If you ever go to a movie with me, you’ll be confronted with the irritating (at least some folks find it irritating) practice I have of not talking about the movie immediately after it ends. At the absolute minimum I need ten minutes after the credits before I’m ready to respond, and the more I was impacted by the movie, the longer I’ll need. Give me a little time and I’ll never shut up about a movie I loved, but right off the bat: silentium.
I suppose this could seem pretentious, mostly because anyone who creates rules or boundaries around the way they enjoy things are labelled with the dreaded P-word. It’s ironic really, because every time you call someone pretentious you’re actually being pretentious, but that’s for another blog post. The common charge around this sort of thing would be that I’m taking myself too seriously. I don’t think I am. On the contrary, it’s actually just because I take movies (and books and movies and music and life and people) seriously. Then, perhaps folks will think I’m taking all of that too seriously. As far from high school as we may get, it’s often still uncool to actually give a shit. I for one feel no need to be sorry for how deeply I dive into the things I love. I don’t expect anyone else to join me, but I’m not going to stop either. And ‘serious’ isn’t really the right word for my approach anyway, which might imply a lack of joy or a sense of humor. It’s more about passion and depth of feeling. Okay, so now that is getting pretentious, but I happen to like the way I see and interact with the world, and if it is pretentious to articulate that, so be it.
I think we should think more about the text we encounter in the world, and I use the word text in this case to mean anything we can read in one form or another. Books, movies, songs, people, situations, the stories people tell us, the news, and on and on. We read and interpret all of these things, and we should take care to do so thoughtfully. Which is why I won’t respond immediately after a movie. Let me better explain.
The ancient mystics used to say that truly mystical experiences cannot be talked about, because the moment we try to describe them we make them mundane. I don’t believe that. Speaking of a thing doesn’t necessarily cheapen it. I think the discussion of beauty has the power to enhance or destroy, depending on how we go about it. However, while I won’t buy the mystics’ argument in its generalizing entirety, I still understand what they were getting at. They were onto something, and it is a central part of why I have my rule.
Film can make us feel so much, it can challenge and move us, inspire and shame us. I want to feel those things, and after a movie I often am feeling quite a bit. Yet, the moment I start talking about it and dissecting it I start to lose a part of that. To rush through the feeling of a thing in order to begin the process of identifying and cataloging and naming is to miss the experience of it. There will be a time for description and analysis, those are good things, but to dissect something you must kill it. We should let the moment live first.
To immediately start nailing down our conclusions and ideas without living in the emotion and non-verbal aspects of what we just experienced is sad because of what we are missing out on, but it is also unwise because whatever conclusions we arrive at immediately will be mostly bullshit. The primary question and answer we will be concerned with in that moment is, “Did you like it?” This is missing the vast majority of the point.
Anyone who knows me or has read my writing for a while knows I’m pretty down on critics and our critical culture, but it isn’t real critics and critical theorists that I have a problem with. It’s popular criticism, which is a different animal. As a consumerist culture, we moved away from actual criticism and into a realm of consumerist criticism, in which the whole point is to advise people on what they should and shouldn’t pay for. We’ve stripped away engagement with ideas, wrestling with metaphors, allowing stories and whatnot to seep into our hearts and souls, trying to understand the decisions and style and craft of a storyteller because of a deep love for a given medium. We have stripped so much of actual critical thought away. All that is left is “I liked it” and “I hated it.” No nuance, no subtlety, and certainly no room for growth or change on our part in response to art that challenges us. All that matters is, would you buy it? Pay for it again? Buy or pay for something similar? How many stars?!
I fucking hate that.
And what is the first question most people ask when they want to know about your opinion? “Did you like it?” It’s the most overrated, and sometimes downright toxic, question in all of film history… in all of art history. There are so many reasons it is bad as our primary category for engagement with movies and art, it’s a series of blog posts in itself. An entire book in its own right. In the context of this particular blog post, I’d like to leave you with just one of those numerous reasons: rushing through the moment and distilling our response down to “love it” or “hate it” can kill the process of change and growth that art can inspire.
Your response to a film is not a static thing, and it can be something that changes you. Often, great stories throw off your equilibrium and force you to wrestle your way back, hopefully to a slightly new equilibrium than what you started with. Our immediate response to a movie can be negative because it disrupted us so much, and rushing to a conclusion of “I hated it” because it wasn’t what we expected, or it bothered us in some way, robs us of something good. Alternately, an immediately positive response can turn out to be unsatisfying and empty in the long run, like the high-fructose corn syrup of art. That’s how you get diabetes!
Instead, we should allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling for a few precious minutes, and then ask better questions than we normally do. We can learn from “I hated it,” but only if we ask the next question. What did we hate? How much of our response has nothing to do with the movie at all? Why do we have the expectations we have? What is revealed in myself in my response to this text? The questions are literally endless, and they are questions I look forward to jumping into with the people who watch movies with me, but first, I’m going to need a minute.