just let it all unfold before me as the filmmaker intended. I would react to the story and the characters and the setting rather on the technical aspects of how the film was made.

At this point I’ll go back to watch a film multiple times later just to study certain aspects that jumped out at me the first time. Learning never stops.

I would suggest that as a lay person, you not get too involved in what it takes to create a film. This might cause a distraction. Unless of course you really have an interest in it.
But definitely relax in front of the screen and let the story be told.

Well, this got deep pretty quickly. I was going to say: at home, with the lights out, surround sound on, perched in my optimal spot.*

Pales in comparison to the other replies.

I watch movies in the same way that most have posted - plot, cinemetography, performance. Mostly, I just try not to be too critical of what is going on, but over the top actions and performances are not appreciated in my house. If I say, “Oh, I’m sure,” then it just isn’t right. It must all follow along with the given story and plot. Unless it’s a B movie of MST3K calibre. That’s just plain FUN.

  • Optimal spot would be the place in my living room that I designated with a masking tape “X” (serious) after days of trial with the only VHS movie that I had in surround sound when I got the system - The Lion King. Now I have DVD and 5.1. Go ahead, wipe the smile off my face.

Sometimes an unbelievable plot can be commercially artistic, a representation of time and progress in film making.

I’d recommend that you watch movies that meld sound and kinetics with color and position, films that speak in innovative ways, successfully. Decide what you like about films you’ve seen with your antenna tuned to timing.

And believe everything you watch is real (while you’re watching it).

Cervaise and lissener, how in the heck do watch one or two movies a day? And do anything else? Geez, I like movies, but yikes. Is it your job to watch movies?

What I usually do is see a movie try and develop an opinion and then do some research, usually starting at the imdb and reading the reviews posted there. The people I agree with are typically brilliant and sophisticated and perceptive, while, almost without fail, the one I disagree with are philistines.

Seriously, my head is such a muddle and I’m still quite the ignorant civilian regarding film (but perhaps more informed than some) that it helps to read other opinions.

It’s not my job to watch movies, just an obsession; I’m a graphic designer by trade.

But I usually watch at least one movie a day; most evenings two or three. I sometimes spend all waking weekend hours watching movies. I get nearly free rental at Seattle’s Scarecrow Video (and I’m on a list of people who don’t have to leave a deposit on their rarities), I get 10 Netflix titles at a time, and I have, right now, 72 items out from the Seattle public library (including boods and CDs as well as DVDs and VHSes). I’m a member of Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema. I get a discount for renting ten titles at a time from VideoLibrary. And I prowl eBay for out of print rarities to add to my permanent library.

(Yesterday, I watched Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, 1939. Tonight, two Miike films, and possibly The Grave of the Fireflies.)

Scarecrow Video is a great place, they have such a humumgous collection. If it’s been on video, you can probably find it at Scarecrow. Too bad I don’t have a car…

There are a few titles they don’t have; I’ve donated quite a few that I’ve found on eBay, etc., that Scarecrow had never been successful in tracking down.

Frequent binges skew the average. For example, during the most recent Seattle film festival, I saw 68 movies in 24 days. Then during the rest of the year, I may go a whole week without seeing one in the cinema, but then catch up with two or three in a weekend. I also very rarely see movies more than once in the cinema, which frees up a lot of availability, whereas the ordinary moviegoer may go back to something he or she loves several times. Add on two or three per week on home video or premium cable, and that’s where you get the 200-per-year minimum. It’s not a daily thing for me, like it is for lissener.

Do what I consider doing every time I move: Find a house within walking distance. I’m currently living about 30 blocks from them, which is just close enough to be enticing but just far enough away to be annoyingly inconvenient. :stuck_out_tongue:

If you look at nothing else, look at editing. It’s the single biggest contributor to how a movie operates, and in many ways is the truly unique aspect of film-as-art that separates it from other disciplines. In other words, cinematography can be compared to photography, acting happens on stage, score = musical composition, and so on, while there isn’t anything like editing in any other art form with the possible exception of comic books.

Important quote, paraphrased from memory, I believe originally said by Godard: Film is life at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie. So as you’re watching the editing, notice how elements are juxtaposed, rhythm is built, tension is created, either by cutting or not cutting. Look at how the interaction between photography and editing creates a sense of space and/or confinement; for example, if the filmmakers establish a space with a moving camera in a single shot, it’s usually less claustrophic than if they give you a series of closer shots cut together. Note how this and other subtle techniques are used to underline the intended emotional tone and psychology of a scene, and try to determine whether slightly different techniques are employed in different scenes to create contrast.

(Example: Moulin Rouge is notorious for its fast, choppy editing. Note that it it gets even faster and choppier when the hero first enters the club, and note likewise the first significant shot in the movie that lasts longer than two seconds without an edit: it’s the grand pullback from the couple on top of the elephant.)

A solid grounding in editing principles will also go a long way toward helping you understand why some scenes in the Star Wars prequels work better than others. Lucas is well-known for his editing skills; on the first Star Wars movie, before the special effects were done, he was testing the rhythm of the action sequences by cutting together existing material from other sources. For example, he gave his FX crew a reference for the final dogfight over the Death Star in the form of an assemblage of aerial combat footage from WWI and WWII movies. I haven’t seen this myself, but apparently it worked surprisingly well in its context of putting over the story. Once you have a handle on how this stuff works, it suddenly becomes clear why the Pod Race in Phantom Menace and the Arena Fight in Attack of the Clones are so thrilling, and much of the rest of the movies so flat: because they’re exercises in almost pure editing with any attempt at plot movement taking a distant second on the list of priorities.

If you want to read an informative book about how editing works, check out Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye. He’s a frequent collaborator with Lucas and Coppola, and he’s probably one of the five top experts on film assembly in Hollywood right now.