How to watch a movie

Notes for a talk given by Jay Stone at Das Lokal restaurant in Ottawa on Aug. 16, 2015 on the topic of “How to watch a movie.” Alcohol was served.

By Jay Stone

People sometimes say to me, “Hey, Jay,” — or, more frequently these days, “Excuse me, Mr. Stone” — “how does a critic watch a movie? Please be brief and give examples.”


My usual reply is, “No thanks, I’ve already eaten,” which is my fallback answer when I’ve totally stopped listening — or, more frequently these days, didn’t quite catch what they were saying. However, it’s a worthy question and I do have an answers. It’s brief and there are examples.


I started thinking about this in earnest in 1994, when I was at the Toronto film festival interviewing the film director Alan Rudolph. He was in town promoting his movie Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, and we had an hour-long chat (film festival interviews used to be nice and long. They’ve now shrunk to 15 minutes, and one year I got six minutes with an actor. Six minutes.) Just as I was about to leave, they told me the reporter who was to follow me hadn’t shown up, so I could have a second hour with Alan Rudolph if I wanted.


So I put away my tape recorder and Alan Rudolph and I just talked about movies. He turned out to be a thoughtful man who had devoted a lot of that thought to what movies mean, or at least how they mean. He told me that in his view, the film-watching experience took place in a no-man’s-land somewhere between the viewer and the screen. He said the director is responsible for making the movie come off the screen a bit, and the moviegoer has to come out of himself a little bit, and that they meet there in the auditorium, suspended in mid-air, as it were, collaborating on creating a meaning.


In the years since, I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’ve come up with a theory of film-watching that is basically Alan Rudolph’s idea — or what I got of it, anyway — spiced up with a lot of my own prejudices.


I think there are three kinds of movies. They are:


  1. The Friday night blockbuster. This is the big-budget special-effects thingamajig that has many explosions and a lot of running around, and is usually directed by Michael Bay or by someone who wants to be Michael Bay. All it asks from the filmgoer is that he be present, preferably with a large bucket of popcorn that is eaten without his eyes ever leaving the screen. The movie itself does all the work: it comes right off the screen, bathing the audience in a tsunami of sensation. No thinking is required. People go because it’s been a long week and they want to turn off their brains and be immersed in something exciting. This also accounts for the way the world is, but who am I to argue with the box-office numbers?
  2. The artsy-fartsy thing. This is the small, personal and sometimes incomprehensible document of an artiste — frequently in a beret — trying to express the confusions, enigmas, and paradoxes of a post-ironic world, not forgetting an under-riding contempt for Hollywood convention. It’s open-ended and filled with the longueurs occasioned by many beautiful, often vacuous, faces staring with existential blankness at the statis that surrounds them. I always think of something like Last Year at Marienbad (two people who may have met before meet again, or perhaps are meeting for the first time), which caused a sensation in 1961. Its director, Alain Renais, assured everyone it didn’t mean anything, but nonetheless, people would gather to discuss its implications over coffee. People in berets sitting in cafes drinking café au laits, discussing Alain Renais: the love song of J. Arthur Auteur. Not that I think Last Year at Marienbad is piffle, but it demands a lot of audience work: it sits on the screen, and we are expected to get out there and decode the semiotics.
  3.  The good accessible movie that’s worth leaving your mind for. I’ve chosen the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film The Shining, which comes with so much cultural baggage that it’s worth a movie of its own. And indeed, it has one: Room 237, a 2012 documentary about various film-mad obsessives who have uncovered secret meanings in Kubrick’s madness.


The Shining, based on a Stephen King novel, is about a married couple (played by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) and their psychic young son, who become caretakers at an empty lodge, The Overlook Hotel, which may be haunted. The father eventually succumbs to a terminal case of writer’s block and decides to kill his family (the usual remedy, parenthetically, is to kill a bottle of Merlot, but I digress.)


Kubrick was a famously persnickety director, and there is very little in his movies that was not planned, or emphasized by the editing. Thus when the film detectives of Room 237 (a famous locale in the film) find evidence that the movie has secret messages about the Holocaust, or the genocide of the American Native, or a confession that Kubrick helped film the “faked” American moon landing, you can see them there. Indeed, the movie — with its themes of mirrors and twins and other double-meanings — can be read as a critique of America itself. The viewer not only abandons his presuppositions to enjoy this movie; he pretty well stacks them up and sets them on fire.


Also tucked into The Shining are some meaningful works of art, as I only recently discovered at the excellent National Gallery of Canada show (originally mounted at the Art Gallery of Ontario) about Alex Colville. Kubrick has hidden four Colville works into The Shining: you see them on the walls as people walk by, and you have to go back and freeze the frame to be sure. This is very much an exercise that takes place outside the theatre, although you can’t discount the subconscious effects of cinema.


indexThe paintings, for the record are Woman and Terrier, Horse and Train, Dog, Boy and St. John River and Moon and Cow, and they are sprinkled throughout the film at appropriate spots: Horse and Train, for instance (a horse running along railway tracks toward an oncoming locomotive) is seen just before the family decamps for the Overlook Hotel, and it stands as a metaphor for the collision course of . . . what? Madness and sanity? An old technology meeting a new one? Power and nature? Something and something else, in any event.


It was as if Kubrick had reached from beyond the grave, urging me to come out of myself and meet him halfway. We were collaborating 35 years after the film was made, because I began to look at the art in a new way.


As the gallery show makes it clear, Colville and Kubrick were related in many ways: their subject was often the ominous mystery that lies behind the ordinary. Kubrick made 2001, with its strange and haunting monolith; Colville painted works showing a naked woman in a dressing room holding a gun.


They were related in another way as well. They were both calling on us to be a part of the process of making meaning. The art gallery experience also takes place in that no-man’s-land between viewer and subject. Some artists, like, say, Norman Rockwell (whom I love) give you everything: the boy has run away from home, a policeman has rescued him and there they are having a sundae at the soda counter. It’s a mythic, idealized America viewers can consume (and enjoy). It’s pre-digested.


Other artists want us to do the work: Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, which once cause a minor scandal at the National Gallery, is three colourful strips on a canvas. It just sits there, asking — not to say daring — us to know what it “means.” People who hate modern art are often the same people who hate difficult films, partly because they mistrust an artist who is not explicit and partly, I suspect, out of mental laziness. Why should we have to do all that work?


The gallery show also finds a connection between Colville and Alice Munro (his painting Elm at Horton Landing is on the cover of her collection The Progress of Love). And she’s the same kind of artist, finding the enigmas of life in everyday situations and asking us to complete connections that she so magically alludes to her writing.


Kubrick also led me to the thought that something similar happens in that most common of modern forms, comedy. Both stand-up and improv comics use a technique called “reincorporation,” whereby the comic makes his joke and then brings it back later in the act. Audiences love it because it puts them into the know, takes them backstage into the workings of the act. It’s funny when Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, but it’s even funnier the second time, when we just see the snake and can create the mayhem to come. We’re ahead of the joke.


They say that the old radio and TV comic Jack Benny got his biggest laugh on a radio routine where he was walking down the street and a robber came up behind him and said, “Your money or your life.” Benny paused, and the longer he was silent, the bigger the laugh. Benny had set up the joke through years of building a persona of parsimony, so that now the audience could write the joke themselves: they were collaborating with Benny, imagining his discomfort as he pondered the alternatives.


I have a brother who once did stage comedy for a living, and several years ago we were talking about these matters. “Have you ever heard of reincorporation?,” he asked me. “No thanks,” I replied. “I already ate.”


Thank you very much.


1 Reply to "How to watch a movie"

  • Evan Potter August 20, 2015 (6:46 pm)

    I think that I will have to watch Once Upon a Time in Anatolia at least one more time before I decode its full meaning. A film review, for its part, can help audiences to find that additional meaning.

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