how to build comprehensive film-viewing habits
June 18, 2005 10:06 AM   Subscribe

What are some good resources to call upon for developing a structured approach to viewing films in following a personal interest in film studies?

I have an interest in studying film (as a viewer) more deeply, currently only for personal satisfaction and not career purposes. I plan to take an introductory film studies course at a local city college this fall. I tend not to function well outside a structured arrangement when it comes to approaching subjects of personal interest, and while the course itself will offer some structure, I would like to get a head start by organizing my personal viewing habits. My specific goals are to (1) learn to understand the explicit and hidden themes embedded in films; (2) learn to consider films within the cultural and historical contexts in which they are created; (3) gain a basic understanding of film technique and identify how it serves a film's message; and (4) to include perspectives of genre and director auteurship.

I would like to develop a strategy for viewing and re-viewing films and considering them beyond a casual basis. I would plan to view one or sometimes two films per day, selected primarily from non-commercial-break movie channels on satellite, more rarely from local theaters showing modern or classic films. I would give priority to films that are generally considered canonical, and would follow the occasional collection of films as organized by director or genre, The general idea is that I might view a film once and then record my impressions (based on a consistent set of questions i would ask myself about each film--such questions i need help in formulating and that relate to my stated goals); only after the film would i seek out others' criticism and interpretations, primarily via free resources on the Internet (specific recommendations would be helpful, including those that are not free and not online); after some period of time i might view the film again, this time giving more attention to technical aspects and making a reassessment of my earlier opinions, and recording them.

My worries are that: (1) i will try to consider too many elements too quickly and as a result be frustrated by the experience and fail to work toward my goals; and (2) that i won't figure out an effective means (set of questions, criteria) for arriving at a thoughtful personal interpretation of the film (i'm not good or practiced at 'cracking' hidden themes and symbolism in literature, particularly poetry).

i don't know if my question is too general or wide in scope, or too specific to my personal situation, or both, but i am grateful for input relating to any aspect of the question
posted by troybob to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Without knowing more details, the best advice I can give you is to follow:

• directors or production artists
• or artistic genres created by directors

Directors tend to create work with common themes, even if the content is varied.

One easy example is Stanley Kubrick, whose work embodies several key themes about the strengths and weaknesses of humanity.

Other popular examples include Bergman, Fincher, Hitchcock, Busby Berkeley...

Web sites may be good starting points for organzing viewing of a director's oevre on the basis of thematic similarites. The input of fans and film critics can help, here.

On the second point, organizing viewing along an ideological basis is perhaps a bit clearer. One example of what I mean is DOGME '95, which aims at creating films with a narrow and confining set of rules. Or Hong Kong New Wave. Lots of examples along this line...
posted by Rothko at 10:36 AM on June 18, 2005

It sounds like you're trying to optimize the experience and, to my mind, loading up your plan beyond the fun zone. Even if you watch a bunch of movies and don't "discover" everything in them, it's not like you're wasting your time. The analysis you're talking about takes practice; no one is great at it right out of the gate. Your plan sounds a bit like an experiment design, and I wonder whether that sets you up to be distracted from the actual subject at hand - getting you so preoccupied with how you will record and evaluate that you can't just watch a movie.

If you want to fast-track some of the "engaged viewing" techniques you're talking about, consider seeing originals and remakes back to back, or originals and adaptations. Series of films can also be useful, since they'll generally involve different directors, and you can compare different treatments of the same subject matter and also explore other works by the same directors. These methods can help you "control" your "subjects" and help call out comparisons and contrasts.

I've done the schedule you're talking about - 1 or 2 films a day (now down to 3 or 4 a week) - and it's pretty amazing how well that sheer volume pushes you toward more engaged viewing all by itself, so maybe all you need to do at this point is just kick back and watch.

I use Netflix, mostly so I can "add it to my list" and never forget about something I think I might like to see. It's unusual that they don't have something (fanatics join Greencine as well, anyway), and they do a little bit of matching that can help you learn about connections between films. Mixing venues, as you describe, would never have worked for me, and I wonder if you run a risk that sourcing movies that way skews you toward box-office stuff rather than canonical stuff or that it just makes the logistics too much of a pain.
posted by caitlinb at 10:39 AM on June 18, 2005

These books may be useful as they're staples for many film theory/production classes one would take at university:

Fillm Art by Bordwell and Thompson

A Short History of the Movies by Mast and Kawin

Movies and Methods (the series) by Bill Nichols

In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch

The Five C of Cinematography by Joseph Mascelli (may be a tad technical for your purposes)

John Alton's Painting with Light and the documentary Visions of Light

The On Film documentary series by Martin Scorsese is also a good primer and one would be well advised to see as many of the films he cites as you can get your hands on:

-- A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

-- My Voyage to Italy

If you're interested in screenwriting, I recommend Screenwriting from the Heart by James Ryan, as well as the interview series by William Froug (screenwriter looks at the screenwriter and its sequels).

Lastly, I'd recommend DVDs with good commentaries:

-- L'Avventura (criterion) by Gene Youngblood
-- The Limey by Lem Dobbs and Steven Soderbergh
-- The Graduate Criterion laserdisc (if you can find it) by Howard Suber (the best commentary I've ever heard)
-- Peter Cowie and Donald Richie's commentaries on Criterion discs for Bergman and Kurosawa films
-- also see this thread

The Criterion Collection is an excellent way to work your way through some terrific films and learn about them (from the commentaries) as you go.
posted by dobbs at 10:40 AM on June 18, 2005 [2 favorites]

I went to film school with the intent of becoming a film critic. I found that what I learned in literature, history and humanities classes actually gave me more of a background in discovering and learning aesthetics and theory behind film. Some of the most important ways I learned to watch film was through reading books.

For me, it was very hard to embark on the personal style of viewing film such as you are interested in without having an outlet for discussion. Classes are perfect for that. I suggest also finding a film center or art house in your area that may have a film club. It's very much like discussing literature, and when you have people to speak with right after viewing a film, you can hear their perspectives and add to your own.

[quote] My worries are that: (1) i will try to consider too many elements too quickly and as a result be frustrated by the experience and fail to work toward my goals; and (2) that i won't figure out an effective means (set of questions, criteria) for arriving at a thoughtful personal interpretation of the film (i'm not good or practiced at 'cracking' hidden themes and symbolism in literature, particularly poetry).[/quote]

Don't be worried. One of the best things about film (or literature or art for that matter) is what you bring to it. When you end up in that class in the fall, others will contribute and enhance what you already have. Just by being an adult you have absorbed a lot of symbolic archetypes that appear in film -- just because you may not right away catch that the particular framing of a shot recalls Ozu or somesuch isn't where you need to be right away. That comes with a continued journey of film viewing, reviewing and discussion.

Watch the film with a notebook. jot notes without looking at the page as you watch. immediately after the film is over, jot your last remaining thoughts. Take a break, have a smoke, then start chatting. I have had some damned near religious experiences with film in this way. Rewatching a film later will bring even more to the forefront.

A few recommended texts to begin you on your path:

"I Lost it at the Movies" and "Going Steady" by Pauline Kael. I wanted to be her when I grew up and reading her essays are inspirational and divine. Watch a film in one of these, read the essay she worte about it, then watch the film again.

"A Third Face" by Sam Fuller (foreword by Martin Scorsese). A pioneer in masculine filmmaking, his life, times and a damned fine book. You learn a lot about how films get made, how they get changed by the studios, and it give you a bit of a swagger.

"Filmmakers Handbook" by Edward Pincus is a great way to learn some of the technical stuff. I also recommend "American Cinematographer" magazine as a way to learn this too. They're not super-technical manuals, but they give you the craft behind the art.

One other note: don't feel that you need to watch "serious film" in order to discover a deeper love of film. Some delicious popcorn flicks can give as much of a platter to feast from as the most highbrow French nouveau "masterpiece."

I hope something in this ramble is of use!
posted by macadamiaranch at 10:42 AM on June 18, 2005 [2 favorites]

how interesting, rothko! my new desire to study film arises from a current fascination with lars von trier (itself renewed by a recent metafilter conversation) and the reading i have been doing about him and dogme 95!
posted by troybob at 10:42 AM on June 18, 2005

i'm really enjoying the thoughtful and detailed responses here; unfortunately, i'm heading out of town for an overnight trip and will be delayed in checking everything out and responding to it. you guys are awesome!
posted by troybob at 11:10 AM on June 18, 2005

Something matteo should have posted on MeFi, perhaps.
posted by Rothko at 11:54 AM on June 18, 2005

Just wanted to pipe in--I love, love, love the Scorsese documentaries cited above, but be aware that there are spoilers galore in them.

Critics/reviewers occasionally can make a big difference in appreciation of auteurship, regardless of whether they're also directors (and many critics later became directors, e.g. Bogdanovich, Truffaut, Godard, etc.). I find Ebert's Great Movies books on point more often than not, and the two Scorsese documentaries referenced above were fantastic for teasing out themes from a few films that I'd missed entirely. Your mileage may vary.

Best of luck, and if it quits being fun--stop. :-) Or go watch something silly and light. No point in cheating yourself out of enjoyment.
posted by Tuwa at 2:01 PM on June 18, 2005

Ditto on the Bordwell and Thompson, above, plus Film History: An Introduction. One of these works' strengths is that between them, you'll pick up a strong foundation of stylistic concepts and the vocabulary to discuss them.

Also, I hope you haven't already seen many Billy Wilder movies. The summer I went through his work was a lot of fun, and I wish you the same!
posted by kimota at 3:10 PM on June 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

This note by macadamiaranch is the key:

[quote]Watch the film with a notebook. jot notes without looking at the page as you watch. immediately after the film is over, jot your last remaining thoughts. Take a break, have a smoke, then start chatting. I have had some damned near religious experiences with film in this way. Rewatching a film later will bring even more to the forefront. [quote]

I took a 400 level film class where we'd watch a film once, and have to write 10-20 pages focused in specifics of a given film. I would keep a laptop on with the screen dimmed and just type surface thoughts/ideas as I watched the film (that I looked through before the discussion). What made it particularly valuable it that I had an easy time of recalling minutae of the film due to this process.

One side note, it's hard to turn that voice off (and that was something else I had to learn).
posted by filmgeek at 3:58 PM on June 18, 2005

I have a master's degree in film, and I promise you that your ambitious are already far, far beyond the scope of the introductory class you are about to take. Hopefully it won't bore you to tears.

My mind is like yours in some ways...when I get interested in something, I can't really tackle it without trying to see the really, really big picture (so to speak). One thing that was invaluable for me in that sense was starting with the old stuff...the really old stuff, like the Lumiere brothers, early Bunuel, the earliest version of The Great Train Robbery, and the beautiful Sunrise (1927). And then there's Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. This stuff is interesting, not just because it's good, but because to watch it is to explore the creation of a great many movie tropes that we now take for granted. Then watch the Scorcese documentary. Then watch the films referenced in the Scorcese documentary, and then watch the movies that were nominated for Academy Awards during the first couple of decades that the Academy even existed. Then get the Truffaut/Hitchcock book and let it be your guide as you watch all the Hitchcock. Then come up with a new plan for the next stage of your film self-education.
posted by bingo at 4:35 PM on June 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'm a screenwriter. When I decided that I really wanted to be serious about pursuing this career, I took all the "Greatest Films" lists I could find, glommed them together, and generated a new list of every film that appeared on 3 or more lists. I ended up with about 100 films that represented some sort of very rough consensus of significant films.

And then--and this is important--I watched them in chronological order, over the course of several months. . Wathing them in chronological order was the single greatest aspect of my film education to date--and I says this as somebody who has a master's degree in screenwriting.

What makes a chronological organization more helpful than (say) organizing by director or genre is that it gives you a control group. For example, Chaplin films tend to celebrate the triumph of a powerless underdog--but that's a common trope of most films of the era. Seeing the films in chronological context lets you figure out what was unique and special about Chaplin.

Bingo was more or less saying the same thing, but I want to emphasize that it's not enough to just watch (say) films of the 1930s--if you really watch them year by year, you will start noticing differences between a film from 1933 and one from 1937.

Anybody who wants to see my chronological viewing list is welcome to e-mail me for it, by the way.
posted by yankeefog at 6:48 AM on June 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

i don't know how often people come back into the 'ask metafilter' archives, but i do want to thank everyone for these responses...i haven't marked any as best because i've pulled suggestions from all of them!

i went to the used bookstore this weekend (and luckily they have a large film section..a benefit of living in San Francisco, i guess)...and picked up the hitchcock/truffaut (which i opened to browse sunday afternoon, and ended up reading almost the entire book), and the 'short history of the movies,' along with another book i've been reading this week 'how to read a film' by james monaco, which i got because it was cheap and used and is an overview of technical/interpretive/historical aspects, and i like it so on the list are the bordwell/thompson books above (one has a 'viewer's guide' i'm curious about)...and the scorsese documentaries sound awesome as well...

in looking at the resources and seeing how many directions there are to go in, i think i've calmed a bit about putting too much pressure on 'getting' everthing when i watch a film...just the little bit i've picked up so far has made me a more engaged viewer, and i'm very excited about the journey to come...i thought maybe the best viewing approach would be to take casual notes, as suggested, and start recording what i'm watching into a database with some basic info, impressions, and observations, and over time the questions i want to ask should emerge...

...i've decided to expand my fall school plans, and in addition to the intro film studies course i want to add film history and film production courses as well...

thanks again, everybody! this thread really has inspired me!
posted by troybob at 2:58 PM on June 21, 2005 [1 favorite]

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