‘Heathers’ – Decomp

Decomp for the film Heathers. This decomp is intended for use to organize your thoughts after watching the movie. For more information about decomps please head to this blog post.

How did the film make you feel?

What was your favorite shot of the film?

What did you feel was the thesis of the film?

What things did you enjoy about the film? What things did you dislike?

By the end of the film, did you have any empathy for any of the characters? Which ones and why?

Did you interpret the use of primary colors to mean anything beyond identification for the main characters?

The movie seemed to imply that it’s thesis was (as spoken by J.D.) – “The extreme always seems to make an impression.” Do you agree with this or do you think the film was trying to say something different?

Do you think it’s possible in today’s political climate to feature high schooler students in such a dark film? Many of the scenes are fairly shocking in the wake of Columbine – do those historical events that have happened since hinder or strengthen this film’s legacy?

Do you think this film is the first ‘teensploitation’ film or is it the first to be honest about it’s exploitative motive? Or did you feel that it wasn’t exploitative?

 


And my answers to the above – please don’t feel like you need to agree with me at all! I’m interested in how you feel about the film, as ultimately that’s what matters!

How did the film make you feel?

I found the film to be fairly jarring as it was much darker than I was expecting. Some of the imagery was so shocking in light of recent events – things like school shootings becoming so commonplace – that I kept feeling like it was going to have more and more surprises. And it did! I did also find it to be quite funny in many spots as the writing was very sharp, and definitely inspired many of the ‘edgy’ teen movies that came after it.

What was your favorite shot of the film?

My favorite shot of the film was the above shot of Heather laying dead on the floor on the red carpeting. Surrounded by glamour mags, lying in glass – the image is both beautiful and haunting.

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What did you feel was the thesis of the film?

I felt the thesis of the film was looking to say something along the lines of pain is a web. All of the bullying, hurt, cliques, infighting, external violence – all of it begets more of those things.

What things did you enjoy about the film? What things did you dislike?

I loved the sharpness of the script, it’s ability to keep pushing the envelope farther and farther, and I felt the cinematography was astounding, which was much better than what I was expecting.

I disliked the way that various characters’ despair was exploited to redeem our main characters. I get that this was the point, but it was still hard to see.

By the end of the film, did you have any empathy for any of the characters? Which ones and why?

At the end of the film I felt empathy for nearly every character, even J.D. Part of the gravity of the film is that we get to see the results of horrible upbringings, bullying, cliques, violence, etc. Every character, even the stupid football jocks, are the way they are as a result of how they’ve been treated at some point.

Did you interpret the use of primary colors to mean anything beyond identification for the main characters?

I don’t think the color usage had any extra meaning. I think it was fun to pick up how different details brought the characters together in the world, specifically the scenes involving croquet and how the characters assert themselves via the desire for the color red.

The movie seemed to imply that it’s thesis was (as spoken by J.D.) – “The extreme always seems to make an impression.” Do you agree with this or do you think the film was trying to say something different?

I think this is certainly one possible reading of the film’s thesis. Films like this seem to be trying to give us a more meta view of specific relationships and how the world works.

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Do you think it’s possible in today’s political climate to feature high schooler students in such a dark film? Many of the scenes are fairly shocking in the wake of Columbine – do those historical events that have happened since hinder or strengthen this film’s legacy?

I don’t think a film like this could come out nowadays, but I feel like it’s exactly the kind of film that should. Seeing such powerful and dark scenes acted out by children really brings home the reality of violence among youth and in schools. People might take these things to be potentially aspirational to would be offenders, but I don’t think things actually work like that. Just because people are problems doesn’t mean we should be shying away from said problems. Maybe by forcing people to confront these realities we might make some progress on lowering violence like this.

Do you think this film is the first ‘teensploitation’ film or is it the first to be honest about it’s exploitative motive? Or did you feel that it wasn’t exploitative?

I think this film is definitely in the ‘exploitation’ vein. It’s trying to push the limitations of it’s teen genre to the most absurd and violent possible place. If that doesn’t count, then I don’t know what should.


If you’re so inclined, please use the decomp in the comments to let us know how you felt about the film. Is there anything you feel we missed that feels applicable to the film? Let us know!

To see the notes I took while watching Heathers – please visit my letterboxd – https://letterboxd.com/niallmccarthy/film/heathers/

Active Participation, Decompression, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Today I’d like to introduce you to a new tool I’ve been developing called a Decompression. The idea behind Decompressions (Decomp for short and here on out) is that we all watch and enjoy films, but often times it can be difficult to start to parse out how you feel about it. There are so many ideas, images, sounds, emotions contained in a film that sifting through everything without anything at all to guide you can be quite difficult. A decompression then is simply a small guide with a few guiding questions and observations from the film so that you can begin to crystalize your own thoughts on the film. Decomps are not reviews and are not designed to tell you what to think, they’re designed to get your gears to turn. What matters most about film is how you feel about it once it’s over. Happiness when dealing with art comes about from being an active participant in the art and I want to encourage interaction and listening as much as I possibly can here. There are thousands of websites that will tell you how to feel about something – I’m here because I want to know how you feel about films and to help you learn how to better channel those feelings.

Have you ever stood in an art gallery and looked at painting after painting and none of it meant anything because there was so much going on? Maybe you didn’t have context for what the artists were going for or you felt like you didn’t ‘get’ what was being said? Maybe the techniques weren’t what you were used to or the subject matter left you cold? Films can be like that. Music can be like that. TV shows can be like that. The hope is that by going through a decomp with an individual film you can break through the initial paralysis from information overload, then you’ll be able to join the conversation with your own thoughts and insights.

The art world needs more and new perspectives on things. We haven’t plenty perspectives from people who make it their job to give those perspectives. Your voice matters and your thoughts matter.

Here’s to learning and to being active participants in the things we consume. I promise it makes those things more enjoyable in every way. I hope you enjoy using these tools, and I hope it makes you want to watch more film and start to branch out into new kinds of art.

Please – let me know how it goes! Feel free to answer the posts in the comments with your thoughts on the film or shoot me an email, tweet, instagram comment, letterboxd message – whatever!

Ferris 2

Below is a sample Decomp for a film I’d assume most of you have seen – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s a little bit shorter than some will be, but I think you’ll get the gist. I’ll post my personal answers to the decomp questions below so you can see how you might go about answering these questions. 

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Decomp for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 

How did the film make you feel?

What was your favorite shot of the film?

What did you feel was the thesis of the film?

What things did you enjoy about the film? What things did you dislike?

Which character did you find most relatable?

What do you think has made this film so enduring in the public consciousness? What is that makes things seem universal?

This is one of my ‘sick’ films, something that I can put on that makes me feel ok and is comforting for me. Which films do that for you?

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Below are my answers to each of the decomp questions so you can see how you might approach these types of questions. The more honest you are with yourself, the better.

How did the film make you feel?

This film makes me feel all sorts of different emotions. I very much relate with Cameron and his anxiety in the beginning of the film, I feel joy when the trio is going on various adventures throughout the city, I feel genuine happiness at the twist and shout musical number. That people might find joy through singing and dancing with one another is so comforting for me right now. I feel melancholy as Cameron stares into the paintings in the museum. I feel a deep sense of nostalgia from the film as a whole because of how many times I’ve seen it both recently and as I was growing up. All of this is comforting to me and I’ll continue to watch this film because of how it makes me feel.

What was your favorite shot of the film?

My favorite shot of the film is technically more an entire scene, as I absolutely adore the entire museum trip. That a film that is regarded as ‘for kids’ or is often written off along with the rest of John Hughes’ films would embrace the quiet introspection of a museum is just so invigorating for me. The entire scene is such a beautiful break from the rest of the mayhem of growing up and it’s become one of the most dear series of images to me. I’ve picked the shot of the trio holding hands with the kids because that is what makes it all for me. That they’re just as bright eyed and optimistic as children on a field trip. That’s what art is. That’s how it should be. Happiness and innocence.

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What did you feel was the thesis of the film?

I think Ferris says it to close the film – “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” I can’t really think of anything that I could add that would improve what the movie is directly saying in any way. There doesn’t have to be something hidden underneath the surface in many cases. Don’t let the thesis of a film get lost among it’s details.

What things did you enjoy about the film? What things did you dislike?

I enjoy and admire the attitude of this film. It’s so joyous, so forgiving of humanity, so optimistic towards the future. Maybe not necessarily in much of it’s dialogue or the anxieties they deal with, but I love that these characters have determined that simply spending a day with one another and living and being with each other is what life is about is exactly the direction I want to move my own life in. Stress will always be there. Anxiety will always be there. But so will the people who will help you pull through it. That’s powerful.

What did I dislike? Sometimes Ferris is a jerk, but I think he also learns by the end which redeems any faults I have with his character at the beginning. There really isn’t much I don’t like the film as everything that it sets up eventually pays off nicely.

Which character did you find most relatable?

Cameron. Cameron. Cameron. He embodies my anxiety to a t. He struggles with it. He wrestles with every decision. But ultimately, he’s just a guy doing his best in the world. “He’ll keep calling me, and calling me, and calling me. Fine, I’ll go, I’ll go, I’ll go. *slam slam slam* – GOD. DAMMIT.” Kills me every time.

What do you think has made this film so enduring in the public consciousness? What is that makes things seem universal?

I think it’s so universal because it’s the ultimate get out of school or work fantasy. How many of us have wanted to just put life on pause and do anything but what we were supposed to? I’d venture to guess it’s just about everyone. That really is so much of the appeal here, as it’s the ultimate wish fulfillment for something that we all go through. This specific film has become so universal beyond that though because of it’s cast of characters and the quotability of it’s dialogue. Hughes created a warm and memorable world, and the film is an all-timer because of it.

This is one of my ‘sick’ films, something that I can put on that makes me feel ok and is comforting for me. Which films do that for you?

Well, this one! Other ‘sick films’ of mine are anything that makes me nostalgic for my youth or things that I enjoyed watching when I was in college. I love going back to this film, Lost in Translation, My Neighbor Totoro, and Office Space (if I’m ‘sick’ of work!).

And that’s all there really is to a decomp. It’s just a structured way to focus your thoughts and I hope that by doing so it will bring you more enjoyment to your film watching experience.

Kindness, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and that how a piece of art makes you feel, matters

“Come on over a minute. I just had some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for quite (a)while about modulation. It seems to me that there are different themes in life, and one of my main jobs, it seems to me, is to help, through the mass media for children, to help children through some of the difficult modulations of life.”

– Fred Rogers

Talking about the film Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a difficult task. What could be so hard about talking about Mr. Rogers? Isn’t it just a series of feel good moments designed to distract you from the problems of the current day? Isn’t it just some show where a guy talks to kids with puppets? That’s how one side of the spectrum reacts, but just as difficult is talking to the people who do seem to like Mr. Rogers. Oh, it’s so ironic to like Mr. Rogers. How funny it is to relive our childhood. How crazy it is that a guy would be nice and wear sweaters and talk about feelings!

But truly, truly, I think that if we can get to the message of what Won’t You Be My Neighbor and by extension what Mr. Rogers was looking to say in a way completely devoid of ironic admiration or jest, then the world could be radically transformed.

The entire purpose of this website, and of the materials I’m working on, is that I want to share with the world how better to talk about their emotions. I want to help people to see that art is the conduit through which we can experience the things that are difficult to talk about. That the emotions that we feel are worth sitting in and exploring. So when I watch these interviews with Fred and others who knew him, to see that his desire was the same? That touched me in such a deeply profound way. This beautiful, kind soul, he understood what he was capable of through the screen. He may not have been making high end art films or experimenting in the visual medium, but he understood that relating with people through the shared experience of the screen is the entrance to us. He wasn’t just talking to children, he was trying to talk to all of us. 

He truly believed that we can all be like him, and that’s why he did what he did. That we could all be the kindness he wanted to see and thus embody. If your reaction to this film was “Man, we need more people like Mr. Rogers in the world”, then you’ve missed his point entirely. We are good. Our thoughts do matter. He wasn’t looking to be idolized. He wasn’t looking for us to cry at how good he was, he was looking for us to see that in ourselves. He wanted us to be good because goodness begets more goodness. He wants us to see that those things are within reach if you’ll open up yourself in a way that will allow that to happen.

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It’s difficult to watch this film and not compartmentalize the things he’s saying as being ‘for children’ when realistically it’s the adults currently who struggle just as mightily as the children do. It’s even mentioned when the film discusses Fred’s failed show for adults. Feelings? Those are things for children! We adults understand! We couldn’t be further from the truth. We segregate our emotions away from our everyday lives and convince ourselves we can handle what is going on around us. The Challenger explosion? A tragedy, for sure, but we understand that these things can happen and are able to come to grips with the reality and gravity of such a tragedy. That’s how we think about things going, but is that really the case? We’re closed off. Numb. Struggling to put into words our anxieties. Struggling to cope with the horrible things that happen to us and the people around us. Imagine then, the thought of another grown person, asking you how you genuinely felt about something. Really, imagine it. Could you be honest? Would you be able to put to words that something made you afraid, or happy, or nostalgic? We spend so many of our waking hours trying to do everything we can to dull these sorts of emotions and Rogers cut right through to the heart of what affects us.

Fred understood that art and relationships can combine to become that conduit that I mentioned earlier and that through which we can experience those emotions that we so desperately need to be in touch with. That’s.. that’s so ridiculously powerful. What a radical, crazy, resistant idea. That you should simply, feel.

Fred and his life have touched me so deeply because he says to me, being good is valuable enough. Sharing the things you love with others is enough. THAT is enough. It doesn’t matter if what you are doing is unique, or if you’re good at what you do, or if what you create is only ever experienced by you – simply desiring that other’s lives could be good and working to effect that change in those lives is what matters. That matters.

So next time you well up with emotion at the crescendo of a film, sit in it. Let it be there with you. Revel in it’s joy. Next time something makes you angry, be there. Experience it. Let’s genuinely try to listen to what Mr. Rogers was saying and go out to be the kindness that the world so desperately needs right now.

Intro to Cinephilia – part 2

Thanks for joining me again for part two of our discussion on Introduction to Cinephilia. Today I’d like to talk about some of the things you can expect to find when starting to dig deeper into the more artistic or foreign side of filmmaking.

To figure out what sorts of things are valuable to the average film goer, you need only to look at youtube. There you’ll find countless videos analyzing plot points, characters, and franchises. The types of films that are currently popular, and really that have almost always been popular, tend to revolve around these parts of the film language. Why are people watching Batman? Because they want to see what happens to Batman. Why do people care so much about the ending of ‘Inception’? Because they want to understand the plot as fully as they can. Why do people go crazy over the latest Star Wars or Marvel film? Because they are invested in the characters of these franchises, and invest in them over a long period of time.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with watching movies for these specific reasons, and actually plenty of the films in the artistic and foreign realm can concern themselves with the same types of points. But what happens when these aren’t the things that bring you into a film? How do you begin to process a film that isn’t concerning itself with the things that up until this point was all you thought film looked to do? There are a whole host of things that you can focus on in film that have nothing to do with franchises or plots or characters that can make watching films an incredibly rewarding experience. There are slice of films that concern themselves with showing us just small piece of a person’s life (fictional or non-fictional) in an effort to show us how others live. There are films that have incredible and dynamic editing. There are films that make use of astounding images in an effort to tell their stories. Other films might be watched simply because their costuming and make-up are able to transport us into another world.

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Still from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi

Let’s break down some of the terms and parts of a film. In order to better understand film and be able to relate to it better, it’s important that we have a solid understanding of the different parts of the film. All of these parts of the film have volumes and volumes written about their usage in film, good examples, bad examples, and countless vocabulary terms – but for the purposes of starting to watch film in greater depth, you really only need to be familiar with the general concepts of each. If you find yourself being drawn to one of these specific things, definitely dive deeper into some of the great artists in each category and the films that show these strengths off. In future articles we will do deep dives into each of these areas in order to explore and understand them better.

Photography and Cinematography –  

Photography and cinematography are two terms that define nearly the same thing. Photography is controlled by the Director of Photography, and any individual shot is referred to as the frame. Cinematography then is effect of multiple frames together in sequence over time. There isn’t a single movie in history that doesn’t feature cinematography in some way, and it is through the eyes of the cinematographer that we are brought into the worlds and stories of these films. Directors of Photography like Emmanuel Lubeski and Sven Nykvist have incredibly distinct visual styles that aid the main director in the telling of their film.

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Still from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light

Sound design –

The sound design of the film relates to anything that you’re able to hear. Be that the soundtrack, the actual mixing of the sound – ever hear bullets that seem to ‘whiz’ by your head in the theater? That’s sound mixing – the spoken dialogue – all of it comes down the sound design of each film. Sound can be incredibly important in the telling of stories, for example, in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express we are introduced to one of the major characters in the story through her love for The Mamas & The Papa’s California Dreamin’. Her character is fleshed out through the use of the song whenever she’s interacting with her opposite romantic lead, and this motif is repeated so often that in the many times that we hear the song through the film we’re immediately taken back to their interactions. It is the power of dynamic usage of sound that pulls us into their world.

Editing –

The editing of a film is a very complicated thing. Editing defines everything you’ve ever watched, and yet it’s almost always the most invisible part of the film process. Editing is simply the way in watch each successive shot is brought together with the one before it. Editing can be quick and snappy in the case of action films, or slow and drawn out for more somber films or dramas. It’s very difficult to convey just how much small changes to the editing of a film can change the entire nature of a film, as the simple act of holding a shot for only a few seconds longer can cause the entire ‘feel’ of a scene to completely change. The best video I’ve ever seen that perfectly captures how editing can change a scene is How Does an Editor Think and Feel by the youtube channel ‘Every Frame a Painting’. I’d highly recommend watching this as an introduction to editing – the video is linked below.

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Still from Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession

Tone –

Tone is another very ambiguous term, but once you’re in the weeds of film you’ll start to be able to differentiate between ‘how’ a movie feels. Tone ends up being the result of all of the other factors of a film and everything contributes to it. When thinking about tone, I always end up thinking about the films of Roman Polanski. He has such a mastery over how he wants his movies to be perceived by his audiences — Chinatown feels hazy and filled with smoke like the detective story that it tells, Rosemary’s Baby feels as claustrophobic and closed in as the world around our protagonist, and Repulsion feels as unhinged and raw as a torn up apartment. Tone is what really allows all of the other elements to sink into us and it is often the last lingering impressions of a film that we’re left with.

Screenplay –

The screenplay is in reference to the actual script that guides the story along. Screenplays define the entirety of actions in a given film as it contains the written dialogue, any narration that will be happening, as well as any directing notes for what the characters on screen are to be doing as well as how they are to act. It can be difficult to see exactly how important a screenplay is until you’ve seen a film with a bad screenplay where it is clear that the dialogue is stilted or the actions of the characters seems to make little continuity sense. Someone who does incredible work with their screenplays is Charlie Kaufman. Kaufman’s screenplays are completely off the wall as he uses all of the elements of a screenplay in tandem to engross the viewer as he pieces out the worlds he is creating. To watch through a screenwriter’s filmography is to see exactly what sets that person’s work apart from the next person’s, as the works of Kaufman ‘feel’ very different from those of Sorkin, Mamet, Tarantino, etc.

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Still from Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – written for the screen by Charlie Kaufman

Acting –

Acting is likely the thing that the regular view is most familiar with as even those who don’t watch a lot of film have a favorite actor whose work they prefer to see. Acting is an incredibly deep medium with a huge range of different acting styles that all shine in different ways. From the incredibly immersed and method acting of someone like Daniel Day Lewis, to the expressionistic and over the top acting of Toshiro Mifune, actors have the power to take all of the other elements of a film and turn them into their chance to shine. The truly great acting performances have the ability to leave one breathless. Laura Dern in the David Lynch film Inland Empire puts on a tour de force performance of a lifetime as she twists and contorts herself into the madness of the world that Lynch has created. Shrieks of confusion, tears, numbness, heartbreak, paranoia, joy – it takes the work of a true artist to use every emotional tool they have to flesh out the characters they want us to see.

Mise en Scene –

Mise en scene is a fancy way to encapsulate all of the ‘things’ that are on screen at any given time and how they look. Costuming and makeup, lighting, setting, props, actors – basically anything that is on screen is included in it’s mise en scene. I can think of quite a few films that I’ve enjoyed for no other reason than it was invigorating to watch the things happening on the screen regardless of what was happening with the story. Take a film like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Even if you don’t really connect with what is going on with the film’s characters or with Coppola’s overarching themes of loneliness and connection in a foreign place, you can still enjoy the film simply on it’s visual merits. Delicate floral arrangements, neon lights, the sheer uniqueness of a city like Tokyo can make for it’s own wildly satisfying experience. And if you are clicking with what Sofia is looking to say? Then the film’s mise en scene is just the icing on top of an already brilliant statement on life. 

Theme and Semiotic Meaning –

This one can be tricky, especially if you’ve never looked for it before. Semiotic meaning is the study of the ‘signs’ of the film. To really boil it down, the semiotic meaning is the overarching ‘what’ that the film is about. Semiotic meaning does not concern itself with the plot or story of a film, but instead what central idea is that story looking to convey? Many of Yasujiro Ozu’s films are incredibly light when it comes to plot. Characters exist in their normal lives, maybe they want to watch television, maybe the central conflict is some small gossip between characters, or any of a number of ‘mundane’ things we deal with in our every day lives. What ends up being the case with these films though, is that they are ‘about’ much more than what is actually happening to the characters. That character who wants his parents to buy him a television? This is actually a representation of the differences between difference generations and the things that they value. These differences form the basis of the film’s sub-textual meaning. For many hardcore film viewers, it is these sorts of interpretations that are most exciting to discover and explore. For people not as familiar with film and artistic interpretation, this can be intimidating and frustrate as people don’t want to feel as if they’ve ‘missed’ something. Far not though, as these discussions are more about the journey of the conversation rather than the destination. The are no right or wrong answers here, merely those that are well thought out and those that are not. If you’re capable of being thoughtful and reflecting on what you see, then you’re capable of analyzing the meaning of a film and arriving at it’s most satisfying conclusions. 

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Still from  Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds

It is definitely possible to latch onto any of the above as the focal point in your watching of a film. I’m not going to tell you that it’s necessarily easy, as watching a film solely to focus on it’s editing technique requires a lot of practice and patience, but it’s definitely possible. What will more realistically happen is that as you begin to see the above concepts played out on the screen, films will begin to feel more alive in ways that they never had before. Where once you saw a film where ‘nothing happens’, maybe now you’ll start to see that the things that are happening are within the characters. Maybe the big explosions and car chases stop being exciting, and instead you want to start seeing how a cinematographer framed a complicated scene or how a sound designer used music to really heighten a scene’s emotional impact.

This is only a very rough introduction to many of the above terms, and some people can spend their entire lives studying only one of these arts. With enough practice and some patience in viewership, it’s likely you’ll start to find which parts of the film are the most appealing to you. Hopefully an awareness and appreciation of some of these terms will illuminate film into something that you never thought possible.

What parts of film draw you in? What do you wish you knew more about when it comes to a specific film term?

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Featured image comes from Jacques Tati’s ‘Playtime’

Youtube link: How Does an Editor Think and Feel? – https://youtu.be/3Q3eITC01Fg

Intro to Cinephilia – part 1

One of the most common things you can expect to hear when listening to people on the internet talk about movies is questions from people who would like to get into more artistic or harder to digest movies as to *how* to get into those movies. The question makes sense – how does one go from watching standard Hollywood fare with it’s explosions, big names, and franchises, to watching films of a quieter and more introspective variety? It can be very easy for many ‘cinephiles’ to forget just how hard it was to get hooked in the first place.

The first place to start, is with the question ‘why?’ Why are you looking to watch different movies than what you are already enjoying? After all, there is nothing wrong with liking the big box office films. Many of them are extremely enjoyable, and there isn’t exactly a prize for liking more obscure films than what you’ll see in theaters. Taste, no matter what anyone might tell you otherwise, is a very subjective thing. What you like or don’t like, can never be ‘wrong’. With that though, maybe you’re wanting to watch new films to freshen up your experience? A lot of Hollywood tends to boil down to the same few ideas without much variance. Much like the super catchy pop music of the radio, this can start to get old once you can predict the beats and ideas in all of the music you listen to. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this, but there IS other stuff out there.

Maybe it’s a desire to see some different perspectives? Foreign films are an incredible way to begin to frame your mindset in a different way by developing empathy that can only be gained from experience with stories and ways of telling stories that are outside of your perspective. The world of film and film history is so vast that it’s possible to experience the human condition in any number of perspectives both now, and through the last hundred years. Interested in what it might have been like to be a prospector looking for gold and all of the challenges and hardship that followed? Films like Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’ or 2016’s ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ can help you begin to understand the emotions that surrounded a very specific time in the US. Ever felt like you weren’t important, and wanted to be someone else? Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-up’ might just be the film that helps you reconcile some emotions you didn’t know how to process any other way.

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Still From Kiarostami’s ‘Close-Up’

Maybe it’s because you’re interested in the ‘form’ of film more than the story. When I say form, I’m specifically referring to the elements that construct each individual film – the photography and shot selection, editing, music, directorial choices, casting, costuming, production design – all of these elements are things that you can watch movies specifically to see. Not that it’s a problem, but many American films tend to stick to a specific subset of choices in regards to these elements. It’s not that mainstream films always play these things ‘safe’, but merely that many of them can’t be too outlandish for fear of alienating potential moviegoers (and thus – profits!). Film in America is big business, so it makes sense that business decisions often lead the conversation around production decisions. This isn’t the case everywhere though – check out a film like ‘The Colour of Pomegranates’ from Armenia to catch a glimpse at just how different things like framing and usage of color can get from American films.

How then do we start to get into this ‘next level’ of film? To start, I’d recommend finding a list that resonates with you online. There are a few ‘go-to’ lists that many cinephiles tend to start with. None of these are perfect, but all should do a fairly decent job at exposing you to new films and ideas. Some of the lists I like people to start with are the Sight and Sound Top 250, Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’, and the r/Truefilm Top 1000 (links to all three are below). All of these lists have pluses and minuses, and all were compiled through very different methods. But I think for the person starting from scratch with a new film hobby, you’d likely do well with the Truefilm Top 1000. Unlike things like the IMDB top 250 (which is one of the most common ‘watch projects’ that people embark on), the TFT1K is going to give you a pretty good mix between popular artistically minded films (like Malick’s The Tree of Life), and things that are much more obscure (like Resnais’ ‘Last Year at Marienbad’) which should give you a much better mix of films.

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Still from Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

Where to start then on these lists? Well, wherever you want, really! This is obviously going to be a daunting first step – so if it were me, I’d recommend starting with movies that look interesting on the surface. Open up imdb, letterboxd, rotten tomatoes, or any other movie database, and start checking out what some of these movies are about. See an actor you like? Watch the movie. Already familiar with a director’s other work? That’s as good a place as any. That’s the thing, there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do any of this. With that said, I’d try to keep two things in mind as you choose and watch your films:

Challenge yourself. Try your best to challenge yourself with your film selections. Obviously don’t start watching horror films if you hate horror. However, is there something you’ve been avoiding because you’re worried you might not ‘get it’? Start there. Jump in the deep end. *At worst* you just don’t like something. At best you have a new favorite film. There’s nothing to lose by challenging your movie tastes!
Try to open your expectations. Much of what you know about movies is what you’ve picked up from regular movie watching as you’ve lived your life, and because of that, your expectations are set to enjoy movies that are more mainstream. Some of these movies are going to do things that are *way* outside of your expectations, and that’s ok! Learn to embrace these differences in how these movies are put together or what their subject matter is, and you should start to feel a little more comfortable with films that would have previously seemed unattainable to you.

Don’t forget, this is supposed to be a fun process. Some films aren’t going to be for you. Some films are going to click with you and never let go. It’s a ton of fun to find out which films are which, and to start discussing these films with other people both in person and online. Films are a gateway into so many different places, ideas, perspectives, arts – I’m jealous that you’re going to get to watch most of these films for the first time. You’re in for a treat. Trust me.

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Still from Kobayashi’s ‘Harakiri’

Next time I’ll be talking about *how* to start watching some of these films and how to dig in deeper with them. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out. I’d also love to hear about what you’ve found on your movie watching journey – please let me know what it is you’ve seen that resonated with you, and what absolutely didn’t.

Cheers!

 

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*Featured image – Still from Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’

Sight and Sound top 250 – https://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time

r/Truefilm top 1000 – https://letterboxd.com/momsaysitsok/list/r-truefilm-canon-1000-films/

Roger Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ – https://www.rogerebert.com/great-movies

Phantom Thread – Tangibility and ‘How’

The Phantom Thread is a film that might very well challenge your notions of what is ‘interesting’ in a film. Why do we watch what we do? Is it to watch the unfolding of a story, to see characters progress in an arc, to change and grow along with our expectations of what should move us? Is it to be enthralled with spectacle – the dizzying heights that Hollywood is capable of giving us is absolutely something that gets people to sit through films – soaring emotional moments or dramatic back stabbings? Is it that we may feel a sense of emotional catharsis as we suffer or mourn along with characters? There’s a good chance that any of these may be reasons that you would sit happily along with the characters in a film.

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What though, of a film that was more focused on the construction of the film itself? What if the film had less to say about ‘why’, and instead focused almost entirely on ‘how’? 2017’s ‘The Phantom Thread’ by Paul Thomas Anderson, is just one of many films in a long line of films that uses it’s form to accomplish it’s aims beyond that of just telling a simple story.

In the film we are introduced to a variety of characters who’s ambitions are never made terribly clear to us. Are they workaholics? Are they depressed? Are they full of malice, or passion? Yes. In much the same way that we aren’t terribly linear as people, why then should these characters live within an expectation of linearity? PTA’s answer is not to lead us along down a path with these characters, but to instead allow us to inhabit their spaces.

The magic then in this film comes from the construction of the film. Every shot is achingly beautiful in it’s framing. Characters are sensually lit against absolutely beautiful set pieces. Doors open and shut within the house in a way that we as the audience can tangibly feel. It is these spaces that I wish to occupy as a movie goer – I want to feel the creak of the floor-boards under my feet, I want to hear the snips of busy scissors as they look to achieve artistic perfection, I want to smell the foods being prepared in old kitchens and meant for hungry bellies. It is these physical sensations that PTA so masterfully heightens that makes the film so thrilling for me. Are our characters interesting? Immensely. But *how* does he get us to feel that interest? Through heightening our senses in the same way that these characters might feel attachment to the world around them.

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Reynolds is obsessed with his creations – his magnificently beautiful and expertly crafted dresses and gowns are known the world over. When we are confronted with the level of care and detail that he takes in accordance with every single piece of the process of their creation, it is the film showing us a small part of how he sees his own creations. We as the viewer are invited then into the sensuousness of this process by the film. We are not a third party examiner, we are there in the house. The snap of the rulers, the hurried footsteps to meet rushed deadlines, the quiet that surrounds the contemplative creative process – I think that in choosing to show us these ‘hows’ of this world with such care, we’re delivered with a rewarding experience that we get to sit in and absorb. So, no, not a lot ‘happens’ in this film and there are certainly character arcs and lessons learned and all of the standard things that we look for with most films – but to get past this point, to stop worrying about what is going on and instead looking at what is happening, that is where the true magic of this film lies.

Don’t be afraid to watch films for something other than their plot. Oftentimes there are many more treasures to be found in this way that you might miss otherwise.

Why Monks?

Maybe it has to do with how often we sit in silent rooms. Film watchers are ‘monk-like’ in that regard. That’s good enough for me.

 

I don’t know. Analogies aren’t that cool when you really break them down too much.

 

With that, I’m here to write about films. And art. And my life. I’d love for you to read along with me, and to have a conversation if you were so inclined.

 

I get excited about teaching. About showing people the things that resonate with me. About the things that I think are beautiful. I’d love to help people become engaged viewers. Not just mouths, eating and consuming.

Here’s to the journey. I hope I learn something. I hope you will, too.