Cogito, ergo sum
I think, therefore I am
There’s watching a movie. Then there’s watching a movie.
The first is what we call passive viewing. It’s the standard normal thing people do. You watch and you like what you see or you don’t. You’re entertained or you’re not. It’s the gut level stuff.
The second is what we call active viewing. That’s when you put your thinking cap on and start working through what happened, why it happened, and what, if anything, it means. The easiest way to do that is by asking questions. Why does No Country For Old Men spend so much time focused on Tommy Lee Jones? Why did Gretchen not know who Donnie was at the end of Donnie Darko? Why did Deckard daydream about a unicorn in Blade Runner? Does the top keep spinning in Inception? Why does Barbie quote Fight Club?
If you like a movie, you’re more inclined to want to understand it on a deeper level. On the flip side, understanding a movie on a deeper level can often make you like it more. We encourage everyone who loves cinema to learn some of the basics of active viewing. Doing so won’t make you a snob. A fedora won’t suddenly appear on your head. It simply makes for a better experience. It’s the difference between driving somewhere you’ve never been based on vague directions your friend told you versus having Google Maps open on your phone.
Active Viewing Techniques
These are some of our favorite active viewing techniques we use at Film Colossus to understand and write about movies. Even learning just one of these can go a long way.
The character arc of an ancillary character can mirror or juxtapose the arc of a main character, thus creating more thematic depth. The janitor in Another Earth can’t forgive himself, and the main character is struggling to forgive herself. The janitor’s arc influences the main character’s arc.
Often an opening scene or shot will reflect a closing scene or shot, revealing a deeper relationship that ties to the themes and characters. In Spirited Away’s opening scene, we see Chihiro moving to a new town, driving away from her home and childhood friends. Pair this with the closing scene, when Chihiro drives away from the enchanted land where she matured. Positioning these moments at the beginning and end of the film reflects her coming-of-age arc.
Change in Charge
A reversal from how things are at the beginning of a narrative arc to the end. In The Waterboy, Adam Sandler begins as a momma’s boy with no friends and no future. Ends as a star football player, with a bunch of friends, is married, and embarking on a life of independence.
The circumstances that frame the text. The when, what, where, how, and why. When a movie starts, we don’t have much context about the characters or story (see text). By the time it’s over, we often know every important thing there is to know. The context builds up over the course of the runtime. A perfect example of this occurs in Past Lives. It opens with a POV shot of a woman and two men sitting together on the other side of a bar. We hear people wonder about that group and what the deal is. The audience is in the same spot because we have zero context for who these people are. But at the end of the movie, when we return to the bar, we know it’s Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung. We understand why they’re there, what brought them to this point, etc. They’re no longer strangers to us because we have so much context.
When some element, idea, facet of life that is familiar is made strange. Often done by distortion, exaggeration, genre. Inception defamiliarizes the grieving process. It owns all of the steps of the grieving process, but in an exaggerated form, which allows the simplest, real-life aspects of the concept to stand out.
Often the dialogue is reflective of the general plot or a character’s arc. But dialogue can also provide insight into the theme. Dialogue in Lost in Translation explores the disconnection and alienation the main characters feel. In Japan, our two main characters are literally incapable of communicating with people around them. The lack of dialogue in these cases highlights their general loneliness in life, but also juxtaposes their dialogue with one another, revealing a deep, burning desire to connect with another human being.
Sometimes movies continually build up until the very final moments, in terms of drama, plot, character development, etc. Take The World’s End. The movie never stops escalating: the fights get crazier, the plot gets more ridiculous, and, most importantly, Gary becomes more and more immature. He so desperately wants to remain a teenager that the movie builds to a moment where the Voice of the Universe literally presents Gary with the opportunity to become his younger self again. Es-ca-la-tion.
Identifying character arcs
Often we see a character grow but don’t think about what key moments lead to that growth. Identifying the beginning, middle, and end of an arc will help determine what conflicts were most important, creating a path to deeper themes and meanings. At the beginning of Up, Carl takes memorabilia that represents his dead wife into the sky with him. In the middle, we see him finally bonding with another person, Charles, which begins the process of letting her go. Finally, as the movie winds down, we see Carl throw his memories out of the window in order to keep the house light enough to take off, finally letting his wife go.
Shots where the mise-en-scene has especial significance. In There Will Be Blood, an oil derrick erupts and catches on fire. Then there’s a close up of Daniel Plainview’s face covered in oil. The image of the face covered in oil captures greed, while the flaming oil derrick sets a tone of evilness.
Imbue an object with meaning
We’re trained to associate certain objects with certain meanings. Money = greed. Or the villain wears black and the hero wears white. But narratives can imbue objects with new, vital meanings. In Mulholland Drive a blue key becomes associated with death, or hearing “tick-tock” in Peter Pan is associated with the stalking crocodile.
Keeping other films in mind
Awareness of techniques that worked for other films can help you explore a new film. “Oh, so if Inception defamiliarized the grieving process…could Gravity be doing the same thing?” “Light and dark in Lion King symbolizes life and death. Could light and dark in Blade Runner mean the same thing?”
Knowing the director
Might seem obvious, but knowing a director’s filmography can cue you in on repeating themes, ideas, etc. Paul Verhoeven usually uses satires to critique pop culture; Stanley Kubrick’s environments are often manufactured from his characters’ psyches; Edgar Wright’s movies involve men incapable of growing up.
Logical series of cause and effect
A leads to B leads to C leads to D leads to E leads F…etc. A narrative is a logic system, where action causes reaction. Outlining cause-and-effect can clear confusion and reveal character motivation, which reveals theme. In Fight Club, Norton’s consumerist life leads to insomnia leads to support groups leads to Marla leads to Pitt leads to bomb leads to Fight Club leads to anti-consumerism…etc.
A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end, where there is a conflict and a goal. Each of those three sections–beginning, middle, and end–should have a beginning, middle and an end with a conflict and a goal. And so on and so forth. Each scene should have a micro-narrative. Micro-narratives are to a movie what an inning is to a baseball game.
Everything in a given frame: the arrangement of actors, scenery, and props. In The Shining, mirrors are framed behind the caretaker, so it is as though Jack is looking into the mirror when he looks into the caretaker’s eyes. Jack’s positioning in relation to the caretaker’s ghost reveals his character arc.
An object in the mise-en-scene that gains symbolic significance through repetition. Lion King uses Light and Dark. Citizen Kane repeats shots of Charles Foster Kane isolated from other people.
As the dictionary would say: “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” Recognizing satire can help you actively view a film. The wish fulfillment of the Recall system, the world’s most bankable action star, and an underground world ludicrously and obviously littered with product placements shows you Total Recall is a satire of blockbuster films.
The underlying implication of the text given the context. For example, a character might say, “Let’s go get lunch.” Seems perfectly normal. But what if we change the context in which that line takes place? What if the main character is setting up a surprise party for their spouse who just came home? Now the offer has a tinge of panic and comedy to it because we know they don’t want the surprise spoiled. Another example. What if the character just found out their spouse had been cheating? Now “Let’s go to lunch” seems too cool, too collected. While this applies on the scene level, subtext is a major part of understanding the overall thematic intent of a movie and is often unlocked by using other techniques listed here. For example, the end of No Country For Old Men has a poetic and mysterious speech from Tommy Lee Jones about a dream he had where his late father guides him into the darkness of a cold mountain pass. The text is the dialogue of the dream. The context is having this dream after the events of the movie. The subtext is something you put together by using these techniques: title, bracketing, change in charge.
Every single thing you see and hear in a given moment. In a novel or poem, text is the words on the page. For a song, it’s the music and lyrics. Text is the objective stuff that makes up a work of art. It’s the foundation that context and subtext rely on.
Side characters speak to set-up the main characters or advance the plot. But in deeper films, this dialogue usually ties into theme. In Inception, a random guy in the dream den says, “Their dream has become their reality, who are you to say otherwise.” That is definitely relevant to the end of the film.
Titles can cue you in on important in-roads before the movie even begins. The title No Country for Old Men immediately exposes the generation gap that divides the younger from the older characters. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly assigns three roles to three separate characters before we even meet them.