Watching movies is a social activity!

In past entries I have written about how certain directors focus more on the subject of the image while other directors focus more on the form of the image.  But I actually think there is something else behind this focus. The director’s  focus indicates what he values more. This is a logical conclusion, because you wouldn’t spend time on anything that interested you less, would you?

In “subject focused films,” every scene is largely filmed with coverage: masters/over the shoulders/close-ups. The director seems to choose this method of filming a scene if his value is on the people/characters. He doesn’t want the technique to distract from our experience of the characters. So in a way, what he values is “humanity.” Watching this type of work is akin to hanging out with a person (the person  being the main character or other characters you identify with). This case is especially true with television shows. Television shows almost always display a “coverage style” of film making and the audience has more time to spend with the characters. The audience becomes familiar with them to the point where the characters seem real. The example I can cite from my experience is “Dexter” but this is also true for many people with “Big Love,” “Mad Men,” “Gossip Girl” and many others.

Other directors sometimes take moments away from the characters and focus on the form. The director usually accomplishes this with a really showy technique and you may end up thinking more about the technique than the character in the frame. “Rebel Without a Cause” provides a good example. There’s a scene where James Dean argues with his parents on a staircase. At first the director, Nicholas Ray, filmed the scene in a traditional fashion. But then his mother says something that devastates him. At that moment, the camera suddenly tilts over to a canted position, there’s a light cue flash, and there’s a heart beat on the audio track. It’s an expressionistic moment that calls attention to the technique and although Nicholas Ray employs the technique out of his interest in the human characters, I believe that he chose to film the event in that way because he wanted us to focus on the form. Indeed, “Rebel Without a Cause” is a film where the director displays interest in both subject and form.

Perhaps an example of “pure form focus” is in Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight.” For those of you unfamiliar with this work, Brakhage taped a bunch of dead moths onto a film strip. So when the strip runs through the projector, the audience sees a bunch of flashing lights, with the occasional glimpse of something that looks like it might be a moth. I try not to be so dogmatic to say that Brakhage has no interest in humanity with this piece, but human beings have certainly taken a backseat visually if not thematically.

Previous readers know that of the three aforementioned examples, I prefer a director who focuses on both subject and form. This preference has posed some personal questions for myself. For example, do I  like human beings less than someone who prefers a film that maintains complete focus on a human subject?


Here’s why.  Even  Brackage’s complete focus on the form is ultimately still a focus on humanity. Where is the human being? It’s Brackage himself. The elements of the form end up constructing the personality of the artist. This is the basic idea behind the auteur theory. Different auteurs demonstrate different personalities in their movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s films call to mind a person who has a gleeful affinity for a suspenseful yarn. Almodovar’s movies feel like the work of a vibrant, melodramatic man. Tarantino’s films feel like the product of a cynical film encyclopedia. Spielberg’s films often have a childlike wonder. Godard’s movies feel like the work of a obnoxious, pretentious, pseudo intellectual asshole. There is a personality operating around the physical personalities of the characters in the film.

So then, although I value the form, I’m really just as interested in humanity as someone who prefers a film that maintains complete focus on the subject.

This thought resolves some other personal questions I’ve had about the nature of film viewing. Although my preferences VALUE HUMANITY AS MUCH AS a film viewer who watches movies that MAINTAIN COMPLETE FOCUS ON HUMAN BEINGS, do I appreciate people as much as someone who DOESN’T WATCH FILMS? Say, someone who spends his free time in bars and coffee shops conversing with friends. Is film viewing truly an antisocial activity? If so, that troubles me. It seems to me that human beings have intrinsic value and the way to acknowledge that value is by interacting with other people. So to engage in an antisocial activity is to deny the value of human beings.

But I don’t believe film actually is antisocial, even if I was sitting alone on my couch. An antisocial activity would be one that involves no interaction with another human being. So sitting in an empty room would probably be the best example of this.  But a film is fundamentally one individual’s expression (artist) to another individual (audience). Moreover, the types of expression crystalized in a film are often more truthful/vulnerable than anything a person might express to you in a bar. In this respect, watching a film is actually a more social activity than mindless party chatter.

Just because I can’t directly respond to the director, is the activity not technically an “INTER-action?” No, because I do have the potential to respond, it’s just a slower process. After I watch the film, I can respond with a blog post, my own film, a casual remark to a friend. The process of interaction still takes place. A film is really a long monologue from a really elaborate mouth. The director has decided his own mouth is not capable of expressing his thought. So he constructs a much more elaborate mouth, the film, which can do so.

Needless to say, I like going to parties and bars sometimes. But most times I’d prefer to just watch a movie. Anyone in this same boat can rest assured, we are in fact, the social butterflies.


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