How to Watch Movies

At some point, it occurred to me that others were watching movies much differently than me. They saw things I didn’t see, they understood references I didn’t get, and they saw films as communicating messages I didn’t understand.

Gradually, I came to realize that film is its own language. Filmmakers that understand what they are doing and have a vision make deliberate choices that force you to see the film from the perspective they desire. Ozu’s Tokyo Story is a vivid example of this. He forces you to interact with each character, as they look and speak directly to you.

I think this language of film is the reason why so many religious films are often poorly received, especially by critics. It has less to do with the religious content, than the fact that directors of religious films often do not understand the language of film. They are passionate about the content yet they do not speak the language necessary to translate it.

How to Watch Movies

If you are serious about developing an understanding of movies and the language of film, I would recommend a few simple steps:

  1. Be open to all films of all subjects.
  2. Start watching movies critically; that is, engage your brain. What is the director trying to communicate? Are there interesting camera angles, sound choices, etc.? Why?
  3. Find a few film critics you respect and read their reviews of movies you’ve just watched. Do you agree or disagree? Why? I personally find the archive of Roger Ebert’s reviews to be engaging and informative.
  4. Watch better movies. There is no shortage of lists of great movies. I personally suggest Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, which has the added benefit of an extensive review for each film by the greatest film critic that will ever live (I’m biased).
  5. Begin with films you like or that you think you will like. This isn’t homework, after all. I found that as I began to better understand the language of film, I wanted to view progressively more challenging films.
  6. Finally, put away the phone/tablet while watching. You can’t understand the visual language of film if you’re reading Twitter through most of it.

If you are someone who can’t fathom why anyone would like a movie that is subtitled or doesn’t have explosions, try some of these steps. You will be surprised at how the language of film will speak to you in ways you never dreamed possible.