7 Ways to Watch Films More Critically
If you want to make films, you’ll also need to get better at watching them.
This might seem like a bizarre suggestion – short of dozing off halfway through, how can you watch a film badly? But compare the way we think about films to the way we think about literature. Your literature classes teach you how to read better: how to investigate a text critically and analyse it at a deeper level than just whether or not you enjoyed it. Most people accept that literary criticism is a skill that needs to be learned and practised; watching a film critically is much the same.
It’s a skill that’s worth developing because it’s one of the main ways in which you learn what makes a film good according to your own tastes. What is it that makes the early Pirates of the Caribbean films swashbuckling fun, and the later ones a tortuously plotted mess? They share many of the same cast members and the same great soundtrack, so why does The Curse of the Black Pearl work, and On Stranger Tides send people to sleep? Once you figure out the answer, you can begin to learn from those strengths and weaknesses yourself. In this article, we take a look at how you can watch films more critically and start to think like a director, not like the audience.
1. Give the film your undivided attention at least once
We’re really bad at giving anything our undivided attention, especially when it’s a film that might be over two hours long. Over the course of that two-hour film, you might find yourself quickly checking IMDB to find out where you recognise a particular actor from; firing up Shazam to figure out which song is playing; pausing to go and get yourself some more snacks; flicking through Facebook and Instagram; replying to a couple of Whatsapp messages; going to the bathroom; and for a small portion of that time, perhaps actually concentrating on what’s happening onscreen.
Of course, filmmakers accept that they won’t always have their audience’s undivided attention. Characters’ names might be repeated a couple of times to make sure that you’ve heard them; really significant plot points will be highlighted with incidental music so that you focus. But for the most part, a filmmaker will hope that you’ll be focusing on the film rather than having one eye on your friend’s party photos. Try, just once, to watch the film as they intended.
Students of film are split on the one possible exception to this rule: taking notes. Some assert that taking notes while they’re going along actually helps sharpen their concentration on the film; others claim that anything that causes you to look away from the screen is a distraction. The answer may come down to how good your powers of recollection are, and how much time you have on your hands to watch the film again.
2. Watch films more than once, including on mute
If you do have time to watch the film again, then do so – but don’t just sit down on your sofa and watch it in the exact same way. Once you’ve seen a film and given it your undivided attention, you can use different techniques to get to the heart of what it’s about.
For instance, consider watching the film on mute. You already know the plot, so don’t focus on that; instead, when it’s on mute you can look at the things you might normally let flow past you. Take a look at the camera angles – when do they go wide, when do they focus in close on an actor’s reaction? On that note, look at the acting of the characters who aren’t the focus of the scene. What’s going on with them when the main character is speaking? You can rewind and watch a scene multiple times, focusing on a different character on each occasion.
If you can, get hold of a copy of the script and read it as you go along. You can pause the film before each scene change and read ahead, figure out what you might expect from the words on the page, and see if the acting or directing surprises you. You might even be able to find an earlier version of the script in some cases – you can try to spot changes, and see if you can work out why they were made. You can even look at details of production; for instance, when you read the initial description of the character, how would you picture their wardrobe? Does that match what you see on screen?
By the time you’ve done this, you should have a pretty good notion of how the film was constructed, gaining an insight into the decisions of actors, the director, the production team, the scriptwriter and more.
3. Consider the themes the film explored
Every film, from the most highbrow art house movie to the cheapest straight-to-video sequel, will have certain themes that you ought to be able to identify and explore. That could be anything from vengeance to motherhood (or indeed, both). Picking out the themes of a film and assessing how the film treats them is a central point of film criticism.
That’s not to say that it’s a central point of film making, however. In fact, one of the pitfalls of amateur film-makers is to decide that they want to make a film with a grandiose theme like the futility of war, and then botch together a plot that the theme could be shoehorned into. Look out for films like this – where the plot is going along nicely, and then suddenly becomes derailed because the director has decided that it needs to say something meaningful about the importance of family.
A film’s theme could be something quite unexpected; for instance, it’s been pointed out that the first Guardians of the Galaxy film might be an uncomfortable allegory for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Meanwhile, its sequel explores the ways in which men are socially encouraged to repress their emotions. Neither of them is the kind of theme that you might expect from a science fiction film that’s heavy on the explosions.
You can also consider if the film has drawn any inspiration from other source material – such as The Lion King drawing on the plot of Hamlet or Clueless following the plot of Jane Austen’s Emma. Does it breathe new life into the story and take it in an interesting direction? Or does it come across as an unimaginative rip-off of someone else’s better idea?
4. Think about why you did or didn’t enjoy it
Someone who is watching a film uncritically will know whether they enjoyed it or not, and will conclude that they enjoyed it because it was good or disliked it because it was bad. Perhaps they’ll manage to get as far as liking it because it was enjoyably bad, or identifying that they liked the first half but the ending seemed implausible, and dragged.
You can do rather better than this sort of weak analysis. You’ve looked into aspects of the film from acting to direction at this stage. You might be able to identify, for instance, that the script had promise, but weak acting meant that lines that should have been powerful fell flat. Or you might spot the plot hole that made the ending seem so unlikely, that couldn’t be rescued by beautiful cinematography.
However, figuring out what made a film bad is easier than figuring out the secret that made a great film so good. You might want to consider whether the themes resonated with you, whether the acting was compelling, or simply whether the setting and cinematography were so lovely that it was a treat for the eyes. If it’s so bad it’s good, try to figure out what made you enjoy it while other films were simply so bad they remained bad.
5. Analyse sound, lighting and production
There are some aspects of a film that you seldom notice unless they go wrong. You may only notice sound if the levels are all wrong and the incidental music drowns out the dialogue, or if the soaring theme soars at all the wrong moments. Lighting, similarly, you may only notice if everything is so dim you end up squinting at the screen, or so bright that it looks like the action is taking place in a dentist’s office. And the production values, from setting to costume, is similarly likely to be spotted only if it looks particularly fake or cheap. Comparing films made ten years ago to those made today make it easier to spot good or bad uses of CGI, but if you’re comparing two big-budget films made today, you’re unlikely to notice the quality of special effects unless you’re making a deliberate attempt to look out for it.
Try to train yourself not to view films this way, but instead to see these aspects of a film every time, whether they’re done well or not. You might consider how the choice of costume illuminates a character, or how well-judged lighting decisions make a scene just the right amount of creepy. See if you can spot the difference between what’s merely adequate and what’s actively good; you might want to look at films that won awards in these areas and try to work out exactly what it is that makes them exemplary.
6. Compare the film with others by the same director
As all the different facets of a film explored in this article demonstrate, a film doesn’t have a single guiding vision in the way that a book has an author. The closest it comes is the role of the director, whose job is that of a general marshalling the troops; they can only guide what happens to a certain extent.
Nonetheless, one ‘theme’ that you can pick out of almost any film is the preferences of the director. Wes Anderson likes bright colours and quirky characters; Quentin Tarantino favours extreme, unrealistic violence; almost all of JJ Abrams’ films feature a red ball in them somewhere. These directors have especially distinctive styles, but there will be features that you can identify in the work of most directors once you’ve seen a couple of their films. You can then use this in your critical analysis of their films – do their films show all the same faults? Are they over-reliant on the same themes, that worked well in the first film you saw by them but that quickly felt repetitive? Along the same lines, you should consider whether there are things that the director does particularly well, such as having notably well-rounded characters, or a remarkable degree of attention to detail.
7. Don’t forget that it’s all subjective
When engaging in criticism of anything, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there is something that is objectively good and objectively bad – whether that’s in art, music, literature or film. Yes, there are some films that virtually everyone agrees is great, and similarly for those that are terrible. But if you find yourself loving a film that other people seem to dislike – or vice versa – that isn’t necessarily a sign that there’s something wrong with your taste.
It’s a valuable exercise to try and work out why your opinion might differ from other people’s. It could be that a film’s sense of humour chimes with your own, or that a film reflects your life experiences and therefore affects you in a way that it might not affect a film critic who’s twice your age. You can try to figure out your own soft spots in line with the films that you’ve watched with a critical eye; for instance, you might notice that films with a coming of age theme are particularly powerful for you, or that you find revenge stories dull no matter how well they’re told. These tastes and preferences will then feed back into your own work, making you a better film-maker when you try them out for yourself.
Images: hollywood sign; cinema seats; meerkats; movie camera; family walking down road; man thinking; film crew; actors and director; cat and dog
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