Film studies has been an interest of Amara's since she obsessed over her favorite movies as a child, mostly the Disney Renaissance films.
Everyone's a Critic - But Not Everyone's a Good One
You've probably heard the saying "everyone's a critic." This means everyone has opinions. People like and dislike things. That's a basic feature of everyday life. Every business has ratings on Google Maps and Yelp. If you're not sure about whether a certain company is a legit business or a scam, you'll search the internet to get a feel for the company's reputation. People have opinions about everything, and these opinions are influential. They can make or break a business.
With entertainment, people seem especially opinionated. Fandom disputes can get quite heated and even cause emotional breakdowns. Some fans have gone as far as to dox, threaten, blackmail, harass, and even physically attack people whose opinions they disagree with. People react with intense hatred towards people they disagree with, and with intense love towards people they agree with. Battle lines get drawn based on speculation about fictional characters.
Given all this apparent madness and emotional chaos, it may seem like it's not possible to think of one person's opinion as better-informed than someone else's. There's no right or wrong with opinions, right? That's what we're taught in school. But opinions actually can be right or wrong, to a certain degree. Some opinions are based on facts, and other opinions are from people who got their facts wrong. If we all look at a blue circle and say it's blue, and then argue whether it's a good drawing or not. Buy we all agree on the basic fact that it is a two-dimensional drawing of a blue circle. But on the internet, a lot of arguments seem to be between people who see a blue circle, who see a red circle, and who see an orange five-pointed star.
You may wonder how we know that if we see a blue circle, it's a correct way to interpret or see the drawing in question. With movies and taste in movies, it's often believed that no matter what someone says about a movie is "just an opinion" and can't be more or less true than anyone else's opinion. But I think you can have opinions about movies that are more or less correct than others. Because you can show more or less understanding of film when voicing your opinion.
So, let's say you want to have a better opinion than everyone else. Also, you want to cultivate better taste in movies. Maybe you know what you don't like, but not why. Maybe you disagreed with someone, but then paused to think and realized you weren't able to articulate your reasoning.
But studying film can be a bit of a chore. There's a lot of information, a lot of names of important works, a lot of famous names, and you might not know where to start. So here's my basic plan for how to teach yourself enough film studies to feel like you have good taste and a good basis for forming opinions about film.
How It's Made - Understanding What Film Can and Cannot Do
To talk about any medium, you have to understand the limitations of the medium. To talk about a film critically, you first have to set realistic expectations about what it ought to be. Not just knowing what you can and can't film in a physical sense, I mean what's not practical to film, what won't make money, what won't get greenlit. Or just stories that you probably can't get good film adaptations from. There are many wonderful stories that might never be films, or that work much better in another format, such as a serialized comic book.
Time is a major limitation for film as a medium. Technically, you could have a film that runs for hundreds of hours straight, but then no one is going to watch it. Television series are longer and can have more content, so they're better for stories that are serialized in nature, such as the Sherlock Holmes stories. Television allows for multiple arcs, whereas most films have to tell one self-contained story, after which they might get two or three sequels if the initial film is successful. A movie is usually between one and three hours, but below 90 minutes might be considered too short, and you don't want to go too far past 2 hours. People will otherwise start getting bored and/or worrying about when to take a potty break. So time is very constrained, as films have a pretty small time window available in which they must tell a complete story. This can sometimes make plot points in film seem contrived or rushed compared to the progression of the plot in a TV show or book. For example, two characters might fall in love over the course of a musical montage, when in a book it could be built up more gradually, across multiple chapters.
The other major constraint of film, just like with many things in life, is money. You might be able to get Brad Pitt climbing the Eiffel Tower, but it won't be cheap. Independent film makers and smaller studios need to make use of cheap locations for filming, and big cities and major landmarks may be off limits. They may do more in fewer sets than a big budget film. Money also limits the CGI, makeup, costumes, and practical effects. It tells the film maker what actors can be hired, of what fame and experience level, and how many. A student can't film Steel Magnolias and get the same stars as the major film adaptation of the play starring Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, and Sally Fields. They could get good actors, perhaps recruiting fellow students who will do it to build their portfolios, but they couldn't afford the going prices for those actors.
Movies are also in general expensive to make. That means that being greenlit essentially means having a story concept that appeals to someone or some company with a lot of money. When you cultivate a greater understanding of film, you'll learn to focus on who exactly this money comes from. They will be able to make and veto crucial artistic decisions.
Finally, movies are largely a collaborative process. Sure, film students love to just wander around the city they live in with a cheap camera and monologue about the unfairness of life or whatever, but mainstream, successful movies require a ton of people putting in a ton of work.
How Much Film History Do You Actually Need to Study?
A film studies course will likely drill into your head a lot of history that, frankly, I don't think you need in order to competently speak about film as an art form. A lot of prestige is attributed to film from the origins of film through to the 1950s, and a lot of that is misplaced. It might be that black and white makes a film look more elevated, somehow more obviously connected to the past, and therefore more prestigious to people who associate the past with great film. That's a nostalgia fallacy - there were crappy movies in the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. We remember the good ones. That's called a nostalgia filter, and it is at work whenever people want to label a particular time period as a golden age. And that means movies that are racist even end up being hailed as classics, even though they don't gel with most people's values in the present. I don't think students of color should have to sit through Triumph of the Will, Gone With the Wind, and Birth of a Nation, even though all are commonly required in film studies curricula. I think that just alienates black students and other nonwhite students, which leads to a dearth of directors and film decision-makers of color, which is an ongoing problem in Hollywood today.
So what film history should you know? It's helpful to know the basic technical stuff about how film was developed (haha, puns) from still photography. You might want to learn about the history of still photography that preceded it as well. You don't need to know everything, just the major developments. When photography progressed to animation and video. When longer videos could be recorded. When sound and video came to be recorded together. When silent films were replaced by talking films. When black-and-white became color. Progressions in digital picture and sound. No, you don't have to watch goddamn Birth of a Nation. No one should have to.
Know Why Bad Movies Failed
Many people have said "failure is a great teacher". I think that Halle Berry's version of Catwoman can tell you a lot about film. Because it sucks. But when you explore reasons why people say that, you get closer to understanding what a good movie does right.
Why thinking about what makes bad movies bad? Bad movies intrigue and fascinate us. There are YouTube channels devoted to picking apart movies that suck, some better than others. It's great entertainment to make fun of them, and people click on those videos at a far higher rate than videos dissecting why famously good movies are good.Bad films are like a puzzle, a mystery. A problem our brain naturally wants to solve. Sometimes, we can almost be afraid to dissect good films, because we don't want to find through analysis that something we loved and treasured once isn't actually all that good.
People are also drawn to unpopular opinions — either that conventionally 'bad' films are good, or that conventionally 'good' films are bad.
For example, I think the Star Wars prequel trilogy is not as bad as everyone says, and I do enjoy The Phantom Menace on the occasional rewatch. Sure, it's not a flawless film, nor is it all that deep, but you could say that about any "good" film too. And I enjoyed Pocahontas, a film that often ends up near the bottom of every ranked list of Disney Renaissance era films. People call it boring, but when I was a kid, I did not find it boring at all. At any rate, defending my less popular opinions has made me a better film critic than any of the popular opinions I hold, which I never had to question or research in order to defend. So to sharpen your critical senses, I think it's a good exercise to either defend a film most people dislike, or to talk about the flaws in a popular movie that most people don't notice.
So either find a good film you think is bad, or dissect a bad film to try to figure out what it does poorly. What I like about the above Catwoman example is that there's clearly the kernel of a good story in there. It could be cool, for example, to have an independent, feminist career woman, and link mystical Egyptian cats to the some kind of magical tradition of cat women extending into modern times. It's cool to not do that and to just have her be a badass fighter and cat burglar, like in the original comics. The idea of an evil conspiracy to poison women with bad cosmetic surgery could have been a poignant social commentary on the beauty industry. But though the movie has all these ideas to work with, as well as Halle Berry's looks, they can't put it together and make a great final product. Picking the movie apart and thinking about why it didn't work was a great exercise for me in terms of learning to think critically about movies. It helped me develop my idea of what storytelling in a feature-length film ought to be like.
If you want to find some bad movies to study for this purpose, you should check out the website for The Razzies. Like an inverse of The Oscars, Razzies are awards given to the worst movies in various categories each year.
Know Your Genres and Tropes
Tropes are tools used in storytelling, and the Lego blocks that make up the story. Plot, characters, setting, and themes are all tropes. In film, there are tropes about certain character types, editing styles, visual shorthand, and more. On a website called TV Tropes, which is humorously and informally written (creating its own language of film that's less pretentious and easier for beginners than film school's), there's a great list of film tropes here. Good place to start learning about and exploring tropes.
Picking out a genre or category within film as a whole can also be a great way to learn what interests you. Film studies can feel challenging at times because there is so much information. Narrowing it down and focusing on a few categories can help you with that.
For example, I'm an expert on science fiction, fantasy, psychological horror, surreal, and animated films. But if you asked me a question about a noir film or a slasher movie, I'd probably shrug. You should focus what interests you and become familiar with that genre first. You won't be an expert in every category. Not enough hours in the day, and few people will be equally interested in every type of film that there is. Even within animation, since animation is a medium and not a genre, there is so much diversity. And I'm not an expert in all of it. I don't particularly like 3-D computer animation, for example, so I usually don't watch such movies unless they become exceptionally well-recommended by critics and audiences.
Is it good to push boundaries and explore new genres? Sure. Do you have to drive yourself crazy trying to watch everything? Of course not!
The most important things to do to learn to understand movies better, and win those online arguments, are:
- Know enough about how films are made to know where to set your expectations for a given movie, based on budget and other restrictions.
- Know enough film history to understand when certain technical and storytelling developments happened. But don't worry if you don't want to sit through a bunch of boring, or racist, old movies. Learning about them is fine, you don't have to actually watch all of them. You just have to know why they're important to film history.
- Know why bad movies fail. What makes a movie with a good premise suck at following through with that premise? How come some movies fail to connect emotionally and make the audience care about what's happening? Why are some characters boring? Why do some not seem like real people? Finding these things out and discussing them will be very illuminating.
- Understand genres and tropes. Pick out a genre or a few genres you like to become an expert in. Save yourself the trouble of studying things that don't interest you, or trying to watch every film marked as 'important' by critics and academics.
And then you can have fun knowing that your opinion is just plain better than everyone else's!
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Thanks for reading!
© 2020 Amara Gale