How to Watch a Movie
Salvation in a Darkened Room
By: Nancy Kempf - Apr 10, 2017
Cinema is truth 24 frames per second.
People like to talk about movies but few discuss film. Same with books. Nowadays people talk about Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey but few know how to get under the skin of literature because people rarely approach narrative other than superficially.
If we accept cinema as literature -- and I do -- we are obliged to approach film through a critical lens rather than simplistically through linear plot: This happened, then this happened, then this happened; or through shallow emotional responses: That was so sad/funny/cool/scary.
Nothing is inherently wrong with going to the movies, or reading, for fun, but it's like a diet of Wonder Bread, deceivingly named being devoid of wonder and lacking even meager nourishment.
I go to a lot of movies for a variety of reasons: to learn about other worlds/people/times through fictions and documentaries, to measure the zeitgeist, to ease a 100°+ summer day, but my primary desire is to experience the art of cinema, a remarkable art that, even more than stage, is collaborative and incorporates the entire constellation of the arts.
Drama, novels, short stories, poetry are narrative arts. So are graphic novels, opera, and song lyrics. The cinema, too, constitutes story first and foremost, so the script matters.
Alfred Hitchcock said that "To make a great film you need three things -- the script, the script and the script," but screenwriter, director and film critic Paul Schrader makes a more nuanced observation. "I am not a writer. I am a screenwriter, which is half a filmmaker. .... [I]t is not an art form, because screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art." Invitations to collaborate on a work of art.
What matters, then, is how the screenplay is realized by the central triumvirate of director / actors / cinematographer (in addition to a host of other people). The soundtrack contributes enormously to overall mood, and though original music may be written for a film, these days more often than not it is interspersed among musical pieces selected to complement the action. All that said, the director is in charge. One need not subscribe to the auteur theory to understand that any art form as sprawling in its creation as a movie cannot come together without a guiding intelligence, just as an orchestra and chorus cannot perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony without a maestro.
Certainly we attribute much of the quality of a film to the vision of the director and to the strength of the performers who bring the characters to life, but in speaking about the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese humbly argues that if anyone involved in making a film could be understood as an auteur, it would be the cinematographer who has the power to control the whole look, and hence the emotional feel, of a film. They are motion pictures, after all.
Cardiff, master of Technicolor, brought a painterly sensibility to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), John Huston (The African Queen), and Alfred Hitchcock (Under Capricorn), among many others.
The great cinematographers, and friends, László Kovács (Targets, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Shampoo) and Vilmos Zsigmond (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, The Long Goodbye, The Deer Hunter, Heaven's Gate) left an indelible mark on American cinema. Gregg Toland shaped the look of Citizen Kane as much as Orson Welles.
The B-movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood are defined by their visual style. The iconoclastic producer Val Lewton worked with cinematographers Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Ghost Ship), Robert De Grasse (The Leopard Man, The Body Snatchers), Jack MacKenzie (Isle of the Dead) and others to realize Lewton's distinctive atmospheric aesthetic, which owed much to his longtime collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur.
The cinematographer Ernest Laszlo often worked with Stanley Kramer (Ship of Fools, Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind) and gave Robert Aldrich's classic noir Kiss Me Deadly its unforgettable nuclear finale.
Bruce Surtees imbued Clint Eastwood's movies with their shadowy transgressive tension. Could Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy have become legend without that other Prince of Darkness Gordon Willis, whose dark interiors warmed by amber glows characterize the whole?
In Movies 101: Opening Shots Project, Jim Emerson of rogerebert.com notes that "Any good movie -- heck, even the occasional bad one -- teaches you how to watch it. And that lesson usually starts with the very first image."
Emerson cites David Bordwell, Jacques Ledoux Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In "Observations on film art," Bordwell notes that
Hollywood films...obey certain conventions of style and story. .... Against that tradition some...posit what's been called 'festival cinema' or 'art cinema,' a tradition that favors individual expression and more unusual storytelling. But can we say that this tradition also has its conventions?
I think so. ....
Central to my claim is that such films cultivate intrinsic norms, storytelling methods that are set up, almost rules of a game, for a specific film. In a way, every film does this. .... "[E]very film trains its spectator"....
Because cinematography is the very essence of film, because the mechanics of the camera (and now of digital imaging) are what make a movie a movie, we need to internalize the vocabulary of movie making to watch movies critically. We should understand the basic terminology of cinema, cinematography (such as camera shots), and visual styles, and, as in any artistic discipline, have a reasonable understanding of genres.
V Renée of nofilmschool.com discusses Martin Scorsese's "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema"* and the importance of visual literacy. Scorsese argues that film must be understood from three perspectives: within its historical context, from the standpoint of technological innovations, and through the evolution of critical and popular cultural responses to any given film or body of work.
To approach any art form critically is to drink in as much as possible. Just as the study of theater or art history or literature means to become familiar with the canon and signal artistic movements, to view film critically requires knowledge of aesthetic and thematic movements in cinema.
Watch Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis to get a sense of 1920s German Expressionism; Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin to understand the influence of Soviet montage theory; Abel Gance's Napoléon and Jean Renoir's Nana as examples of French Impressionist cinema; Luis Bruñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un chien andalou and Bruñuel's L'Âge d'Or for a glimpse into surrealism; Marcel Carné's Les Enfents du Paradis for its French poetic realism; and Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol to grasp the importance and impact of the late '50s-early '60s French New Wave directors, and so on.
Explore the benchmark films of American cinema: silents from D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation to Mack Sennett's Keystone Cops to Buster Keaton in The General to the collected works of Charlie Chaplin; the dramatization of the transition from silents to talkies in The Jazz Singer; the classics of American film like Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront and film noir galore.
See John Huston from The Maltese Falcon to The Misfits and John Ford from Stagecoach to The Searchers. Get to know the American New Wave influenced by the French movement with John Cassavetes' Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. Study Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde, Mike Nichols's The Graduate, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter.
Watch every frame of celluloid Sam Peckinpah ever shot but especially the groundbreaking The Wild Bunch and the lyrical The Ballad of Cable Hogue. See Robert Altman's oeuvre, at least M*A*S*H and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville.
Let each film lead you to other films, and take every fork in the road...
...and GO to the movies. Experience cinema on the big screen in a dark theater with an audience. DVDs and streaming are great, but when possible, especially if you have an alternative cinema reasonably close by, treat yourself and support the entrepreneur who goes out on a limb to bring you foreign and independent films.
A knowledge of film history and criticism, theories and movements is important, but the immersive experience of movie going is what matters. Seek out classic films, foreign films from across the globe, independent films not bound by Hollywood box office demands. Above all, NEVER watch a movie on a cell phone.
Another important mode of cinematic storytelling is the documentary, and there are seminal figures who have impacted the way we understand non-fiction film, among them Marcel Ophuls, the Maysles brothers, Michael Apted, and Ken Burns; but of all of the approaches to documentary film making, none might be as methodically philosophical as Errol Morris's.
In his commentary on his film on Stephen Hawking's book A Brief History of Time Morris says, "You don't judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth. You judge it on whether it attempts to find the truth and makes you think about what the relationship between the movie and the truth may be. Truth is never given to us on a platter."
Morris's insight is true of art in general. Art, if it is deserving of the title, tells us something about the human condition, and to understand it with any depth, we must approach it with reverence.
My friend and film mentor Jerry Holt says, "Good movies are CHURCH." That's the point. Scorsese's Mean Streets opens with Harvey Keitel's Charlie in voiceover: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." Then the Ronettes' Be My Baby kicks in as a home video reveals the first glimpses of the story's characters. That's movie making and Scorsese knows it.
In Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, the elder in Angel's village explains to Pike Bishop, "We all dream of being a child again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all." That's grace. That's forgiveness. That's the redemptive, transformative power of art. No one – unless you're Oscar Wilde – talks like that in real life.
"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," Alfred Hitchcock once observed. Art distills the chaos of the quotidian – through structure, order, composition, sensory perception, pattern, rhythm – to teach us something about being in the world. At its best, art universalizes individual experience.
As a culture, we have come to crave the Wonder Bread -- the fast food and the CGI. We reject creative experience in favor of empty calories, entertainments, amusements, Pascal's divertissements. Rather than confront our condition we seek diversion.
I go to my dark, flickering church every Sunday. Sometimes the homily works for me, more often it does not, but that doesn't quell my quest for something – call it salvation for lack of a better word.
Documentaries about Film Making
Peter Askin's 2007 Trumbo (screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10) New York Times Critics' Pick
Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's 1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (on the harrowing filming of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now)
Les Blank's 1982 Burden of Dreams (on the harrowing filming of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo)
Peter Bogdanovich's 2006 update of his 1971 documentary: Directed by John Ford
Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury's 2004 Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic
James Chressanthis's 2009 No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos (on László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond)
Marc Cousins's 2012 The Story of Film: An Odyssey (a 900 minute holistic, world-wide perspective)
Michael Epstein's 1996 The Battle Over Citizen Kane
Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's 2002 Lost in La Mancha (on Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote)
Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels's 1993 Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography New York Times Critics' Pick
Arne Glimcher's 2008 Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies
Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman's 2009 Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories (Hanson and Herman also wrote a book to accompany the documentary.)
Angela Ismailos's 2009 Great Directors
Craig McCall's 2011 Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
Michael Palm's 2004 Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen
Wim Wenders with the students of the Munich Film Academy, 1996: A Trick of the Light (on the German Skladanowsky brothers who were competing with the French Lumiere brothers to build the first film projector)
Sophie Huber's 2013 Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction New York Times Critics' Pick
Richard Shepard's 2009 I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale
Alex Stapleton's 2011 Corman's World
Jacques Richard's 2005 Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque
Chris Kenneally's 2012 Side By Side (film vs. digital) New York Times Critics' Pick
Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton's 2011 These Amazing Shadows (history of the National Film Registry)
Carl-Gustaf Nykvist's 2000 Light Keeps Me Company (on cinematographer Sven Nykvist)
Frank Pavich's 2013 Jodorowsky's Dune New York Times Critics' Pick
Gerald Perry's 2009 For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
Adam Simon's 1996 The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (on director Samuel Fuller)
Chris Smith's 2000 American Movie (on how hard it is for Mark Borchardt to make even a mediocre movie, Coven)
Kevin Smith's 2004 The Snowball Effect: The Story of Clerks (challenges and pitfalls)
Mark Wexler's 2005 Tell Them Who You Are (on Haskell Wexler)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters (DVD series on the life of working screenwriters)
Selected Bibliography for Film Lovers
Ames, Eric. Ferocious Reality: Documentary According to Werner Herzog. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press. Visible Evidence Series, 2012. Print.
Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock 'N' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999. Print.
Bloom, Livia, ed. Errol Morris: Interviews. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2009. Print. Conversations with Filmmakers Series.
Cronin, Paul. Herzog on Herzog. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003. Print.
Dunne, John Gregory. The Studio. Reprint ed. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
Ebert. Roger. Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert. Reprint ed. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2006. Print.
Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Reprint Edition. New York: New York: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.
Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1987. Print.
Hoberman, J. The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties. New York: New Press, 2005. Print
Kael, Pauline. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies. New York: Dutton, 1994. Print.
Katz, Robert. Love Is Colder than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Maria Fassbinder. New York: Random House, 1987. Print.
Kelly, Mary. Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992. Print.
Lumet, Sidney. Making Movies. Reprint ed. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.
Pierson, John. Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes. New York: Miramax Books, 1997. Print.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. Boston: Da Capo Press, 1996. Print.
Simon, Jane, ed. Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2009.
Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies. Rev. sub ed. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Thomson, David. The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.
Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. 5th ed. New York: Knopf, 2010. Print.
Vidal, Gore. Screening History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
*Scorsese, Martin. "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema." The New York Review of Books 15 August 2013. Available by subscription only.
Thomson, David. "Why Hitchcock Still Lives." The New Republic 30 August 2013.
Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers