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February 3, 2011 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn how to read and watch movies critically/more deeply.

I'm taking a class on 19th century American prose, and every time we discuss a book we've read for class, I find all sorts of subtleties and nuances that I missed while reading. The same thing happens with movies that I've watched when I read more about them.

What are your tips for reading/watching movies more deeply? I try and take my time, but some things just don't make it past this dim brain of mine. Thanks.
posted by elder18 to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend the Pervert's Guide to Cinema.
posted by hermitosis at 9:47 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let me be the first to say that your brain isn't dim. Just take your time, see films and enjoy the journey. For example, interest in one director will lead you you read books about he/she, watch more of their films. You'll see who their influences are and then read about that influence....and so on.

You learn by watching, how you are moved emotionally, what is attractive to you and what interests you. You'll find nuances that aren't covered in books. The first time I got into movies was the summer of 1977. I was 14 years old and a local station had a summer film festival. I can pretty much say I fell in love with movies when I watched "The Philadelphia Story" that summer.
posted by goalyeehah at 9:53 AM on February 3, 2011

Where do you live. Large cities have great film societies, museums or independent theatres that are great for immersion.
posted by goalyeehah at 9:54 AM on February 3, 2011

Also, while I'm here, I recommend looking on your dvd's for interviews and commentary tracks. There is often a huge difference between what a filmmaker or actor intends, and what you actually perceive. Other times they are shockingly in sync. By listening to the artists talk about their art, you eventually find yourself wondering about these things when you see a movie for the first time. "Was that symbolism intentional?" and so forth.

Once you realize how easy it can be to actually find out the answers to your questions, from the people who actually made the movie, you're more likely to actually want to ask them. Also a little basic film study can be key. Learn what editors do, what producers do, what directors do, what special effects artists do. When you watch a scene, you'll begin to wonder whose influence you are mainly under at a given moment. Do I not like this scene because of the way it is edited? Acted? Directed? How would *I* have done it? How would (other filmmaker) have done it?

And endless rabbithole of fun thought experiments.
posted by hermitosis at 9:57 AM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Every frame in a movie was planned, shot, edited and generally pored over, not just by the director but by the cameraman, the editor, the set designer, the costumer... every detail means something. So pick something out and ask yourself "Why?"

"Why did they pick that guy for this role?"
"Why did the hero live in that apartment?"
"Why did the villain do that?"

Figure out who made that choice. Look at the credits. See if you recognize names, and try to match them to themes you've noticed (IMDB is a good way to connect lines).

And remember that people who write about movies get to be really, really good at it. You're not "missing" stuff that Roger Ebert (who is a goddamn national treasure) points out -- he's seen more movies than you've heard of, so he's good at it. It's not shameful that you're missing it. Reading critical analysis isn't cheating; it's gaining more depth, which is what you're looking to do.
posted by Etrigan at 9:59 AM on February 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Watch more trash movies, straight-to-video movies, Roger Corman stuff. Nothing teaches good cinema like bad cinema.
posted by Victorvacendak at 10:00 AM on February 3, 2011

Well said, Hermitosis!

There are a the Directors on Directors series of books ( I think ongoing ) with titles such as "Gilliam on Gilliam", "Levinson on Levinson" that are good resources.

Lots of good documentaries out there also.
posted by goalyeehah at 10:02 AM on February 3, 2011

For one thing, I often have to consume something twice to really notice the finer points - the first time is for the story, the second time is for analysis. But that's just me.

Also -- this might sound obvious, but a big part of analysis is remembering to take a step back and think of the film as something a group of people deliberately created. I ask myself why those creators made various decisions -- what scenes to include, what directions to take the characters in, what should be explained through dialog and what should be left vague, what music was chosen and how it interacts with what I'm seeing on screen, the use of color and light to set the tone of a given scene. Unless you're watching a documentary, the world of a film is almost entirely artificial, and even when real world locations are used they're dressed and shot to achieve a specific effect. Every single thing on screen and in the soundtrack was crafted and included for a reason. I try to figure out what those reasons might be, which then provides insight into the themes of the film and the intent of the people who created it. It also helps me understand my own reactions, and the ways in which the film successfully (or, perhaps, unintentionally) steered me toward particular thoughts and emotions while I was watching it.

And really, the unintended consequences of a film's decisions are often just as interesting as anything else. For example, last week I rewatched "Network," which I hadn't seen since I was in film school years and years ago. I could tell what it was trying to say about media, social responsibility and human relationships. But it also said a great deal about how ball-busting feminist career women ruin everything, which I don't actually think the filmmakers did on purpose -- they just unthinkingly reproduced some of the tropes of their time, and consequently made a much more socially conservative film than they probably meant to.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 10:02 AM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Directors on Directors
posted by goalyeehah at 10:22 AM on February 3, 2011

Read Robert McKee's "Story". Yeah, he's an ossified misogynist, but you'll be seeing things in the structure of narrative that'll keep you from actually enjoying a film for its own sake for many years, because you'll be so caught up in dissecting the mechanics of it.

I also thought Robert Rodriguez's "Rebel Without A Crew" was a good fluffy read on how El Mariachi came together, why some of those elements ended up in the film, and how he used the limitations of his medium (no sound sync, expensive film rather than modern video, etc) to create a style that wowed people.
posted by straw at 10:32 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by grobstein at 10:40 AM on February 3, 2011

I asked this question here last year, and got really helpful answers.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:45 AM on February 3, 2011

Seconding commentaries. Example: did you realize that the drinks ordered in the beginning of Shaun of the Dead lay out the rest of the movie? I didn't either, until I watched the movie with commentary. Another movie with great commentary is Time Bandits - great movie on it's own, but there are so many subtle things that allude to future events in the movie. Not all commentaries provide such insight, some is just idle banter (which can also be fun).

Watch detective shows and see if you can catch who it was before it's explained in the show. Monk comes to mind, as there's always the "how did he know?" summary at the end, with enough given away in-show to allow the viewer to figure it out, too. But there is a spectrum of possibilities in shows: some drop obvious hints, and you can figure out the killer in the first 5 minutes, yet the show goes on as if it's a big secret. Others never give enough away for you to sleuth along with the show. And then there are those in the middle, where you can catch some hints if you look closely enough.

As for reading, authors have their own habits. Some use allegories, others imagery. I can't think of any suggestions at the moment, but you could try reading something three times: first, read through and write down any patterns or symbols you thought might be there. Second, read through and mark the text or make notes as you go. Third, re-read the text and review your notes.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:23 AM on February 3, 2011

Seek out people who already do this. Watch movies with them, and talk about them afterward.
posted by hootenatty at 11:39 AM on February 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I found Bordwell and Thompson's Film Art textbook to be really well done, back when I had a class on, well, film and art, and I know that Ambrosia Voyeur (a film student) has recommended it as well. Get a semi-recent used copy and it comes with a DVD.

But it's full of both the terminology to accurately and critically describe a film (which I tend to think is the first step toward having a good idea of what to look for) and a fantastic sampling of film and video art mentioned. Sometimes I just whip open a random page and go scooting around youtube with it.
posted by klangklangston at 12:16 PM on February 3, 2011

Great advice above, so I won't repeat. Other things that I've found useful for analysis and understanding are to consider the context around the work, including the time period and history, social anxieties and politics, the state of whatever industry the author was working in, their body of work, other art movements, their personal lives at the time, etc.

It's also helpful to study the basics of the form itself, including a solid understanding of storytelling, especially to see how people who have really mastered it can twist things to make them interesting, or to see why the audience is drawn to it. (This applies to pop culture just as much as it does to the indie film at your local theater.)

Finally, even a basic knowledge of storytelling archetypes, philosophy, classical and world mythologies and Biblical stories will form a pretty good foundation from which to look at (Western) art.

I also personally find a lot of benefit in commentaries, reading reviews by practiced industry people (critics), blogs by film and book superfans, class discussions and talking with friends. Art isn't created in a vacuum, and understanding doesn't have to be, either. Plus I enjoy the occasional element of synchronicity, in which your own life events randomly connect to things in the film or book and vice versa.
posted by lhall at 1:00 PM on February 3, 2011

The Criterion Contraption is a great resource for what you want to do - check it out.
posted by Dr Dracator at 1:20 PM on February 3, 2011

My basic rule is: how's the average filmgoer for this timeframe going to take this movie? Understanding the context of the film helps a lot.
posted by grubi at 3:04 PM on February 3, 2011

I'd start with Martin Scorsese. He's not always talking about the big-budget films nor the critic's darlings (in fact, most people who work in the biz seldom agree with the critics) but he's picked films that speak to him. Also, his doc on Italian film.

And then take a look at a doc about cinematography, Visions of Light.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:18 PM on February 3, 2011

Lots of good suggestions here, but I'd just like to point out that in a class discussion, everyone can notice only one single thing and you'll still get to hear a whole range. Just because you didn't notice them all on your own doesn't make you dim. That's part of the point of discussions!
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:01 PM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Watch movies. Read books. Get culture. Connect the dots. When I ultimately saw the ballet Giselle, I realized "Holy shit, this is where Argento got the whole idea of Suspiria! All he did was make it a coven of witches. Genius!". It was a moment that clarified the context in which I see movies. I am a student. I don't assume to know. I build context with intent.

If I recall correctly, Tarantino called watching films "$3 film school". I think he is right.
posted by zerobyproxy at 8:37 PM on February 3, 2011

One more book recommendation: Bruce Block, The Visual Story. A warning, though, after this you won't be able to see a Kubrick film without thinking he's way way too obvious and on the nose with his use of color.
posted by straw at 6:47 AM on February 4, 2011

It helps if you have background information, or if you watch the movie several times. It's hard to determine the important information from the irrelevant right off the bat if you're not sure what the deeper implications would be when you learn more. This is a little hard to explain but I'll give you an example. I was watching this show Skins that has a lot of different complicated characters and story lines. After seeing the pilot episode twice I noticed all kinds of things; there are a bunch of subtle hints the characters give that don't come across as hints unless you know what you learn later in the episode. Like they say this girl is "great in the sack, unless she's hungry." Wouldn't make a whole lot of sense until you learn this girl is anorexic and when she's focusing on food she gets obsessive about restricting herself from it.
Also try to think about the point of the movie and what purpose it serves. Think about whether it was worth the money it took to create. I like to look at how realistically things are portrayed. I think the best TV shows are the ones that are at least partially improvised because I always get hung up on the idea that these actors are just reciting their lines and all I can think about in a dramatic scene is how the actor is trying to come across and how they must be reciting their lines over and over again in their heads.
So yeah, I guess everyone has different opinions and priorities when it comes to critiquing movies, and these are just what I personally look for in a movie. There pretty much hasn't been a good movie that's been made in the past ten years, and that includes Avatar because they spent so much time and money on it and I probably could have guessed the majority of the movie based on a preview. Hmmm, I wonder if the single main character is going to meet a single, beautiful girl? Oh, there's a native Avatar creature thing and she seems to be single and beautiful. Wait, she doesn't like him. That's too bad, guess she's going to go away and they'll probably never meet each other again. What's this? Even though they seem to have opposing personalities they're forced together by chance or fate? And they're falling in love even though the plot sets the stage for the inevitable throwaway breakup scene? And here it comes, she finds out he's been basically lying to her the whole time, she doesn't even attempt to see things from his perspective and the audience is left in suspense when she leaves him. Is there really any question as to whether they'll get back together? Obviously they will. Like it really will matter after the movie's ended.
Well, here comes the part where they find out that the main guy likes the main girl, blah blah blah, of course there are lots of suspenseful, dramatic, action-packed scenes where the two sides fight. There's the whole slow motion scene thing where random explosions are happening everywhere and the sound effects get really quiet and they play that weird music that sounds like Temple music from Legend of Zelda. You know, the opera/church choir type sounding music where whoever's singing (probably a choir boy or something) sounds like they're just singing "Ooooooohhhhhhhiiiiiiiiaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhoooooooohhhhh" or some crazy medieval language. Anyways. They portray an unrealistic juxtaposition between the two sides (the Avatar people, I think they have some name live 'Na'vi' or something, and the army) and they pretty much show nothing good about the army and nothing bad about the Avatar people. So, the odds of dying are pretty high for the main guy and his Avatar girlfriend and, surprise surprise, everything works out for them. As if there were any question about who would win. Seriously, they would never let it end without everything "working out" in the end. Just like real life, right? Wrong. Avatar is not any different from any other movie ever. That was an overgeneralization of course. But really, Avatar was a waste of time and money and for some reason everyone thinks it's the best movie ever. Breaking news: it's not.
posted by AlisonNicole at 8:43 AM on February 4, 2011

I'm not much of film critic but when it comes to reading critically, I recommend How to Read a Book - By Mortimer Adler. The title sounds a bit cliche but it answers the question of how to get more out of what you read.

Here is a decent outline of the books contents to help you get a better idea of the books contents.
posted by meta.mark at 10:08 AM on February 4, 2011

I've also heard good things about How to Read Literature Like a Professor.
posted by meta.mark at 2:36 PM on February 4, 2011

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