UICA Film Coordinator Nick Hartman's Golden Rules on How to Watch a Movie.


If there's one thing that bothers me, it's how our culture views and considers movies. Instead of looking at them as an art form, most people tend to see them as nothing but entertainment. Sure, movies should be entertaining and should leave you moved, but they can also do much more than that. Film, like other forms of art, is a medium for self-reflection, a tool for conversation, and a way to help you understand the world around you. 

As Film Coordinator, I watch 20 plus films a week, and for me to get the best experience, I follow a set of seven golden rules. If you're looking to appreciate cinema on a deeper level, please consider these rules when you watch your next movie.

1) Put your phone away

Photo by  Leon Seibert  on  Unsplash

This should be common sense, but 76% of Americans spend time looking at their phones while watching a movie on their television. When viewing a film, you should give it 100% of your attention. Give it the consideration it needs so that you can understand and appreciate the experience in its entirety. Think of it as being in a conversation with a new friend. You've chosen this relationship. You're getting to know each other. You're building the foundations of shared experiences. Would you ask that new friend to share a story from their life with you, then - right in the middle of their narrative - pick up your phone and swipe through your Instafeed? Of course, you wouldn't. You're going to give your full undivided attention. That same attention should be directed toward the screen every time you watch a film. Let that beautiful glowing screen be your new friend. Enter into a relationship with the filmmaker and embrace their storytelling.

 And no, watching a film on your phone doesn't count. It's incredibly insulting to the filmmaker and everyone involved in the making of the movie. Do you really think you'll get the full cinematic experience of Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "2001: A Space Odyssey" on a 5-inch screen? If you said yes, then you may just want to stop reading here.

2) Never hit the pause button, unless there's an emergency

This is an easy one to break, considering most like to have their favorite drinks and snacks next to them when watching a film. I get it, you had a little too much soda, and you have to hit pause to take a bio-break. However, I must warn you this can be profoundly disrupting to the film-watching experience for many reasons.

For one, it will interfere with the delivery of dialogue. The way an actor delivers their line captures the mood of the scene. Could you imagine hitting pause during Howard Beale's iconic "mad as hell" speech in The Network (1976)?

 It's not just disruptive to dialogue, either. Imagine hitting pause during Luke and Darth Vader's battle scene in Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back (1980), or the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter (1979)?

 What I'm getting at is that while most of us agree we would never press pause during certain scenes of a movie, every line of dialogue, every action, and each moment is essential to the picture, and you should, simply, never hit pause.

3) Ask yourself the five W’s

Photo by  Evan Dennis  on  Unsplash

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

When you're watching a film, it's important to ask yourself who, what, when, where, and why. Asking yourself the five Ws will give you an understanding of your character(s), time-period, location, and the character's motives or goal. If you've ever taken a literature class, this is one of the primary elements they teach you, because to write a good story (or script) these are the five basic things a writer needs to ask themselves before that pen even hits that page. The same should go for the audience. If you want to understand the story, next time ask yourself the five Ws and fully engage in the movie.

For example, let's talk about Steven Spielberg's Schindlers List (1993) and the iconic "girl dressed in red" scene. Instead of just noticing the girl in red, ask yourself why the film is in black and white but she's dressed in red, who is this girl, what does she represent, what is going on around her, why is the camera closed in on Schlinder's face instead of a far shot, etc. Having these questions will help you see the bigger picture, and hopefully help you understand what the film is trying to say.

4) Be open minded

I believe one of the most important qualities a human being can carry is to understand that not everyone will have the same views and moral obligations that you have, and that's okay. There are nearly 8 billion people on this planet. Billions of people who come from all different walks of life, if you think every one of them shares the same views as you then you're just out of luck. Instead of being offended, open your mind and let cinema teach you the beauty of this world and all the different people that are in it.

Be open to films with subtitles and don't be the person that complains and says, "I came here to watch a movie, not read it." Some of the best cinematic works throughout history are subtitled and are, in fact, worth reading.

Finally, just because a film is in black and white doesn't mean it's old and boring.

5) Pay attention to detail.

sergi eisenstein, image from twitter.com

sergi eisenstein, image from twitter.com

When a movie is shot on film, it takes 24 frames per second. That's 24 still photos every second flashing before your eyes to create a moving image, and every one of those still-frames may hold valuable information.  

When you walk into an art gallery, and you take the time to appreciate a painting, you could spend well over an hour staring at every small detail of that painting, whether it's the type of paint they used, the colors, the subject matter, etc. The same goes for film, and I encourage you to take the time to pay attention to the small details filmmakers may hide in their frames.

For instance, a painter may use watercolor or acrylics as their choice of paint, but a filmmaker may choose a different film stock, whether it's 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, or digital. All these types of film have a different aesthetic look that can convey a different emotion. Think about when a filmmaker decides to use a black and white film compared to shooting in high definition color. The filmmaker makes these choices for a reason.

An artist may also hide messages in their work that can tap into a deeper subject. The same goes for film, and I can promise you filmmakers hide messages in their work that give a whole new meaning.

A great example of this would be Victor Flemings The Wizard of Oz (1939). On the surface, we see a farm girl in a magical land following a yellow brick road accompanied by her new-found friends. However, if you look deeper, the film has a much more profound message behind it. Now, there are multiple theories of what The Wizard of Oz truly represents, but one theory that stands above all is that it's an allegory for the American Populist movement that was a revolt by farmers that fought against the government for ignoring their issues, which led to crop failures, poor marketing, and lack of credit facilities.  

In theory, Dorothy represents the common-citizen, the Scarecrow is a stand-in for farmers, the Tin Man is the industrial worker, and the Cowardly Lion is a politician that's all talk and no action. They travel a yellow brick road to get to Emerald City which happens to be entirely green (representing the dollar) to see The Wizard (a representation of the President), in order to be heard and get what they want. Finally, the Wicked Witch of the East represents bankers, and the Wicked Witch of the West – who, remember, gets killed by water – would symbolize the end of crop failure.

To sum up, the next time you watch a movie, remember that there's more than meets the eye.

6)  Understanding the 7th Art

In 1911, Italian Film theorist Ricciotto Canuda argued that cinema was a new art, "a superb collaboration of the six ancient arts: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, and poetry," which would make cinema the seventh art. In short, cinema is all of the arts in one, and understanding how much work goes into making a film will help you understand the beauty and artistic value it may hold.

To make a film you must write it, and writing is a form of art. From there you must find actors and a cinematographer (which involves photography skills). You need an editor, and you need musicians to score the film. You need set designers and costume designers, etc. You get my point, right? Cinema is one giant art collaboration, and we should look at films the same way we do a great painting, the same way we pay attention to a great song, and the way we appreciate a great book. Cinema is art, it takes time, and it's not just there to entertain you.

7) Have patience

We live in fast times, and everyone has their face in their phones - always looking for the next best thing, whether it's the new look, new app, or even swiping their way to a new romantic fling. Things seem to get too old too quickly for people nowadays, and that in itself has affected the way we view movies.

I often hear people complain if a movie is over two hours long; they feel it's too much of a commitment. Think about it, would you expect to read a book in under two hours? A good story takes time; it takes character development; it takes thought. It takes patience.

Next time you decide not to watch a movie because it's "too long," reflect on rule #6 and the time it takes to make a film. It may take you two hours to consume it, but it took the filmmaker years to produce it.

I hope these rules will help you appreciate cinema on a deeper level. If you have some tips on the way you like to watch a film, please do tell - share in the comments or on social... but not while you're watching a movie.

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