Films We Watch Versus Films We Study
Last year, when Sight & Sound shocked the film community by voting Vertigo (1958) the number one film of all time, it seemed as if we all had missed something. It was hard to believe that Vertigo could be the greatest film of all time, partly because we’ve all seen Vertigo and don’t remember it being that good (let’s be honest), and partly because we’ve all been so used to telling our less informed friends and family members that Citizen Kane (1941) is the greatest film of all time. We tell them to watch the film and notice the great deep focus cinematography (it was revolutionary after all!), the innovative narrative structure (how about those flashbacks!), and, of course, the star of the show, Orson Welles, who directed, co-wrote, and produced the film at the age of 25. So when our friends and family members report back to us and say that Citizen Kane is “no Shawshank,” we begin to wonder why we study cinema at all if no one will listen to us, and we ultimately question our existence on this planet.
Okay, maybe we don’t go that far, but the less than enthusiastic reactions to Citizen Kane by those in our lives who have never taken a film course do become discouraging. What is it that they are missing and that we are seeing? Why don’t they care as much as we do? Is it them or is it us?
Such questions are asked but rarely answered. Things became even more complicated, at least for me, when the latest Sight & Sound poll announced that Vertigo has toppled the classic Welles debut. My friends and family members would approach me and say, “See: Citizen Kane isn’t THAT great,” as if being the second greatest film of all time is somehow not an achievement. Then came the dreaded question that we all secretly love to be asked without necessarily being able to provide a suitable answer: “Do you agree?”
What they were asking me, ultimately, was whether or not Vertigo is the greatest film of all time. My opinion to them mattered, because I’m a film scholar and because (at least from their perspective) I’m supposed to know what I’m talking about. But their opinion of me as the so-called expert had already been waning. Remember, I’m the guy who told them to watch Citizen Kane, and I’m also the guy who told them to avoid The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Go figure that they would not “get” the former and “love” the latter.
In order to maintain my reputation as the film expert, I declined to offer my opinion. I told them to watch Vertigo and see for themselves whether or not it is the greatest film of all time. And so they did, and they reported back to me with a somewhat different reaction: “This is so much better than Citizen Kane.” I laughed and didn’t say anything. To be honest, I hadn’t seen the film in quite some time, so I re-watched it that night in an attempt to see if it was better than I had initially remembered it. It wasn’t. To me, Vertigo is good, but it’s no Kane. What had happened? Why did my friends and family members appreciate Vertigo more than me, and why did I think Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time? Perhaps we can begin to answer this question by distinguishing their approach to cinema from mine.
Cinephilia can be understood as the love of cinema. Cinema, in my opinion, can be understood as the medium of moving images. So a cinephile is someone who loves moving images, including but not limited to narrative feature films, documentaries, television series, etc. The word love can be substituted for passion, and others might even describe it as an obsession. Cinephiles, above all, are consumers of content. Cinephiles have seen that movie from 1945 just to say to themselves that it has been seen, and cinephiles talk or write about that movie from 1945 to prove to others that it has been seen. Cinephiles collect DVDs and movie cards, and in the digital age, cinephiles have begun to bookmark those cinema-based websites and listen to those cinema-based podcasts. Not every cinephile has studied cinema at a university, but most have probably taken a film class, and even those who haven’t can still engage in debates about auteur theory, genre, and the male gaze. Cinephiles know who David Bordwell, Laura Mulvey, Christian Metz, Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, and Roger Ebert are, and cinephiles have strong opinions about each of these writers. Cinephiles create lists like “the best movies of the year” or “the best film endings of all time.” Cinephiles vote on IMDB and engage in discussion on the message boards. Cinephiles still go to the cinema, although more of them are beginning to see the benefit of online streaming and VOD. When Cinephiles go to the cinema, they shut off their phones and don’t talk, and when they watch content at home, they do the best they can to replicate the theatrical experience.
My name is Jon, and I am a cinephile. I have been one for at least 10 of my 22 years on this planet. There was a time, maybe in high school, when I wanted to do nothing else with my life but watch a film. In all likeliness this is because there were still so many films to see, so many experiences to gain, and so many conversations to be included in. It was in high school that I discovered Godard, Bergman, Scorsese, Tarantino, and Allen. How could it not have been wonderful?
Then college came and I began to take film classes, study film theorists, and understand who was in the canon and who was not. It always shocked me, for instance, to learn that Altman and Godard are more respected within the academy than Allen and Fellini, and that every film course I’ve ever taken would show Breathless (1960) but not one would screen Annie Hall (1977) or 8 1/2 (1963). Now that I am a graduate student, the disconnect between films we study and films we watch has only become clearer to me. For instance, we study Renoir, Godard, Murnau, and Welles, whereas we watch Chaplin, Fellini, Wilder, and Allen. I still find it surprising to this day that the academy deems McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) a more important film than Network (1976). And maybe it is, but why do I enjoy Network more?
I suppose what I’m leading to is the focus of this article–cinephilia–and why it has in many ways ruined the way we approach movies. By we, I mean the collective cinephiles of the world who express a deep, passionate love of cinema, but I also refer to those who aren’t as in the know. An assumption of this article is that in order to be a cinephile, one has to have an understanding of the film cannon. One must, for example, know that Citizen Kane is considered the best film of all time, and one must also be in a position to explain why. Moreover, one must be able to describe why the films of, say, Michael Bay are not canonical. That is, a cinephile understands that certain films are significant and certain films are not, and a true, self-respecting cinephile has taken the time to see those films that the canon deems worthy and relevant.
The problem with the canon, however, is that it suggests that all films are created equal, which is to say that we should approach each film within the canon in a similar, serious way. What I want to argue in this article, however, is that we need to make distinctions within the canon between films that we study and films that we watch, and we should know when and how to approach each of them.
It is not easy to make such distinctions, I don’t think, unless one has taken a film course. Film Theory 101, for instance, will at least start us off by showing that Sunrise (1927), The Rules of the Game (1939), L’avventura (1960), and The Son (2002) are films within the canon that we should study, whereas City Lights (1931), Casablanca (1942), The Godfather (1972), and Pulp Fiction (1994) are films within the cannon that we should watch. Obviously there are exceptions since every professor, film school, and film course is different, but most of them are more inclined to screen the former films for their students to study than they are to screen the latter. At the start of many films classes, for example, the professor will tell me to watch The Godfather on my own time because “more can be gained by studying Tokyo Story.”
So what, then, is the difference between a film we study and a film we watch? What I want to propose–understanding that this is just an idea and not a definitive claim–is that films we study are films that can only be appreciated from the perspective of a film theorist or film historian, which is to say that they can only be admired from an intellectual perspective, whereas films we watch are important films that can be enjoyed without necessarily having an awareness of film theory or film history. Sometimes a film can be both, as The Godfather is a completely watchable film that can (and maybe should) be studied, but the difference is that anyone can enjoy The Godfather while only the film theorist or historian can get something out of Godard’s Breathless.
This is why Citizen Kane is only the greatest film of all time if we stress that it is a film that should be studied. It is certainly watchable on its own without an understanding of film theory or film history, but most non-cinephiles who watch it are not as impressed as those who can appreciate the importance of deep focus cinematography. So when people say that Kane is no Shawshank, what they mean is that The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is a film that can be enjoyed and appreciated without any film studies background. The Shawshank Redemption is in the canon like Kane, but ultimately Shawshank is a film we watch and Kane is a film we study. Vertigo, I think, is also a film that can be watched without a film studies background, which is why I am shocked to find that it was voted number one by Sight & Sound, but maybe not so shocked to discover that my friends and family members prefer it to Kane.
I think it is important to make this distinction because it allows us to understand that canonical films can be approached from different perspectives, and a particular film might demand one perspective over another in order to be fully appreciated. We all agree that everyone should watch Godard’s Breathless, but I’m willing to admit to my friends and family that they might find it boring or pointless if they don’t have an understanding of what the French New Wave is and why it is important. Another way to explain this might be to say that Breathless is the kind of film that is more enjoyable to read about and talk about than it is to actually watch. Contrast Breathless to Goodfellas (1990), a canonical film by Martin Scorsese, and we can the difference. One does not need to know who Martin Scorsese is, the term postmodernism, or even the technical brilliance of the Copacabana steadicam shot in order to be entertained by Goodfellas. A knowledge of this certainly helps and may enhance the experience, but it does not make or break Goodfellas like it does Breathless.
The problem with the IMDB top 250, the Sight & Sound list discussed above, and other lists like They Shoot Pictures Don’t They is that there isn’t a distinction between the films we should study and the films we should watch. All of the films on these lists are worth taking time to see, to be sure, and I hope that everyone realizes their significance, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves to be a cinephile. But the lists unrealistically assume that anyone can watch any of these films in any way and appreciate them, and this is simply not true.
Let’s not kid ourselves, cinephiles. We all know that our mothers and fathers (or whoever else we know that embodies the “ordinary” person that lacks the film knowledge we have) will not enjoy Battleship Potempkin (1925). Hell, we don’t even enjoy Battleship Potempkin. But I don’t think we’re supposed to. We’re supposed to study Battleship Potempkin. We’re supposed to appreciate the film on an intellectual level, with an awareness of Soviet Cinema and its impact on the medium. If someone has never read an article by Eisenstein or listened to a lecture about Marxist film theory, they are not going to get anything out of Battleship Potempkin. They’re going to be bored out of their mind, wondering why they aren’t watching The Shawshank Redemption.
Last week I made the mistake of watching Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) and Yojimbo (1961) on a lazy afternoon. Those films are rightfully in the canon, and I hadn’t seen them, and they were available to stream on Hulu Plus (the Criterion Collection is worth the subscription alone), so I decided to enhance my knowledge of cinema and watch them. This was the worst decision I could have made. I should have known better. It wasn’t until that evening when I realized that I was in the mood to watch a film but instead I selected two films that needed to be studied. I was bored and disinterested, and when it was all over, I felt as if I had wasted the day, and I even wondered what was wrong with me for not enjoying two significant films that are in the canon. In order to make up for what felt like a waste, I read about the films and gained an admiration for them within the evolution of film history. That is, I ended up studying the films because that was the only way I could appreciate them.
What I have since realized, of course, is that nothing is wrong with me for not enjoying those films, because I’m not supposed to enjoy them. I am supposed to think about them. And while thinking as an intellectual exercise can be enjoyable, and doing our homework can enrich our lives in ways that we never imagined, there comes a time when we must walk away from the encyclopedia and go outside and play. There is a reason why we have summer vacation as school children–we need to be able to distinguish between work and play at an early age, and we need to be able to approach work and play differently.
This distinction, I think, can apply to cinema. It is wonderful to take film courses and talk about movies and study the significance of Soviet Cinema or the French New Wave, but sometimes it is necessary to sit back, relax, and enjoy a film. The good thing is that there are many classic, canonical films that are indeed watchable without a film studies background (the work of Scorsese, Chaplin, Hitchcock all come to mind), but the difficulty is in finding these films and being able to separate them from the other films in the canon that can only be appreciated when they are studied. It takes a few disappointing afternoons of Cleo From 5 to 7 and Yojimbo to catch on, but eventually you get there.
I am not saying that there isn’t any value in thinking about and studying films. What I’m saying is that the value is different from, say, the enjoyment that comes with feeling films. All of the canonical films are worthy of our attention, but the films we study are the lobster and caviar whereas the films we watch are the cheeseburger and fries. And don’t get me wrong–I love lobster and caviar, but only on certain occasions, and mostly just to experience the unique taste. Sometimes I just want a cheeseburger and fries because it fills me up and makes me feel good about myself.
I appreciate Citizen Kane as much as any other cinephile, but sometimes I can’t help but think that it is no The Shawshank Redemption.
What do you think? Leave a comment.