Deep viewing

My partner, who had not seen very many movies before she met me and had never thought critically about them, taught me something I hadn’t consciously considered much about in this context: there is a vocabulary and an entire language of film, and that if you don’t speak that language and have a reference to that entire vocabulary, then when you watch a film you have no real idea what’s going on or why.

When I was in China and watching Chinese movies, I underwent a similar experience myself as the cinematic wellsprings there are so different. Even when the film was subtitled, I often had little idea what was occurring or why. The vocabulary and founding mythologies and cultural assumptions were just that different.

Casey Johnston’s shallow, facile and completely off-base interpretation of Ex Machina that I wrote about below was what got me pondering this, but she’s pretty typical of the average viewer so I don’t mean to pick on her in particular — if you only glance at the surface of a movie (particularly a movie like Ex Machina, but true of all film) you will see very little indeed and often be completely wrong about what you think you have seen.

When my partner and I began watching movies together, I was often completely flummoxed by the questions she asked. Not annoyed, but just wondering if she was even looking at the film.

It gradually occurred to me that literally having seen 1/1000 of the movies I’d viewed, she had just no language of film in her head. She could barely watch the surface of movies, much less take anything deeper from them. Often she’d have no idea of why even the simplest character actions were occurring because a narrative actually involves so many shortcuts, elisions and obfuscations that it was only after watching films with her was I able to see fully the assumptions I was carrying in to the work myself.

It wasn’t until then, ever after my experience in China where I quickly caught on, that I truly grasped that I had an entire lifetime of filmic language and accrued knowledge in my head that she completely lacked.

Now when we watch films, my partner doesn’t ask as many questions (and not because I’ve asked her to stop, or want her to). She has most of the correct lingo — and can speak the cant — now in her brain since we’ve probably watched 200+ movies together.

These days, I need to add very little to most films; mostly just pointing out the odd reference or sly wink to an older film, or explaining some convention or idea that is little-used these days but was formerly common.

I’m actually a better and deeper film viewer and critic thanks to her — watching films through her intelligence but inexperience allowed me to interrogate many of my presuppositions and ideas and view films in a much deeper and more nuanced way.