A note on how to watch films

A response to a young redditor asking about Woody Allen.

Someone asked on Reddit:

I have some sympathy with your viewpoint, but there is a reason he’s considered a strong filmmaker, and also a reason that you might reasonably not have liked any of what you’ve seen.

One thing is that many of his movies are very much of the place and time — they don’t age well. I saw Manhattan and Annie Hall not long after they came out and they seemed brilliant and witty and wry and moving. I saw them twenty five years later and I thought, “God, all these self-centered neurotic characters, ugh!” (though many of the jokes held up surprisingly well).

In particular, it’s become pretty clear by now over the decades that Mr. Allen’s relationships with the opposite sex have been consistently… let me say, not admirable. Some of this attitude taints his films. If you were female, that might be quite rightfully be the nail in the coffin.

More, his method is to come up with a very creative idea, make it into a movie as economically as possible, and then on to the next. I don’t think he cuts corners — his movies are entirely about people, and I don’t ever remember thinking he cheaped out on a scene or film — but that means that there are a lot of duds, just by the law of averages.

With all that said, many of his movies are utterly brilliant films. He’s a flawed human, but he’s a brilliant man, and sometimes he hits a bullseye — but which films are bullseyes depend much on the viewer.

For example, I’m not surprised you didn’t like Annie Hall, and I had trouble watching it when I saw it again five years ago, but that film in particular is perhaps the great depiction of over-educated neurosis. You will be shocked to learn that in some sense, a whole generation of neurotic but brilliant intellectuals and academics aspired to be characters in this film — but this might also explain some things to do you that were previously mysterious.

Recommendations are needed.

Many of Allen’s best films are when he imitates other filmmakers, strangely. I’m going to suggest a few films from that category.

Let’s start with two films where Allen channels Hitchcock.

I’m going to suggest that you start with Match Point (2005) because it’s exciting and devious and SPOILERS. I consider it one of the great thrillers.

Next, I’m going to suggest a somewhat similar film of his from the 1980’s. It’s Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989) and the framework of that film is literally what you don’t like — just two guys sitting in a room at a party and chatting — though it’s mostly told in flashback. But I think you’ll like it anyway.

As you noticed, many of Woody Allen’s films are mostly people talking, but he gets really good actors to do that talking, so their every word and gesture is significant — Martin Landau, who’s the lead in this film, is just awesome, I remember big chunks of that film clearly, I remember sitting in the movie theatre at the end of the film just open-mouthed at — no spoilers here! — the moral implications of the ending, and it’s been almost thirty years since I saw it.

And finally, just to show his range, I’m going to move back another decade to a quieter but much more aesthetically beautiful film, Interiors (1978).

If Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanours were “Allen does Hitchcock”, Interiors is “Allen does Bergman” — except that it’s about half the length of a Ingmar Bergman film, and in English, so it will be more approachable to you.

Now, I confess I was confused and somewhat bored when I first saw it, probably around your age, but my father explained it to me and it also has stayed with me for decades where hundreds or thousands of other films I’ve seen just passed right through. My guess is you have perhaps a 50% chance of liking it at all, but you know, a lot of films that seemingly bored me a long time ago have stayed in my memory where other ones that seemed more fun at the time were totally forgettable.

I’m going to pass on that explanation because it’s not a “spoilers” sort of film.

It’s about what happens to an affluent family of repressed, restrained “designer and interior decorator” types when the father decides he is leaving.

It seems like not much is happening in the first half of the movie, just people sitting in these beautifully-framed scenes in this perfect house having neurotic arguments — but what my father clued me into was that it is entirely told in the color and the framing, that the muted colors mirror the self-repression in the family, and the composition of each scene mirror the relationship between the characters in that scene. When Maureen Stapleton’s character erupts into the film in a garish red dress and a big voice, she seems crass and obnoxious and then…

I’d also say that you need to watch this film in a different sort of way to what you might be used to.

I just watched Annihilation on Netflix (completely recommended though it’s pretty scary), and that really kept me riveted to my seat, worried I’d miss a second of something happening. But sometimes you want a very different rhythm.

Perhaps the most amazing movie experience I ever had was a Louis Malle film called My Dinner With André (1981) which is entirely two men talking about theatre and art while eating dinner — no flashbacks, no nothing else except a few minutes in the subway with one character going to and from the meal.

I really didn’t go in primed to expect much, but I was thinking pretty hard by then about “why humans do these things they didn’t want to do over and over” and “what is this thing that goes on in the room when there’s a performance right there in front of you” and it fair kicked my young ass.

Interiors is much more conventionally exciting than “My Dinner With André” — actual exciting stuff does happen in the Interiors! — but you still have to be prepared to sit back and slowly take in these scenes in the way you’d take in a painting.

Watching an action movie or playing a fast video game gives you a “high frame rate” where you’re tuned to see and process events that are occurring on subsecond timescales. I love doing this myself, but I also like to cultivate the ability to turn my mental framerate way down. I love being a fast thinker, but I love being a slow thinker too, to have the chance to drink in a given scene in the movie and to observe all the details of that scene and how it works together to give an exact and specific effect. And that’s what Interiors is about.

So try to tune into that super-chill low framerate “Let’s drink in the scenery” mode and give Interiors a try.

As I said, I think there’s a good chance you won’t like it, but I think there’s an even better chance that you’ll thinking about it in the back of your head at odd moments for a long time — and also, trying to watch “hard” movies even if you fail to love them the first time just makes you a “better” movie watcher, and by “better” I mean, “Able to take pleasure in a wider range of films, and to come up with ideas about the world you never would have come up with on your own.”

I should add one more general thing on watching movies and art in general. I’ve seen thousands of performances, concerts, art openings, reading, you name it. I’ve seen some of the most amazing stuff you could imagine, but quite a lot of it was pretty boring, and there was a lot of stuff that I saw that seemed amazingly boring to me when I first got interested in this sort of thing.

What saves you from “boring” is learning to entertain yourself with the material you have been given.

One of the interesting things about the cinema, as well as live sit-down concerts, theatres and that sort of thing, is that once the program has begun, you’re basically trapped. Even if you don’t love what you’re seeing, you can’t really get up and leave without making a fuss — you can’t “channel surf” to something else.

So you’re stuck there in the dark with all these people around you, and that means that you, the watcher, are willing to do a lot more work to get entertainment out of the film (concert, play, etc) because you really have no other choice!

This makes you look for interesting detail that isn’t there on the surface, because you haven’t got anything else to do. And then that’s what makes great filmmakers great — that detail is there to find, and indeed, the entire point of the film is in those details, and how they work with the overall structure of the film to present a harmonious whole with structure and information at all levels. But if you don’t do the work to dig into it, you won’t see much there on the surface, and you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about.

Nowadays we’re mostly seeing most of our media in our homes, and we can pause films as often as we like, switch to something else, surf to a thousand different programs and movies, and so media items have to grab you and keep grabbing at you or in a few seconds they lose your attention.

When you’re looking at “art” films, you have to do the grabbing. Much more of the work is on you. But I believe it’s much more rewarding because you get a so much richer experience.

These three films or any “art” films just won’t work if you keep pausing them — they rely on a continuous, heightened attention level on the behalf of the audience to get their strongest effect.

I urge you to set aside the time, turn the lights down, and actually watch these films all the way through without pausing, as they were intended to be watched. It’s an entirely different experience, and the depth of attention you can achieve will blow your mind.

If an action film is like candy — and believe you me, I still love candy — then a good art film can be like a rich and complex meal presented by a great chef. Maybe a lot of it won’t taste very good to you the first time, particularly if you are not used to consuming that sort of thing, but over time you develop a broader and deeper palette that gives you a richer appreciation, not just of films, music, theatre, and the arts in general, but of your own life.