A little advice for someone I know who is just starting out in life. Forgive me if I sound presumptuous, dispensing advice to you when you’ve probably had enough ‘advice’ to desensitise you to good advice for at least a year. This is advice but it is only that. Take it or leave it, it’s free – ok? And, as such, it comes with a disclaimer, it is will not solve problems or guarantee happiness/success.
Critical thought and reflective practice will get you very far in life. Hopefully, you will have developed or are developing this skill. As we speak you will be building the frameworks and patterns that will allow you to assess, dissect and consume information. This might be the very first time you have heard the term used. Don’t worry, Google search “critical thinking” and you’ll get loads of hits. Why not have a read through this. If you ever fancy a bit of philosophy, try this. I took a course on pedagogy and epistemology, as much as I would like to, I shouldn’t overload you with ‘stuff you don’t need right now’. We can get bogged down in the definition, as many academics have done, or we can just go back to me trying to tell you some stuff.
We like film, you and me. Or maybe just me and I think you like film but also want you to like film because I think it will be a useful tool to help you develop your “critical toolkit”. I’m not a quintessential film buff; at this moment I can’t tell my Kiarostami from my Almodovar, even though I have watched everything that was on general release by the latter (I need to google the former tout suite!). I couldn’t tell you the name of every western I’ve ever watched or liked but I can tell you if I’ve watched one based on the name of the lead actor and exactly how each one relates to my life at the time of viewing. Similarly, I am not a dedicated follower of Kurosawa but from the few I have watched I can tell you what was visionary – to me – about them. Of the blockbuster “film pop” I can tell you, in my opinion, which one’s were great and distinguish them from those I thought were just hype. When you watch films, and TV to some extent but especially films, you have before you not just a feast of instant gratification but sometimes also longer-term intellectual fodder.
Talking about the context, themes, motives – more than just good/bad, like/dislike, right/wrong – that’s going on below the surface. Yes, the superficial is important but it is not by any means the whole story. On the face of it, you have a story about people, or things, and they interact and stuff happens. The subjects can be good or bad and the actions can be good or bad and so the same for the ending. But it gets more complicated the more you delve into the story and how it was constructed and told. Look around the subjects and the actions and interactions. What do they tell you about the subjects? What do they tell you about the actions? A scene in a film is laid out perfectly and perfectly so, so that you will probably not notice how perfect or imperfect it is. When and where are the actions happening? These are not accidental or throw away details. Forgive me if it sounds like I am patronising you but I’m not, I want you to question everything you see; the placement of the vase of flowers or the gun on the table – not just in the story, because it’s there, but in relation to the people, the things around, the timing and the shot. Are you convinced?
Take a scene from a film you like.
Now, first ask all the questions from the previous paragraph and then think about the subjects and the actions, how does the storyteller want you to feel? How do you feel? Is there a difference? If so, why do you think there is or isn’t? How does your reaction make you think about yourself, about your own experiences and contexts? Can you see yourself there or watching that? Are you grateful to be or not to be doing so? What does that say about the story, the skill with which the story was told AND YOU, the viewer. You too are now part of the story and the story is part of you.
Try thinking about the sorts of films you like and don’t like and why? What is is about them that attracts/repels you and what does that say about you? What does is say about you generally and at the very moment in time? What does it say about our cliques, communities and societies? And what about us (the viewers) and them (the subjects in the story, and the storytellers – on screen and behind)? How is this relevant? Is it relevant? Was it ever relevant or will it be in the future to you, or in general. Some films are easy to watch over and over again, some aren’t but I still find myself watching them over and over again. This isn’t always useless repetitive behaviour.
You probably started with a scene from one film and maybe changed your mind several times while asking questions. Not all questions always apply, there are many more questions than answers. There is a skill to knowing how many answers are desirable, necessary and or required. Always refer back to the question. In all of this you must find meaning and be able to relay that meaning, literal or abstract, not just to your conscious self but to others so that they can understand exactly what you mean and or what was meant.
What I’m trying to say is that in life, it helps to know what the facts are and whether they are truly facts. What is the subjective nature of the material you are digesting, how can you be both biased and objective about it? What does it mean to be you, your context, how the abilities you have can be related and interpreted by you and how you can express elements of that to others. Enjoy your films over and over on screen and in your mind’s eye, this will help you develop film appreciation skills but also practice your ability to assess, interpret and evaluate in other life and academic scenarios (I think anyway). You will succeed not just by knowing stuff but how to interpret it, critique it, value it, apply it and modify or amplify it.
You can practice these skills all the time. Film is a great way to do that, it pleases (or not) the senses (emotions) but can also be appreciated, interpreted and analysed. You may be lucky enough to find friends who can be ‘cool’ about it and discuss it in a ‘cool’ way without being ‘antisocial’. You might not. Regardless, try to do it yourself. And you always have me.