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How to Watch a Movie: An Experiment

I’ve been thinking lately about how we watch movies. I’m not talking about physical media vs. streaming or choosing which movie to watch from a long list of choices, but rather how we watch and think about movies as a narrative. For two upcoming projects, I decided to try an experiment. So far, it’s paying off quite well. This is nothing new, and perhaps it’s a technique many of you have tried already. It requires a bit of time, but nothing extraordinary.


When I was taking writing classes several years ago, one of my teachers said that very early in every story or novel (and I suppose you could say the same for nonfiction), the writer makes a promise to the reader. That promise entails several aspects of storytelling, which includes informing the reader in certain ways that this is going to be a particular type of story. This certainly includes genre, but also involves much more. Writers typically don’t begin their stories and novels as one thing (a western, let’s say), then abruptly move to something entirely different (aliens and outer space). Yes, these things do happen, sometimes intentionally, and not always with a good result (Cowboys & Aliens, for one, at least for me). Yet sometimes it works.

But for most stories, if you establish a setting, a character or two, and a certain amount of conflict (or the potential for conflict), with some implied "rules" in place, you’ve actually made a promise or a contract (possibly a loose one) with the reader, or in our case, the viewer. Recently I’ve watched a couple of movies, then gone back to rewatch the opening 10, 15, or 20 minutes to see if such a promise or contract has indeed been established with the viewer and if that promised was delivered upon to the viewer's satisfaction. If something feels wrong about the movie as a whole, I suspect part of the problem is with the promise/contract that was established during the opening minutes.

Of course, this only goes so far. We like surprises, but they’re usually surprises that make sense within the context of the film. We feel cheated when we’re watching a movie that either contains a deus ex machina at the film’s conclusion, or makes no sense within the context of the film, or uses a cheap device (“It was all a dream…”).

So my plan for my next movie review (or two) is to use this technique and see what happens. I do this not only because I want to write about the films I watch, but also in order to better understand the film and how it’s structured. I believe that much of any work’s most important components are those revealed in the opening minutes. My theory is that the key to understanding and appreciating most good films is contained during those opening moments.

If anyone else uses this (or any other) technique, I’d love to hear from you. Stay tuned.

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