ONE OF THE paradoxes of writing about film is the application of one form of language to interpret another. The medium we’re discussing here is visual, and despite the relevance of the word “poetic” to the great works of cinema, to interact with the movies means, as writer-director John Sayles says, to “think in pictures.” In an age with multiple ways to consume films, and the pressure to respond with the immediacy of social media, to think deeply about movies is a countercultural act.
I noticed this again after being given a record player a few weeks ago. I’ve listened to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks more than pretty much any other album over the past 20 years and now on the vinyl recording I can actually hear instruments I’d never noticed before. I can’t deny the superiority of the medium, at least in terms of what we might call “musical richness.” But digital transmission makes the sound crisper and more available.
There’s a parallel paradox with cinema, in that the experience of watching films has both diminished and expanded over most of our lifetimes. There are more portals than ever (you can watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on your phone, for goodness’ sake). Yet the opportunity to see films in optimal settings (decent projection, focused audience, without 25 minutes of commercials for soda mingling with threats of prosecution directed at the people who have paid to see the film by the industrial complex that depends on them) doesn’t come often for most of us. Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.
So, as a modest proposal, I’m considering some contemporary cine-monastic disciplines for the renewal of the cinematic mind:
Hospitality: I’m trying to watch one non-English language film (or one from the U.K., Canada, or Australia/New Zealand) for every U.S. one.
Rootedness: I’m going to my local independently owned theater when I have the choice.
Peace: I’m trying to reduce the dominance of crime stories, massive special effects blockbusters, etc., in exchange for something off the beaten track.
Contemplation: I’m giving things time to unfold—sticking around until the credits are over.
Humility: And, I think most importantly, I’m trying to reorient my viewing standpoint. When a friend told me he thought 12 Years a Slave could have been better if “we” hadn’t been made to identify with the protagonist, as one privileged white male to another I felt the need to suggest that perhaps it depends on who “we” is. The movies don’t own me, but that doesn’t mean that I own them either.
Gareth Higgins is a northern Irish writer based in North Carolina. His book Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies is available from www.cinematicstates.com.
Image: Photo of an old movie projector, Fer Gregory / Shutterstock.com