I admit, this is probably the least useful how-to article ever written. People who fall in love with the cinema seem to have no problem plunging in without any guidance whatsoever. However, these thoughts have been rattling around in my brain for a while, and for me, any excuse to talk about movies is a good one.
Also, if you are only a casual movie-watcher, you might be able to glean some tricks to maximize your movie time. This is an article about leading you to film enjoyment.
Are we cool? Awesome. Let’s proceed:
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED
You don’t have to go to film festivals, participate in the celebrity starf*cking of San Diego Comic Con, be able to name every Academy Award Best Picture winner, or watch four-hour-long foreign films about coming of age during World War II in order to be a movie nerd. The vast world of cinema should never be intimidating… and I believe it is forever getting more and more accessible with the involvement of the Internet and instant streaming services. Once upon a time, if you were the sort of movie nerd that actually dug Ingmar Bergman films, you had to live in the sort of city with an arthouse cinema, and you had to actually seek that stuff out. Now, many of his films are one click away on Hulu Plus.
The world of cinema is HUGE, even though it’s an art form that has only existed a little over a century. There are big films and little films and high-budget films and no-budget films and high-minded films and lowbrow films and everything in between. There is something for everyone in there somewhere, but nobody knows every corner of it. Sure, some folks have seen more movies than others (cough cough), but everyone has to start somewhere.
So, if you encounter someone who sneers down their nose at you because you’ve never seen a Francois Truffaut film, don’t bother with that person. If they truly loved Truffaut, they would instead be thrilled for the opportunity to introduce you to Day for Night or The 400 Blows. (In my experience, 99% of all film nerds fall into the excited “ooh, let me show you this!” category.)
One of the very best things about all art is that it is a shared experience on some level. The artist is attempting to communicate with you, and you can in turn share that experience with others. Movies, when seen in a theater, take this sharing to a grand scale. You can be with literally hundreds of people, oohing and ahhing and laughing about the same things.
While most film nerds will proclaim that seeing a great movie in a theater with a great audience is the pinnacle of awesome, it’s not the only way to see movies. You can watch them at home, with friends or alone. You can see films on your iPhone screen, on a computer, in an airplane, or projected on the side of a building. Purists be damned: I’m of the opinion that if it’s a question between seeing a film outside of a theater and not seeing a film at all, I’m going to watch the movie regardless of format. I think the real key element of movie-watching is being social.
Watch films with friends, if possible. Talk about the movies afterward. If you watch films alone, talk about them later. Tweet, write, talk… whatever you do, use the movie to engage with other people. Other people might enjoy what you enjoy, or they might bring up points that you hadn’t thought about earlier. This makes movies more fun, and it also helps you digest what you do and don’t like about each film.
Many people dismiss whole vast swaths of filmmaking as things they don’t like. “I don’t like horror movies,” they might say, or, “I don’t like black-and-white films.” I myself didn’t care for westerns until very recently, when I went out of my way to educate myself about the genre by watching some of its very best examples.
Here’s the thing: the very best films of any genre generally transcend their genre, because they are simply great movies. I still have a hard time engaging with run-of-the-mill westerns, but the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is great because, well, it’s a just great movie overall. (The 2007 remake wasn’t bad, either.) I’ve also seen people who aren’t fans of horror fall in love with Silence of the Lambs. Same thing.
So, don’t ignore a movie because it’s old, or because it’s sci-fi, or because it has subtitles. If something is fairly universally acclaimed, by both critics and on-the-street people, it’s probably at least worth a look.
FOLLOW DIRECTORS AND WRITERS
I see a lot — and I mean A LOT — of casual film viewers make this one huge mistake: they let the cast of a film dictate what they see, and they often are disappointed after the film. The general public knows the names of far more actresses and actors than they know the names of anyone behind the camera. And why not? The actors and actresses are the eyes and faces that bring the stories into our eyes and ears.
Unfortunately, actors and actresses are almost always only hired guns. Yes, they are critical to the final product of 99.9% of all movies, and they have a hard job, but they usually join a film project very late in the process. Plus, let’s face it, most actors and actresses are primarily interested in staying employed, and they don’t necessarily know how to craft a story. There are a couple of individuals who can reliably pick good projects, but they rest are not good indicators of whether the overall movie will be good or not.
The very best films have 1) great stories that are 2) told very well. The story generally comes from the writer(s). The telling generally comes from the director, who makes sure all the other pieces of the production work together. Both positions tend to retain a lot of artistic “vision”, meaning that films written by the same person,or films directed by the same person, tend to have similar appeal.
Knowing who wrote and directed your favorite movies can be extremely helpful in finding other movies that you will love. This doesn’t mean that you need to be fluent in Hollywoodspeak or that you need to memorize long lists of names of people you’ve never seen before. I just mean that you should go to IMDB.com, look up your five favorite movies of all time, and look at the names of who wrote and directed those movies. You can then click those names and see what else they directed or wrote.
FIND A CRITIC YOU LIKE
Yeah yeah, I know. Many jokes have been made about critics being out-of-touch with the filmgoing public blah blah blah. Yes, there are many critics who will tout art films that you’ve never heard of that you will likely find impenetrable and boring, or who deride the latest big blockbuster extravaganza even though you thought it was at least okay. There are also the penny-per-hundred online critics who go rabid over tiny details of the Star Trek reboot movies, and local newspaper critics who don’t like anything except the most mediocre mainstream dramas, and etc. As with any art (and yes, art criticism is an art in itself), 90% of all the output is somewhere between okay and terrible. And even with the 10% of film criticism that is really great, not every critic has personal tastes that match yours.
That’s right. You get to pick your critics.
This bit can take some homework, but it’s worthwhile. Check around the Internet for film blogs. Go look at a movie you already have seen and liked on Rotten Tomatoes, and look at what the critics said about your movie; when you find a critic that said something intriguing, follow the link to their other reviews. Once you find a couple of critics who also like what you like (or disagree with you in interesting ways), let them guide you to other interesting movies.
(Personally, I will say that it’s hard to go wrong with Roger Ebert, who loved cinema that was both highbrow and lowbrow. But now that he’s passed on and can no longer review new movies, I’ve been particularly enjoying Film Crit Hulk at Badass Digest as well as Steve Prokopy, aka Capone at Ain’t It Cool News.)
NEVER HATE A MOVIE
Speaking of Film Crit Hulk, the first piece I ever read by him was one about one of Quentin Tarantino’s mantras: “never hate a movie.” While the original piece is definitely worth the read, I will do my best to summarize (as the original is also long and written entirely in all caps). You can learn just as much — if not more — from a bad movie as you can from a good movie. Bad movies can be absolutely delightful in their own way. Bad movies can help you realize what good movies do right. Bad movies help you recognize what you like and what you don’t like. And sometimes, a thoroughly crappy movies can out of nowhere supply a moment of absolute insane genius that you would never have seen if you’d just given up on it. (See: Christopher Walken in Gigli.) And, afterward, you can always dissect the film with friends. (I’ve gotten nearly endless pleasure in unpacking the crap fractal that is Prometheus.)
Feel free to dislike a movie. But to hate a movie is to dismiss it, and if you dismiss it, you will never learn from it.
LIKE WHAT YOU LIKE
Okay, so you’ve watched a bunch of movies, and you don’t see why anyone would love The Maltese Falcon more than The Dark Knight, and you fell asleep trying to watch Lawrence of Arabia. I’d probably stare at you dumbfounded if you told me this with a straight face, but in the end, it boils down to: you like what you like.
Not every “great classic” will land in your heart. There are even a couple entries on Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list that I don’t particularly care for. (I’m looking at you, La Dolce Vita.) However, it’s useful (and, to many people, entertaining) to dig in and ask exactly why something did or did not work for you. understanding your sweet spots and your hot buttons will help guide you to more things you enjoy. It will also provide you with discussion points when someone asks you to share what you did or did not enjoy about a particular film. It will also give you a lot to think about when you run across a film that is clearly well-made and intelligent and amazing in every respect… except that it hit you in all the wrong ways. (Still looking at you, La Dolce Vita.)
So, if you think sappy chick flicks rule, that’s great! If you think giant robots punching giant monsters is the pinnacle of human endeavor, that’s fabulous, too! That’s just as valid an opinion as Roger Ebert going gaga over a documentary about a pet cemetery. Like what you like. Just take the time to examine why you like it.
NOW GO WATCH A MOVIE!
Edit: …and if you need suggestions, please check out my new podcast A Reel Education, which is all about teaching the love of movies.