Archive for March, 2012
Rewatching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was amazed to find myself refeeling the deep, primal awe and terror that I felt watching the film as a kid. It was like a muscle memory, with long dormant emotions welling up as Roy Neary watches the small ships zoom by and Barry walks toward the door as the multicolored lights flood his room. I wonder if these are feelings any movie could make me feel again: this deep fascination, awe, and terror that are inseparable – what Rudolf Otto called the numinous. Movies can scare me now, and fascinate me, and overhwelm me with their beauty. But I doubt I am capable anymore of seeing the encounter in Close Encounters as so very possible (and even happening somewhere right this moment) the way I did when I watched the film as a kid. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household, where angels and demons were not metaphors or vague spiritual entities but real individuals. A particular influence was Frank Peretti, whose books I read and reread in late elementary and junior high school. The UFOs in Close Encounters, especially as introduced through the storm clouds, seemed as really possible even probable as the stories from Sunday school and the clashes between angels and demons in Peretti novels.
I doubt I could return to seeing the world that way anymore, where every gathering storm cloud could be a demon army marshalling power or the first wave of an alien encounter, but watching Close Encounters allowed me to feel that wonder and dread again. Having not watched the film since high school (prompted by the mashed potato spoof in UHF), the movie seems both very fresh to me now, but also very familiar. Now I see the story of a father and his obsession, and I note the references to North by Northwest and John Williams’ frequent allusions to Bernard Herrmann and other formal and cultural aspects that eluded me as a kid. To be able to switch back and forth between appreciation and the more primal awe that could only come through memory is an unusual but welcome mode of viewing.
Close Encounters benefits from not having so thoroughly dominated popular culture as Star Wars. The original Star Wars films, with its mystical Jedis and fantastic creatures and spirtual overtones, was at least if not more important to my childhood, but there was just no way of escaping it through my teens and twenties. The films (not just through the release of the prequels, but in their repeated invocation in pop culture) have lost the ability to draw on any of those emotions I felt as a kid. As a kid, the race through the forest in Return of the Jedi was my favorite because I grew up near woods and the placing of science fiction stories in the greens and browns of woods like I grew up near in exurban Wisconsin delighted me. (My favorite science fiction continues to employ this juxtaposition.)
I don’t feel that way often now, although I get glimpses of it occasionally. With Close Encounters, which sat dormant in my subconscious waiting to be revived with a jolt of visual and aural electricity, I was back to being that kid who was terrified but also fascinated by the bright lights outside the window and the walkway lowering from the mothership. A film may not be able to tap into that nouminal awe any more (although I would be delighted to find a film that did), but those synapses in my brain related to Close Encounters are so firmly fixed that I can experience that lovely terror again.
I was lying in the dentist’s recliner today, while he shot me full of novocaine and replaced two fillings. This is my second visit to this dentist, who I like more than the last few I’ve tried. At this office, the have TV monitors attached to each seat which they can use to show you the x-rays of your teeth or use (as I was using it) to distract you from the drilling, cleaning, or otherwise hand-in-mouthing. I’ve had so much dental work done in my life, that trips to the dentist don’t bother me much. (I often decline novocaine, which I find more bothersome than helpful.) So I don’t need TV to distract me from the drilling, but as a fan of all things screened, I like the opportunity to watch something.
I stumbled across TCM, which was showing the 1954 Godzilla, which I had not seen in completion or at least not seen since I was a kid. While a pleasure to watch, I was often blocked by a hand awkwardly holding a dental instrument or the dentist leaning over to check his work. All told, about 1/4 of the time the screen was partially or completely blocked. Maybe 1/10 of the time, the noise was too loud to hear the sounds of Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo.
And I loved it.
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the right way to watch movies. The right way to watch includes paying careful attention from the beginning, watching through in one sitting to the end (unless there is a planned intermission), listening attentively, and so on. The right way also includes watching in a format as close to the original recording as possible (film projection for film, digital projection for digital or heavy CGI), in a large theater (or other intended venue), with a respectful, attentive, engaged audience. That’s the right way. I applaud the right way. I seek out the right way.
But I also like the wrong way.
The wrong way is watching a movie while a dentist leans in to check his work. The wrong way is catching a few minutes of a movie on TV, not knowing who directed it, what it is “about,” or why it is interesting or important. The wrong way is interrupting the film every 10 minutes to pacify a screaming one-year-old who should be asleep already. The wrong way is watching 10 minutes, enjoying it or not, then switching to something else. The wrong way is flipping through YouTube clips according to the obscure logic of linked videos. The wrong way is folding laundry while watching. The wrong ways are also great ways to watch movies, ways that I have come to value more highly even as I become more refined and nitpicky about the particular values of the right way to watch.
I don’t think the wrong way is as good as the right way or that we should seek it out or anything like that. But sometimes, it is what I have, and I have learned to love it. Occasionally folks will defend watching serialized television out of order or reading only parts of books, but I’ve less often heard film watching defended this way. And while not a defense, I thought I’d lay out a couple thoughts related to watching wrongly.
- Extrinsic factors: For me, having a young son means fewer trips to the movie theater and fewer chances to dedicate a solid 90-180 minutes to undistracted viewing at home. Watching wrongly (even if one values watching rightly) often comes about because of extrinsic factors like this. For me, the choice is rarely between watching rightly and watching wrongly; the choice is between watching wrongly and not watching at all. That’s why I don’t draw any large conclusions from these thoughts. Wrong ways can be good and interesting, but they are usually second choices.
- Different foci: Watching wrongly often leads me to focus on aspects of the film that I might otherwise miss. While I’ve become a more careful, more studious, and more knowledgable film lover over the last decade, there is still far more to know about any given film than I could possibly take in on a single (or even repeat) viewing. Watching a random snippet often focuses my attention on the way information is presented in the frame, the way sound conveys mood or information, or something about a performance I might otherwise miss. Watching a movie in full often means setting one’s expectations according to the opening scenes and then being carried along by the story or the plotting or performances. By jumping in partway through, I’m less likely to care about anything but what I can learn about lighting, composition, or other technical aspects in that brief moment than I would if I were also watching for the more often discussed elements of the film.
- Technology: Technology often makes these wrong ways possible, as in the YouTube clips I mentioned earlier, or catching whatever is on TCM at the moment. (Netflix works against this, assuming you always awant to watch from the beginning.) One of my least favorite things about switching from our Tivo to our ATT Uverse DVR was that I no longer can keep one DVR tuner always on TCM to catch those random moments. Something as simple as the kind of DVR can make wrong viewing possible or not. I also remember my college roommate getting a DVD player (one of the first to which I had access). We were playing around with its then-awesome features, including the shuffle mode (intended for CDs), which we discovered also worked while watching DVDs. We started watching The Fugitive out of order, according to the chapter breakdowns of the DVD, and ended up watching the whole film in a particularly odd wrong way, made possible by a change in technology.
Watching movies the wrong way is made possible by shifts in technology and often required by extrinsic factors, but it can lead to focusing on elements of a movie that might otherwise be missed. (Film instructors are, ironically, those most accustomed to watching films the wrong way since they are always cutting down clips to show their students for a particular pedogogical purpose.) So I like the wrong ways, or at least some of them. And liking the wrong ways is compatible with, and can even serve, appreciating the right way to watch films.