February 24, 2016 8:29:28 AM
You buy your ticket, and maybe some popcorn, and take your seat in a theater. Or, more likely, you put the DVD in the player or call for a flow from the streaming service. And that's how you watch a movie. You don't need to know how to do it, you just do. So why look at a book called How to Watch a Movie (Knopf)? Well, for one thing, the author is David Thomson, a prolific critic and author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. For another thing, Thomson probably knows a lot more about movies than you do, and thinks about them more, and could increase your enjoyment of what for many is a passive sitting and letting the movie flow in. Plus, he might just have some suggested movies that you ought to make sure you see. And also, he is an entertaining writer, and his book is a collection of essays on movies and the experience of watching them, and his love of movies is a joy to read about.
Thomson actually sympathizes with the viewers whose history of moviegoing has been "to believe we should relax, take it easy, sit back, and enjoy ourselves." But there is no such thing as pure enjoyment without thought; and thinking about the workings of a movie can make the movie more rewarding. Not that every movie merits equal attention; Thomson repeatedly mentions The Flame and the Arrow, a movie he loved when he was nine and it came to the theaters in 1950. He realizes now that it was ideal for the particular audience he represented then. It had to do with Burt Lancaster leading his followers in an insurgency in medieval Lombardy. Is it a film to take seriously now? Since it was written by the blacklisted Waldo Salt, might it be viewed as a Marxist political metaphor? Well, no: "Here was a film like thousands of others meant to fill around ninety minutes with delight, and which was based on the principle that in three days' time there would be something else on your screen just as entertaining." It is a film that did not invite introspection or contemplation: "What I really went for were the ninety minutes of escape, the fun, the sensation, the silly nowness of it all."
There's nothing wrong with a film filling the nowness need. It is one of the "good, pleasing films that deserve no more than a single viewing." This is a category in which lots of movies could be put, and Thomson almost apologizes for putting movies like The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, Million Dollar Baby, The King's Speech, and Gravity in it. "Some of them won Best Picture at the Oscars, but once was enough. They are smart, confident entertainments, nicely played, but they have no significant ambition or sense of mystery. They are small stories, well told, and all deeply old-fashioned, even when the effects are very special."
There are for Thomson movies in another category, movies that can be watched repeatedly and seen in different ways at different times of life or with different emphases. It may be a hoary example, but take Citizen Kane. Thomson saw it the first time when he was fourteen, and has seen it repeatedly since then (as has anyone who loves serious movies). New interpretations came and went: "the possibility that the whole film was a daydream in Kane's head as he died; the ironic place of applause; the rueful examination of the dangers in charm; the fallibility of memory." There are plenty of other films Thomson mentions that repay repeated screenings. One he keeps coming back to is Bergman's Persona, of which he says, "It will teach you that film is an adventure in which you are meant to see more than the things before your eyes. The things seen are not just the view; they are windows that open it up." But you don't have to go to the art house for examples like this. Thomson writes that when he first saw Casino he didn't like it; it was one more Scorsese gangster movie. Ten years later, he found it playing regularly on cable and watched it repeatedly; it became a parable of Robert De Niro's rationality versus Joe Pesci's madness, or order versus chaos, and "the desperate comedy of De Niro being thwarted at every turn." Thomson warns, though, that just seeing a film repeatedly will not necessarily make the film any better.
Another movie Thomson says is worth seeing repeatedly is Psycho, which he considers especially in his chapters on cuts (how fitting) and on movie music. Bernard Herrmann's famous score for the movie actually played an important role in how the film got made. Thomson explains that Hitchcock's crew were unsettled about the production; it was not being made in the usual studio, and the crew was concerned that the project had been viewed as essentially tasteless. When Herrmann showed up on set and played an initial rough cut of the score, the mood changed completely. "The music explained that unique film to the doubters. The tastelessness was lifted up to the level of a grim, piercing opera. The music was a sky in which this daring picture could fly."
There are many anecdotes and points of history told here in this thoroughly enjoyable collection of essays. I loved reading about Fred Astaire, who never directed a movie (as did his counterpart Gene Kelly), but insisted that his dance numbers be filmed just so: "He would not dance on film unless the full figures of the dancers were visible in the frame, and he preferred the camera to move laterally with the dance, to maintain the shot, as opposed to cutting. It was his credo that this thing he did (with whichever female partner fate selected) was as difficult as it was beautiful. Therefore, it had to be shown intact." It's part of a recipe for magic.
So, how do you watch a movie? Keep your eyes open. Enjoy the entertainments that are worth one view, and really worth one, no more. The movies that are more complex, watch them over and over again and value how they change. And keep in mind all the valuable insights Thomson has here on music, editing, cutting, montage, screenplays, money, heroes, and more. Hollywood used to ballyhoo, "Movies are better than ever," but use the valuable perceptions here to make them so for yourself.