How Should We Watch A Film?

I’m sure that most readers of this film blog hoped that Father Christmas would have delivered at least one DVD to them for the 25th of December. A few may have gone to the cinema on Christmas day, watching the latest release as part of their celebrations. At home, over the holiday season, many enjoy the luxury of being able to sit in front of the TV without guilt. To watch a film from start to finish without moving—reaching for a chocy brazil or a different treat before another begins—is, presumably, quite a common routine. But what to make of this passive digestion of the film in front of us?

In the cinema, passivity is enforced: obviously, the ability to pause, rewind or fast-forward the picture is removed. The tale is told from start to finish (usually) without interruption. Even the desire for a bathroom break must be resisted or, at the very least, timed to perfection. There is, nonetheless, an appeal to this setting. The experience of going to the cinema—the large (but not that large) seats, too much popcorn, even more fizzy pop and the effect of an audience—certainly attracts at times. (Part of the enjoyment comes from the specifics of different cinemas. My local independent, for example, unlike the large nationwide chains, contains a much smaller number of seats and sells cups of coffee or tea, rather than Coke, and bulk-bought sweets, rather than popcorn.) The desire for this experience often leads viewers to see films they wouldn’t think about watching at home. A friend and I recently saw the awful Saw 3D (2010) simply because we wanted to spend an hour or two in front of the silver screen.

We may have been left, like Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), with our eyes wired open, powerfully entranced, overwhelmed by the environment rather than the picture itself. Yet even in more austere institutions like the British Film Institute, there is the advantage of  a large screen of high quality and an excellent sound system. In this atmosphere of almost academic calm (as in most libraries, the source of any noise—from rustling to chatting—is silenced), I find I’m better able to concentrate. It was in the BFI earlier this year that I saw, for the first time, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). I benefited from watching the complex (and long) picture in these surroundings, free from distractions.

That is not to say, though, that certain films should be watched in certain ways: Saw 3D should not necessarily be bolstered by popcorn and hot dogs; The Leopard can be enjoyed wholeheartedly at home. Instead, it’s probably nearer the truth to suggest that different environments appeal at different times. But there’s a small problem in the living room: there’s the rub of a choice. The ability to control the pace of the story becomes available: we can pause the picture to think about what has just been said, rewind it to watch the camera pan again and even stop it for a time, if we wish. Alternatively, of course, we can click play and leave the film to progress from start to finish. This stop-start approach to viewing allows us to consider the small details that could pass us by during the linear march to the picture’s end. Equally, though, breaking a film up in this way—paying attention to individual fragments or instead a patchwork of many pieces—perhaps leaves us struggling to see larger thematic or structural arrangements. We could turn into figures that resemble Harry (Gene Hackman) from The Conversation (1974): endlessly replaying his recording of an individual utterance and, in so doing, isolating it from its context, missing its meaning.

Thankfully, though, we can watch a film more than once. Those that wish to can peruse at home favorite moments from films seen in the cinema. We can put a picture on in the background and saunter in and out of the room. We can wait with a notepad to jot down the subtleties of a shot that we’ve replayed several times. Especially with the extra time that the season allows us, along with a new DVD or two, we really can enjoy the show.


When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

You can reach Mark via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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