Oh, the age-old question! Actually, not so age old, since cinema is only going to celebrate its 119th anniversary this year. It would have been plenty of time for somebody to come up with an answer to this question, if only there was a definitive one. But, no surprise here: there is no such thing; there are as many reasons to watch films as there are spectators. And, by extension, there are equally as many reasons to make films, but that’s going too far already.
Whenever I interact with people outside of my professional field (i.e. cinema), I get the wide-eye look whenever I reply to questions on what I studied and what I do for a living. Sometimes the look is caused by surprise, sometimes by excitement, and some times by pure ‘is that a real job/career choice’ scorn. And somehow, in the explanation of how I got here, I have to tackle the question: what’s the fuss about films? Why do I watch them? Why so many of them? Why do I watch them in a certain way? So I had to give it some thought and come up with an explanation for myself, to make myself understood or even, in some question, to justify myself.
Now, as I said before, I don’t think it’s possible to come by a unique, all-encompassing answer. But it is not much easier to come up with a finite list of them either; not in a practical, realistic way, anyway. But, while reading this collection of essays by Romanian film critic Alex. Leo Serban, I was prompted to a possible classification. Granted, it turns a blind eye to over-generalization, but it dully satisfies my penchant for putting people, feelings and things alike into a somewhat neat order. This is by no means a top- that is, I am not trying to suggest that certain reasons for watching films are better than others. But it’s a framework that helped me acknowledge better the reason(s) for which I watch films.
Pushing things to the limit, one could say that seeing films is a weakness- like any compensatory fiction. You watch a film precisely because you don’t see, in life, frame connections, editing or possible frames. Life, is, most of the time, a blur; the film is a scharf.
One of the most often used set of labels used for films is entertainment vs. art. There are so many things I see wrong with this reductionist view, I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll keep it short, and just say that it should be discarded for two main reasons: it assumes that entertaining films can’t be artistic, and, vice versa, that films with artistic qualities can’t possibly be entertaining.
Let’s just admit that there are people (myself included) using these labels not as mutually exclusive characteristics. And then we can proceed to identify a first possible reason to watch films: to dream. For many viewers, regardless of how specialized they might be, cinema fulfils and escapist need, a get-out-of-jail-free card, where jail stands for reality. You put your life on hold, and, for a certain amount of time, you can get immersed in another world, in another story, you let yourself be dragged into the whirlwind that is the life of the characters you are seeing on screen.
More often than not, what makes it so tempting is that for that period of time you just get the good bits- it was Hitchcock’s take on things: film is life with the boring bits left out. You quickly get tricked into rooting for the male lead, you’re right there when he meets his soul mate, you rejoice in their happy moments, then you quickly get to the hard bits that are going to put their relationship to the test; then, in a flash, they are all gone- they have learned the lesson and they are set for the happily ever after. Of course, this is only one possible example, probably the most simple and straightforward one I could find to illustrate my point.
Naturally, we tend to be more easily enthralled into a story that deliberately plays on imagination- one that gives us fantasy worlds, creatures and landscapes created purposefully for our enchantment by scriptwriters, directors, cinematographers and so on. But we can, just as easily, be absorbed with the same force by a film playing the realism card. They can be even more powerful- they are like those dreams from which you wake up and are quite convinced that you actually lived.
Watching films to dream is, in many ways, like reading a good novel, so it has to do mostly with story, but also with style. A fictional universe is interesting because of what happens in it, but also because of what it contains, in terms of ‘props’ for the action. A good dream is one that you don’t want to wake up from, but still, when you do, you will be grateful you have had it; it’s not an easy thing to fabricate.
(…) being a cinephile is a discursive practice. It doesn’t consist of…
“watching films by yourself, in the gloom, but of not talking for one hour and a half, of being compelled to listen, to watch, and, during the hour and a half that follows the screening, to make up for it by talking. And if you haven’t got anybody to talk to, you can write, it is still a form of talking. So it is always a matter of talking, of writing, with intermissions during which film is given the word.” (Serge Daney)
So, to recap, there are people watching films to dream, but there is a lot of skill invested by a whole bunch of people in order to put together a desirable dream. And here comes a second category of viewers- those who watch films to talk. They are into figuring out if and how a film can make people dream- to put it in an over-simplified form. They don’t just want to be enchanted by the story, they also want to be convinced by how it is told. The ‘talkers’ are more attentive viewers and they are a tougher crowd to please. They will praise good skills put to the use of creating the dream, but they will also treat with much scrutiny any rough edges. And, what is more, they will be vocal about it: they will talk to others, they will write for magazines, for blogs, they will talk about it on TV and so on, depending on how strong and coherent their voice is.
Those who watch the films to talk about them can see the talking as an extension of the watching (as suggested above by Daney); but there are also the ones for whom the talking is the primary duty. They will not necessarily talk because they watch, but, instead, keep watching so they can keep talking. It sounds like I am disapproving of that, but that is not necessarily the case. Because many of these people are a pleasure to listen to. They don’t keep talking just to hear themselves, but because they have an over-arching point to make, and every film they communicate about is another pawn in this game. And the game metaphor is not just a casual one- I do think that the best talkers are those who allow others to move, that is, to express their opinion. This way, they create a dialogue where you might not agree with everybody, still you can’t help but listen.
To talk about your dreams:
Because this is what films are: “dreams which are dreamt by several people at the same time” (Cocteau’s definition); and they function based on roughly the same laws, with the only difference that in one case you close your eyes, and in the others you open them.
I think, in reality, the odds of encountering a pure-dreamer are higher then those of coming by a pure-talker, when it comes to reasons for watching films. It’s almost as if dreaming is a pre-requisite for discourse. Otherwise, if all you really want to do is talk, there are plenty of other subjects. And then, if you talk about film, is not because you can’t do it about anything else, but because it’s what you care most for at that particular moment. Then, I dare to contradict Cocteau and say that if you’re neither just a dreamer, nor just a talker, what you do when you watch films is neither to close your eyes, nor to open them. It’s more like closing one, and keeping the other one open; on the one hand you’re suspending your disbelief, you’re getting drawn in the dream. At the same time, the other eye is taking it all in in a much more critical light. But, just like the three dimensional perspective is constructed by combining the image registered by each of the two eye balls, once the credits roll, with or without an external debate, the dreamer and the talker inside have their own.
I should like to think that I belong to this later category, because I discovered cinema as a dreamer and then I felt compelled to become a talker. But I did not replace one with the other. I am still looking forward to being enchanted every time the theatre gets dark, and I can’t wait to talk about it as soon as the lights are back on.