By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
We’ve been discussing how to experience art: how to look at paintings, sculpture, and architecture and how to read literature. This month we look at how to watch movies and television. “But don’t we already know how to watch TV? Just grab the remote and press the ‘On’ button.” That is the first problem.
Content Versus Method
For years Christians have complained about the content of television and rightly so. (By the way, peopled have been complaining about the content of art for centuries, long before TV programs and movies. All types of art can be both wonderful and dangerous.)
The issue of content is the easy one: monitor what you and your children watch. Choose not to watch movies or television that will cause you to stumble in some way. Be honest with yourself about this and think about your thoughts and feelings when you’re watching a movie or show. Choose what you will and won’t watch, and if you need help, get someone to help you keep your integrity regarding holiness in your viewing.
The more complicated issue concerns method. Do you remember when computers exploded onto the scene in the 80s and 90s, and eventually even people who didn’t care about them couldn’t ignore them? They became so pervasive that schools started scrambling to teach computer literacy. (Today many colleges are discontinuing computer literacy courses because grade schools teach it, and most students get it at home before they even get to school.) But no one ever talked about television literacy. You just turn it on. Right? Like I said, that’s the problem. Just because we can watch TV and movies without being taught how to, doesn’t mean we should. I try my best not to be a mindless couch potato when I watch TV and movies (I don’t always succeed), and I’ve taught my family to do the same. We can’t afford to be mindless in our viewing regardless of the content. So let’s talk about how to be mindful.
Technique, Technique, Technique!
One of the best ways to watch film or TV thoughtfully is to pay attention to film techniques. Here’s a quick list of things to look for.
Understand the plot: films tend to follow a three act structure with a problem established, a series of challenges where the hero is tested to see if he or she can do what it takes to overcome the problem, and a final confrontation. Many films make use of a MacGuffin, a single object or task around which the entire film revolves (for example, Indiana Jones searching for the lost Ark or the Holy Grail). As with literature, also pay attention to the characters. What are their problems? How do they grow? What must they overcome?
Pay attention to how cameras are set: their angles (a low camera angling up makes a person look larger than life; a high camera angling down makes a person look small and vulnerable), and their motions (such as track, dolly, zoom, pan, tilt, and crane—all can be used for various effects). Then pay attention to the construction of the frame. A good director is like a good painter. He will be concerned about every element within his “canvas” (that canvas being everything inside the frame of the camera lens). He’ll be concerned about what’s in the top, middle, and bottom thirds; the left, middle, and right thirds; the foreground (up close to the camera) and background; and even with what’s not in the camera frame (called the “off screen space”—think about how a film can frighten you by not showing what’s just outside the frame).
In addition, then, look at editing techniques (how images are joined together, placed one after the other, paced for action or drama), lighting (soft or hard, foreground or background, light and shadows combined for various effects), color (in costumes, sets, even makeup), set design, music, and the use of various film conventions (such as suspense music, match cuts, or parallel development—cutting among several story lines at once so we see how each one develops simultaneously).
Finally, read a book or two about film technique. There are plenty of good books out there that teach viewers how to watch movies.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.