{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Monday, February 12, 2007

How to watch a film !

These instructions are based on shallow (and unmarried) personal experience and not to be taken seriously. These particulars should not be generalized, identified with or anyway followed, except in some formal experimental tests, all these experiments may not be dangerous in a literal way but if taken with (or without) thought can be permanently damaging. Dont care about this self important disclaimer or the similar post that follows, it is for me.

There is a definitive art of film watching, which is different from movie watching. Movie watching is an impersonal affair (watch with friends and pop the corns, no bother). A Fight Club comes as a movie watching exercise, but a Tokyo Story is essentially film watching experience (watch alone, no bother). If you are watching a film, you need to feel completely, utterly free. Free to pause and play, to dance and think, in between the film. To achieve this freedom, some ground work needs to be done. To start with, switch off your mobile phone, for the weak-hearted, we recommend to put them in silent mode at first, and then move to complete switch off mode (It a social exercise also, which will make you realize, that there are no calls that you can't miss, or in some cases it reveals something more basic, nobody calls you). If anyone calls and you accidentally pick the phone, say you are in a meeting, people understand this reason more than anything else, and will give you Chichikovian respect too.

Once you have your mobile switched off, take (or take out) some of things that you feel distract you. Eat and piss, or take a smoke. Take pen-paper if you want to take notes. Never bother that you have to watch the full film in one go, assume you are free to push pause, assume you are free to think astray (forced concentration is obviously not the key here), assume that you are free to not understand anything, assume that electricity wont go off, and a friend wont knock your door. Be comfortable, don't care, shut the world off, in short, - I know how much I hate to say this - be bourgeois (although we all already are).

Always choose the films like a daily routine. Also, don't be afraid to see a bad film, they are much more educative. If I have Mouchette, Late Spring and Naked for a holiday, I would like to see Mouchette in morning after light breakfast, Late Spring will go after lunch, lying on the bed with few hankies handy and Naked with go with evening smoke. Any meeting with friends in between will spoil the experience, go alone to eat or better order at home or even better skip meals (take a heavy dinner to shut up the hunger, and sleep). One can fill up the time between films by reading about the films in general (not those specific films) or see bollywood songs on youtube or Zee Classic (alienation effect). One can dance also, since there is no physical exercise for the whole day. Although it doesn't look like, the idea is to have a healthy diet !

Now start the film. Don't think that you have to see the film or the special features first. Complete anything interesting/inviting/distracting and then move to the film. And in case you have some "scenes" to look in that film, look at them first, don't let them deflect you, vent them off in the beginning like Godard did in Contempt with Bardot, and more importantly don't feel guilty about such pleasures, because now your "soul" is clean. Once you are fine to proceed, switch off the lights, and restart it.

A good viewer must betray himself. He must go against his sex, sexual desires, his taste, prejudices and denounce any prejudgements. This is a way to expand and appreciate and understand more, and at times to get the subtlest of ideas. Most of the times deviance fine-tunes the existing self, makes it more tolerant and free. A Bad Education demands to appreciate and understand Gael García Bernal in all the three avatars. A Teorema calls for even more. One should be like the assaulted white actors of 'Be Black' campaign from Brian DePalma's marvelously Godardian Hi, Mom! , who say "It was a good exercise, Now we know how is it to be Black" (Although in the film, it is loaded with irony). Some may call it masochistic, but don't care much for yourself, you will survive.

Although it depends on the film, in general, watch the film for first 35 mins with total devotion and no questions (just receive the images, eat with eyes). The point is to shut the brains, delay any questions as of now. Give it some time to dress up/dress down. Give the director time and space to clean or fill your mind. And this is one reason I don't watch films with friends who invariably become uneasy when they have invested 30 mins of their ohh-so-precious time in the film, and start demanding what not. Not that a good film will give you a peak around 35 mins, but it is like the gestation period. The film might or might not work after that, but these 35 minutes of pure devotion are absolutely essential. This devotion should ideally be given to members of all class and caste, no snobbery is entertained before the flickering screen.

After you have given some time to the film, it starts to reveal itself. The experience of the movie can be equated to taste or tone of music or color. A good film pays off in humble quanta. The pay off can be like the long conversation between the country priest and countess in Diary of Country Priest, or a devastating look on the face of Vera in Vera Drake. It may be the flash of brilliance in the Brechtian end sequence of Body Double. It can be the pleasure to just watch Cabiria through her journey. The returns from a film are not calculative, they are more of intuitive. When we see one scene for the first time, our first response is based on our intuition, a little later follows the judging part, and much later the deconstruction part (thematically/ideologiocally, technically (sound, camera, action) and inference-wise), which is then re-constructed into a complex response. If the intuitive part and the last complex response are almost same, we feel the honesty of the image that we saw, we feel that we are not manipulated. Otherwise, pretension comes forth. In my self-made, self-satisfying, simplistic theory, I feel that a director starts similarly, he imagines a scene based on intuition, then deconstructs and constructs to check its integrity. The problem with this approach is that most of the times deconstruction is not always honest/correct on a viewer's part, and he ends up getting something that director never meant. This is the peril of interpretation. Is any work of art, signifies how/what we construct(or deconstruct or analyze) it, or what was its original meaning or intent, I am not sure of. But there is a level of interpretation, and cross references, and a viewer should know what and how to construe, for his own benefit, otherwise these interpretation can be merely self serving delusions. In all this, we should accept the crime and responsibility of flattening out the images to map our brain patterns as much as we accept that we are free to do that.

The first impression may not be the most thoughtful one, but the most honest one, and usually tell you something about yourself. Also, we must know that there is difference between - to appreciate a work and to love it. Don't be scared to love, even if you know you can not appreciate it or it is not appreciated by those whose opinion you deeply regard. It is one of the many pleasures of film watching. Also, try to appreciate whatever you can, as cinema is a mixed art. Don't ignore the visual design of a film that doesn't work thematically. Sometimes I feel bothered by the overuse of uncinematic tools like narration (like in Sans Soleil, a great and insightful film though but at times the otherwise evocative narration is too guiding) or the overdose of cinematic tools (like in Theo Angelopoulos' The Weeping Meadow, a potential good film but we can equate its staged, precise and self important imagery to something like fatally smug poetry). At times, I wonder why so much importance is given to the philosophical and moral implications of a film than to its visual language (visual language can in itself be manipulative thematically), much like the discrimination between cerebral and carnal desires, as if they are entirely different.

Once the film finishes, don't rush to get the conclusion and try to find what it meant (I do so shamelessly). Admit if you did not understand it. Big critics have done that. It might hit you one odd night, rest assured a good film, like a ghost, doesn't leave you that easily. As you sleep, and close the day, think about the scene that you liked, and close your eyes.

One of the properties of good film is that its not easily recommendable to everyone. One end up using disclaimers like "You may not like it", "It may be shocking", "There is no plot, if you are looking for one" etc etc. A good film can be colorless, odorless and inert for an inattentive soul. A good film should have spirit to miss the tempting opportunities and heart to hear and see (or rather show) the quotidian. A good film is willing to take risks, walk off the line like Fat Girl does. It can be accused of being a big bore, with either no end result (Chungking Express) or with a shocking ending (Audition) or being too outlandish to stomach (Naked Lunch / Crash), but it tells/reminds you something about you, or the world you live in and beyond or about its own form and flesh.

All said and done one must remember what Tarkovsky said:

It is obvious that art cannot teach anyone anything, since in four thousand years humanity has learnt nothing at all. We should long ago have become angels had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses. Art only has the capacity, through shock and catharsis, to make the human soul receptive to good. It's ridiculous to imagine that people can be taught to be good...Art can only give food - a jolt - the occasion - for psychical experience.


km said...

Excellent post, Anurag.

I see that you are a fan of Bresson's "Country Priest" too!

Jabberwock said...

Yes, super post. And thanks for that Tarkovsky quote too.

anurag said...

Thanks a lot, km, I really like 'Diary of a Country Priest', and especially the scene with young priest and the countess.

jabberwock, thanks for commenting and linking to your blog. I am getting lots of traffic today.. thanks :)

Alok said...

Wow, great post on a great topic... I don't really have a how-to of my own or at least i have never thought about it but i agree with most of what you say. the only thing is that these days I always prefer watching movies alone... not because of any snobbery or anything like that but watching it with someone else always encroaches on some freedom and ability of free-association and immersion which is required. also much that I am grateful for the dvd revolution, i still regret and resent the fact that I was introduced to most of the great classics on small screen. on many occasions watching even a great movie becomes a sterile intellectual exercise. still a worthwhile experience but not a complete one.

Vidya said...

Yay, I got past the disclaimer :)

An inspiring post.I think this would make a very interesting experimental short,"How to watch a film".Images are already lining up in my head based on the films you have listed!!

Loved the "just receive the images, eat with eyes" part but this is almost impossible to do .Once you watch a film of one director/cinematographer your mind starts second guesing what he / she would do next. The mind always tries to get ahead of the eyes and the net result is movie misery!!

anurag said...

alok, now that i think I havent seen any great film on big screen. I want to see Persona on big screen, also Mulholland Drive.

Thanks Vidya,
and yes, its so easy to write 'eat with eyes' but its very difficult to see a film like that.

Space Bar said...

came here from smewhere...not sure where, but excellent post!

anurag said...

Thanks a lot, Space Bar.