Movies and Film: How to Watch a Flick as If It Were a Film

How to Watch a Flick as If It Were a Film

"But why?" you're probably wondering. "What's wrong with just sitting back and letting yourself have a good time without worrying about all that film stuff?"

Absolutely nothing. Sometimes (in fact, many times) an escape from your daily routine is exactly what you want out of a trip to the movies, and we don't want to discourage you from having a good time. But as Socrates put it, the unexamined life is not worth living. If you don't spend at least some time questioning the world around you (and our world is a media-saturated one in which movies are one of the central pastimes of a vast portion of the populace), your experiences of any art form—literature, painting, film—will be woefully impoverished.


We're not saying that you need to bring this with you every time you go to the movies. God forbid! Rather, what we hope you'll do is question the very notion of "entertainment" itself.

When you're being entertained, what exactly is happening? Why is one scene in a movie so enjoyable and the next not? What's happening in your brain when you laugh, and what's happening in the broader culture when an entire audience laughs? Why do certain movies succeed and certain others fail? Is it simply because some are "good" and some are "bad"?

We want you to have a good time at the movies, but we also want you to be just a little bit suspicious of your own enjoyment. Never take it for granted that the pleasure you're taking in any given movie is entirely innocent—it almost never is!


Now for an example. Take a picture like Alexander Payne's Election (1999), a very clever, independently directed film that featured Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in a black comedy/satire that won rave reviews. On the other hand, this movie is clearly part of a subgenre of well-done high school flicks from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) to Dazed and Confused (1993). It's fun to watch, no doubt about it.

But as Peter Biskind cleverly pointed out in The Nation not too long ago (in the April 3, 2000, issue on independent film—worth reading, by the way), if you think about this film in light of our last presidential election, its cultural resonance becomes loud and clear: Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick is Al Gore, who's been preparing for an election practically since infancy, Paul Metzler, the dumb but well-meaning jock, is George W. Bush, who bummed around drinking beer and giving wedgies to younger fraternity brothers before settling down and deciding politics are for him. Election even has a Ralph Nader figure in Tammy Metzler, who runs as an "anticandidate" opposed to the high school version of the two-party system.

While Election was made quite a while before the election itself, isn't it a lot more fun to watch the movie with this uncannily right-on-target interpretation in mind?

What we're encouraging you to do, then, is to view films as what literary critics call allegories, texts in which the surface meaning of the story will always refer to elements of the larger political, ethical, religious, or social context in which it appears. Most movies contain clear cultural messages, whether intended or unintended, that you can discover after just a little bit of reflection.

Filmophile's Lexicon

An allegory is a work that employs fictional figures or characters as symbols of wider cultural, political, moral, or religious values in order to express a particular viewpoint concerning contemporary society.

As a final example, think about Fatal Attraction (1987), a box-office smash that featured Glenn Close as a psychotic stalker who has an affair with Michael Douglas and makes his family life a living hell. Fatal Attraction was one of the defining and most successful thrillers of the 1980s, and few would dispute its value as well-done entertainment.

But if you think about this movie allegorically—that is, if you interpret this flick as a film and take its cultural effects seriously—a not-so-innocent picture emerges: released in the penultimate year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Fatal Attraction clearly embeds a direct, virulent, and by any measure misogynist attack on the single, sexually autonomous female. Glenn Close's adultery-inducing character is killed off at the end by Douglas's wife, a stay at home mom played by Anne Archer, in a gesture that eliminates the working, urban, sexual feminine threat and confirms the sanctity of the nuclear, bourgeois, suburban family.

Short Cuts

Fatal Attraction didn't originally contain that happy, Anne-Archer-blowing-away-
Glenn-Close-in-the-bathtub ending. If you check out the director's cut video you'll find the director's original, and much darker, vision of how this narrative of threatened bourgeois life was supposed to end!

If you think we're "reading too much" into Fatal Attraction, consider this: Virtually every element of the film serves this ultimate antifeminist goal. The mise-en-scne includes Close's apartment in the meat-packing district of Manhattan, where flames circle ominously around the hanging corpses of butchered animals; the soundtrack, in its brilliant use of scenes from the Italian opera, serves to construct Glenn Close as an icon of the sexually aggressive woman doomed to die; and it's no mistake that Anne Archer begins showing up five years later as the wife of Harrison Ford's Jack Ryan in a series of adaptations of Tom Clancy novels (Patriot Games, 1992; Clear and Present Danger, 1994), confirming her place in America's cultural memory as a symbol of wifely loyalty and family values.

Some Examples to Contrast

Before going on to the next section, take a night or three to compare and contrast some of the pairs of movies we've listed below. We've chosen pictures with similar themes, topics, or plots to illustrate the often striking differences between so-called "films" and so-called "flicks." We hope you'll view both pictures in each pair with the same critical eye to make this exercise worthwhile.

Short Cuts

Another convincing interpretation of Fatal Attraction that a number of scholars have made views the film as an AIDS allegory told from the right-wing point of view. If you're unfaithful, sleep around, and have sex in unsavory places with unsavory people, you may just die as a result.

  • Election (directed by Alexander Payne, 1999) versus Porky's (directed by Bob Clark, 1981)
  • Payne's witty look at power, desire, and the politics of education in America's high schools shows that the same themes treated in the inexplicably popular Porky's 18 years earlier can be examined with intelligence, compassion, and smart humor rather than adolescent crudeness.
  • The Hunger (directed by Tony Scott, 1983) versus John Carpenter's Vampires (1998)
  • Here we have to vampire flicks, the first featuring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon in a complex and multilayered psychological struggle; the other a schlocky, low-camp disaster that takes almost no risks in its glossy portrayal of the undead.
  • La Femme Nikita (directed by Luc Besson, 1990) versus Point of No Return (directed by John Badham, 1993).
  • The Bridget Fonda-starring American adaptation dumbs down the French original with not a hint of self-consciousness; Nikita featured Besson's brilliant directing coupled with an offbeat, nervous hilarity that Point simply couldn't manage to reproduce.
  • Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995) versus Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998).
  • Both of these were Bruce Willis science fictiony/futuristic vehicles. But where Armageddon settled for a typical hero-against-seemingly-unstoppable-forces-of-nature story-line that virtually defined predictable, the vision of apocalypse in Twelve Monkeys included a sophisticated approach to time and a psychological depth that Armageddon couldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.
  • Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) versus The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, 1993).
  • We loved The Fugitive (who didn't?), but we thought we'd put this weird pairing on the list so you can think about each film's treatment of "the law" as an institution. Which do you find more complex and/or convincing?
  • Boyz N the Hood (John Singleton, 1991) versus New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, 1991).
  • Though released in the same year, these two films couldn't contrast more drastically in their treatment of contemporary urban decay, poverty, and violence. While New jack City settles for a Miami Vice aesthetic of glamour transported to Manhattan, Singleton's Boyz works diligently and brilliantly to create a mode of realism suitable to the ravaged streets of South Central Los Angeles.

Remember: These are just our opinions about the movies described and contrasted above. And whatever you do, don't take our word for it! If you put down The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies, Flicks, and Film with one lesson in mind, let it be that you've just as qualified as we are to judge the artistry, technique, and political content of any film you watch!

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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