Knowing How to Watch Films

The late, great Patrice O’Neal once said that he couldn’t appreciate Raging Bull because he didn’t know how to watch it. I can’t recall exactly what he meant by that (he said it some ten years ago) but it is a quote that has stuck with me for years in my own personal context. Part of the struggle that I have watching some movies is that I don’t often know how I should watch most films. By design I try to go into a film knowing as little as I can about the movie as possible. I avoid trailers like the plague and I usually rely on other methods to find movies (rottentomatoes, directors that I like, recommendations from friends, etc). This means that at the beginning of every film I try to get a foothold so that I can climb in the film and properly enjoy the film in the way that it was meant to be enjoyed.

At this point you may be thinking that I should just stop over-thinking this and enjoy the show (and if you are thinking this you might be my wife). For me much of the appreciation that I get is from taking in every available aspect of a film. If there is symbolism I don’t want to miss it. If there is a mystery to unravel I don’t want to miss that. I want to experience the depths of the characters. I also want to know (as we usually do by the end) that some or all of the above wasn’t the point. A good example of this is the severely under-rated Sunday’s Illness. The film starts with a very mysterious few scenes and gives the viewer very little the story unfolds. The end is ultimately amazing but it took some patience to get the reward.

There are other films where I know where the “pocket” is before the film even starts. I know if it is a heist that…well… it’s a heist. If I watch a film by Terrence Malick that I should enjoy and absorb the movie through visuals and not words. I know that if I am watching a film by Woody Allen that I am in for moral and philosophical questions (and I hope that it is “good” Woody). And I know that if my new favorite director Chloe Zao is involved that I am probably in for a treat.

The odd thing about finally finding the sweet spot is that you may have to go back and re-process what you’ve already watched. There have been times where I thought that a movie was more technical when it was really more meaningful. It may sound very frustrating but for me it ends up enhancing the overall enjoyment of the film. One of my favorite examples of all of this is Melancholia. The film has a very different structure than most films on many levels (I won’t say too much) and it took me a while to get to where I needed to be. Was it all just symbolic? Is there a mystery? Towards the end of the second act all questions are answered in the viewer can sit back and enjoy a truly amazing cinematic moment. Isn’t that why we watch film?

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