"In a world..."
June 28, 2008 6:22 PM   Subscribe

God help me when I watch movies. I either lose track of the plot, the characters, or both. What can I do to follow along better?

Sometimes it's my mind wandering during dialogue, or dwelling on unimportant plot details. Other times, even when I try to focus, I'll forget or mix up the character's names, or mix up the actors who play them, or just plain get confused by the storylines (especially with crime/legal stuff).

With ensemble TV shows, I'm usually pretty good at remembering characters and the actors who play them. It might take me a few episodes, but usually I'm the one helping out others with "What's-his-name" syndrome. But in a dense two-hour drama feature, I'm often a lost cause. Sometimes this even goes for action movies with throwaway plotlines.

This is part of the reason I stay far away from novels, where the problem would be even worse. Anyone else have the same struggle, and have you found ways to help your comprehension when it comes to movies, and for that matter, TV and books? Of course, part of the problem may just be my general lack of knowledge of the subject of the plot (like the aforementioned legal procedures).
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

But seriously, difficulty in paying attention is a hallmark of ADD. Have you considered that?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:34 PM on June 28, 2008

Try hitting up IMDB before seeing a movie. Don't read any spoilers, but having a general idea of the plot line and the names/faces of the characters before you see the movie might help you keep everything straight.

Funny enough, I remember just about everything while watching a movie, but with ensemble TV shows, I always forget who people are and how they're related. And off to IMDB I trot.
posted by phunniemee at 6:50 PM on June 28, 2008

I watch movies with the subtitles/captioning ON. I find that sometimes reading the lines as they're being spoken helps me both see the movie and concentrate on what is being said.
posted by jessamyn at 6:57 PM on June 28, 2008

This happens to me as well. I'm generaly fine with characters but bad with plots.

I think there's a generally accepted view (USA, at least) that movies are awesome and everyone loves them. I enjoy a movie now and then, but I'm not a rabid fan of them. I can take or leave them. I think this is why I lose track of what's happening sometimes... I'm just not that big of a fan.

I think this also makes me more critical of movies than most people I know. I'm sure some think I'm a "film snob". I'm not. I'm just not a huge movie fan in general.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 7:01 PM on June 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Maybe you're just watching the wrong films? I've had no problem following some really complicated films (you know, stuff with time travel paradoxes and concurrent dream sequences) but comparatively simple films I occasionally get lost in because they don't hold my interest. The hallmark of any good fiction is that you're drawn in and want to expend the effort needed to follow it.
posted by phrontist at 7:07 PM on June 28, 2008

If you have a TiVo or other rewindable medium, try recognizing when your mind is wandering and rewinding back to before it happened. (Maybe try this alone if you're liable to really annoy your friends and family.) I find it interesting that, when I do this, I can pretty much always pinpoint the exact moment I mentally checked out for some reason.
posted by dixie flatline at 7:08 PM on June 28, 2008

Nthing Jessamyn...I watch movies on DVD with the subtitles on, and that helps enormously. If the plot is very complicated, like Lord of the Rings, I also find myself watching the same DVD twice or occasionally three times, to catch everything that I missed previously. A few people think I'm weird for doing this because I have no hearing problems at all, but it's just something to do with comprehension that I was born with. At 8 years old, I TOTALLY didn't get the plot of Star Wars when it first came out, and was bewildered when all my friends were discussing various intricate details that I'd missed. You're not alone!
posted by Melismata at 7:23 PM on June 28, 2008

I have the same problem, but it doesn't bother me. Subtitles are helpful if it's on DVD. If not and if it's an enjoyable movie, I want to watch it over and over anyway, and in the process find myself saying "Ohhhhh that's why..." and those little revelations amuse me. If it's not an enjoyable movie I don't care if I get it or not.
posted by amethysts at 7:49 PM on June 28, 2008

Same thing happens to me, and like jessamyn and Melisamata, I watch with closed-captioning (or better, subtitles, if I have the choice -- you don't need the ones that say *alternative rock music plays* when Kim Bauer walks into Rick's house). This is helpful for spy movies where you have to keep track of a bunch of names, and/or movies with people who have unfamiliar and/or foreign names. Very useful.

As for novels (I also do the same thing; in addition, I have a TERRIBLE long-term memory of things that I read), I think that the thing is to just slow down and digest. Read it like you're reading a thick scientific document. Reread sentences to make sure that you really got them. Don't let yourself gloss over big sections.
posted by rossination at 7:50 PM on June 28, 2008

I suppose it could be an ADD thing, but I didn't want to just jump to that. I'll look more into it, though. I remember not remembering anything during teacher read-aloud times in grade school. But I did enjoy reading fiction on my own as much as I could and not having comprehension problems. Now when I read for leisure, it's strictly non-fiction, and for the most part I don't have any real struggles. Unless it's just too dense for me to finish.

I definitely do the subtitles thing as much as I can. It does help me follow the dialogue better, and it's very helpful when actors kind of mumble their line, much to my annoyance, or when some random outside noise makes things inaudible. It also helps with following names and such. Still, it kind of seems like a crutch and doesn't really tackle the matter.

I think the incident that finally made me ask this question was watching "All the President's Men." I've taken an interest in politics lately, and I figured it was a must-see. But man, was I ever lost. I don't think it's a pacing issue necessarily, because I do enjoy a lot of older movies. And if it weren't for the subtitles in this case, I wouldn't have been able to infer that "CREEP" was an acronym for something... But there may have been plot elements that were just assumed to be understood by the audience at the time.

Another incident was watching "Bourne Ultimatum," and not knowing that Noah Vosen was the guy's name, until he answered the phone at the end with his own name. Boy, did I feel dumb!
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 7:52 PM on June 28, 2008

Personally, I have a weakness with retaining verbal/audible information, that's where the subtitles become helpful. Your comment about teacher read-aloud time made me think of that. In that case, the subtitles aren't really a crutch, just a tool. Other than that, the only thing I could think of to tackle the problem head on would be to practice on focusing and watch alot of movies and also try reading some novels or listening to them on your commute. Also, don't beat yourself up. Alot of the movies you're describing are really dense.
posted by amethysts at 8:08 PM on June 28, 2008

Do you multitask while watching movies? I never do that. Until about ten years ago, I didn't even eat while watching. I was raised by a film historian, and that meant when a movie was on, the lights were out, the shades were drawn, the phones were turned off, and talking was forbidden. I still love watching movies that way. There's really nothing to focus on except the movie. (I'm really anal about it. I turn off computer monitors. I move distracting, eye-catching object -- e.g vases of flowers -- out of the way eye-sight.)

I ask about this, because, growing up, when I went to friends' houses, they didn't watch movies in such a monkish way. When I watched movies with friends, I noticed they were always doing other stuff while the movie was on. Sometimes it wasn't even major bits of multi-tasking. Sometimes it was just watching the movie and eating cereal at the same time.

But in those cases, I was always having to explain plot elements to my friends. And it became clear to me that they didn't even realize they weren't totally focusing on the movie. I'd see a friend stare down into his bowl for ten seconds, miss a crucial plot element, and then look back up at the TV, confused. (I only ever agreed to watch movies I'd already seen with friends. Their distraction distracted me, but that was okay, because I'd seen the movie before.)

These friends would ask me about some plot detail that occurred while they weren't paying attention, and when I explained it to them, they'd often shake their heads and say, "I don't understand how you noticed that." I'd think, "Well, I wasn't eating cereal."

The other thing is that I allow myself to miss details without fretting. You bring up actors mumbling. If that happens, and I miss a line of dialog, I shrug it off and assume the meaning will become clear later on. It usually does. Most movies contain a lot of redundant information.

On the other hand, my wife gets really pissed off if she doesn't catch a line. She turns to me and says, "What did he say?" I usually don't know which "he" she's referring to, so I have to ask her. Then she says, "The guy on the right." And I'm thinking, all this time we're talking, we're missing more dialog. Why does she care more about that one line she missed than the fifteen we're missing now?

But I realize that her mind works differently from mine. When she gets stuck on something, she really can't think about the next thing until she gets unstuck. That's why Tivo and DVDs are so great. You can pause them. You can rewind them. Nowadays, the moment my wife says, "What did he say?" I hit the pause button. We can straighten out the detail at leisure without missing anything else.
posted by grumblebee at 9:01 PM on June 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've known several people with a similar problem, which is why I don't think it's an ADD thing, either -- I think it's due to different intuitive abilities to follow the general conventions of filmic narrative (especially if there are nonlinear elements to the narrative). Part of the thing with films is that they're written, edited, and paced so that most scenes have a certain "in medias res" element to them -- a plot point can start with two characters in the car going somewhere discussing one thing (but with a subtext of a second matter), and then cut directly to the characters AT the location (skipping the arrival itself) in conversation with a third character regarding the subtext of the previous scene, and then cut to a new location (perhaps mentioned to by the third character in the previous scene) involving two entirely different characters picking up a different plot point carried over from a much earlier point.

So I think this requires a certain facility with (quickly) processing context, registering detail, and inferring information in place of having it explicitly stated. Different genres -- like crime procedurals, historical dramas, etc. -- will also carry additional narrative conventions and demands.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, frankly, some movies just aren't all that well-written or well-edited or well-directed to begin with -- they're too choppy, or have subplots that emerge at random or are dropped in the middle, or overly dense dialogue, or characters who aren't suitably introduced or developed, or frequently some fatal combination of all of the above.
posted by scody at 9:03 PM on June 28, 2008

If you are not drawn in by the story or the characters, try concentrating on other redeeming aspects such as cinematography, production design, sound. If the film is well-authored, it will pull you back in. Works especially well with foreign films.
posted by sswiller at 9:04 PM on June 28, 2008

It might be worth considering whether you just don't like movies very much... it seems like they're sort of the default medium for consuming pop culture, but, whatever.

Whether it's because of a lifetime of 30-minute sitcoms or a steady diet of youtube vids, I couldn't care less about movies, most of the time. I was watching mediocre movies just 'cause it seemed like a thing people do...

It took an encounter with a cable company retention specialist for me to realize that film ain't my thing... she asked "Do you watch any channels over 100?" "Don't you like movies?" I realized that, well... no. not really.
posted by jdn at 9:24 PM on June 28, 2008

Not being able to sit through movies did come up a lot as an indicator when I was reading up on ADD.
posted by salvia at 9:36 PM on June 28, 2008

You can't keep track of names and facts, but can you perceive action, suspense, emotion, conflict or irony? If so, I don't think you're missing out on anything. The subject of dramatic art isn't, ultimately, the names of the actors or characters, or even what literally happens.

I work in theatre, but I never learned to like reading plays until I stopped paying attention to the names scrolling by on the left. Eventually I discovered that good dramatic art reveals itself not through facts, but through structure and rhythm: it's easier to find Hamlet by tone and action than by a name, or even in performance what his actor looks like. Now, when I'm working on textual adaptation, names go out the window even before stage directions.

If you want to be radical in your analysis, there is no such thing as a character, just a collection of impulses an author labeled as such. Don't bother treating characters like new co-workers whose names you need to remember so you don't embarrass yourself at the water cooler. Listen instead to what the author is saying.

Plot, in and of itself, is only marginally more important. It's not the events that matter, but what they convey and how you experience them.

This is a counterintuitive perspective in the west, but in Japanese Noh theatre (an admittedly obtuse example), the tradition is for spectators to softly unfocus their eyes, in order to better capture the entire composition without being distracted by irrelevant details. You might not want to go that far watching Super Troopers, but I think it can be helpful to understand that the full range of attention is valuable to an audience member.

Other than your apparent feelings of fault on the subject, I don't think what you describe is a problem. ADD or not, it could be an asset.
posted by tsmo at 10:13 PM on June 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

Try watching movies slower. Take breaks when your mind starts to wander, go off to IMDB and check out anything that confuses you, etc. That might help you absorb what you've seen. If you can follow plot lines on TV shows, maybe breaking up a movie in to chunks would help you.
posted by MadamM at 11:06 PM on June 28, 2008

I would have to say either ADD or a mild auditory learning disability. My father and my brother were never good with learning in the classroom -- they didn't learn the material unless they took notes. My brother pursued careers where he could learn things by example and then demonstrate his knowledge, from being a Navy boiler mechanic to driving a train.

I think this is especially noteworthy because the majority of movies ARE written for lower-attention audiences these days. Plot elements are signalled well in advance, dialogue is dumbed down, obvious things are repeated. Unless you're watching art films, where you're required to note the smallest gesture, you should be able to follow along fine even when distracted.

I suspect you might be able to train yourself to track things better than you are. Try reading a book of memory tricks, such as salesmen use to remember names. "Nice to meet you, Paul." (thinks: Paul is tall. Tall Paul.) Give characters nicknames in your mind, associate them with their surroundings, clothing, or activities. Learn how narrative plot elements are introduced and fix them in your mind by recognizing them.

I can't help but plug one of my guilty pleasures that I just got done watching -- Where Eagles Dare, with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as Allied agents deep inside Nazi Germany. It's not a hard movie to understand because it's staged so well at every point. You don't need to figure out the complicated (and even somewhat preposterous) spy plot. But they definitely don't tell you things in order to keep you, the viewer, in the dark until the last moment. Still, every time I watch it I notice something else they've put in place early that only makes sense later on. This is much less common in movies made today.

Anyway, getting back to the general point, they do make certain characters distinctive. If done poorly this can reduce them to stereotypes, but in this and many other movies, it's as simple as giving someone a verbal tic or a funny hat. For most audiences these come across only at the subconscious level. It may help you to start noticing them consciously as they come on screen. "Oh, the guy with the mole. He was also in the scene at the brick house."
posted by dhartung at 12:10 AM on June 29, 2008

I have friends like this, and I'm someone who often gets too much into movies--or, rather, the opposite. When I was an angry young man, it would piss me off when friends would chat and joke around while watching a movie, and then ask questions about the plot/characters. It always seemed strange to me, otherwise intelligent people who couldn't follow a movie, and engrossing, well made movies at that. There's also the other breed of person who always falls asleep during a movie, no matter the movie, time of day, physical condition, etc. At least you can stay awake!
posted by zardoz at 4:05 AM on June 29, 2008

In general life, do you have to work harder on names and voices? Would you mind naming some movies you've had trouble with that, as far as you can tell, are easy for other people to follow?

Frankly, if you don't see a lot of movies, this might not be you. There are some awful stupid movies out there so maybe you don't lose track. Maybe you have trouble seeing the emperor's new clothes.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:57 AM on June 29, 2008

I've heard that if you want to better track what you're reading, scrawl notes in the liner to acknowledge major story beats. The act of writing can often help in pushing the memory from short-term to long-term. Though I haven't personally tried this.

Maybe you could do that when watching a movie. Pick a GOOD movie that's generally known for having a coherent plot, and as you watch, hit pause after major scenes and jot down what's going on. Eventually, I imagine you'll start doing it unconsciously without having to use pen and paper.

Just don't pick something that is known for being incoherent.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 10:24 AM on June 29, 2008

Marry someone who can follow a plot and doesn't mind you interrupting the movie every five minutes to say "okay, NOW what's happening?" Seriously. I don't think I have ADD as I have a pretty high-level professional job and have no trouble following the very complicated "plots" at work, but when it comes to movies I am just lost. Luckily for the past 20 years I have had my very own IMDB sitting next to me on the couch.

Also nthing the subtitles. Actors today are a bunch of fricking mumblers and it's not your fault if you can't understand what the hell is going on. I bet you have less trouble with old black-and-white movies, am I right?
posted by HotToddy at 9:51 PM on June 29, 2008

I'm the exact same way, only worse. I have been tested for ADD and don't have it. The boyfriend gets very upset because I'm what-did-he-say-ing and who-is-that-again-ing every few minutes, to the point that he will sometimes stare at me, dumbfounded, because I completely missed the point of a scene or even an entire movie. It bugs him more than it bugs me, really. The only solution I have found is subtitles, as mentioned before, because missing that ooooooone pivotal line can really fuck up your comprehension of an entire movie. Oh yeah--rewatching movies can also work wonders, though I'm sure some people can't be bothered.
posted by Menomena at 12:22 PM on June 30, 2008

Just to follow-up on some points...

I do indeed try to focus as much as I can during movies. I'll get irritated when I'm watching something with relatives, and they wander off or something in the middle of it. Movies are entertainment, and I'd feel like I'm cheating myself if I don't give my full attention to them. That's part of why I made the original post... I hate feeling like I'm missing out on stuff I should be enjoying a lot more.

There are a lot of movies I'd love to watch a second time, and I'm sure I'd be able to follow things a lot better if I did. The quandary is that there's even more movies I'd like to watch the first time. So it's like the two hours I could devote to watching "The Maltese Falcon" again... could also be used to watch "Chinatown." (Repeat viewings of "Star Wars" don't count).

As far as old movies vs new movies, I think older ones are easier to follow because they seem more casual, and there's not as much going on in any given scene. Still, there are lots of older movies I have trouble with. "The Hustler" was one... I know it's more of a character-based movie. I don't know if it has a reputation of being a generally accessible film, but man... all those talky scenes with Newman and Laurie had me completely lost by the end.

Apparently "The Big Sleep" confused even the cast and crew when they were making it. When I watched it, I went as far as to take notes of the characters. It helped, a little.

Can't really think of any recent examples that I'm sure many wouldn't agree can be impenetrable... "No Country for Old Men" is one. When Jones gives his monologue at the end, I zoned out, and before I knew it, the movie was over.

And I definitely agree with the comment about movies containing redundant information (although I don't think oldies are necessarily devoid of that). Characters will address others by their names solely to help remind viewers, etc. So when even those artificialities don't help, then yeah, I feel a bit inadequate.

I know the "shorter sessions" idea is often given when dealing with reading. I'll try it in the future.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 11:12 PM on June 30, 2008

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