Feeling A Movie Rather Than Breaking It Down To Understand Intellectually

By Darren Ruecker

Recently I wrote about the joy of viewing a movie more than once to gain greater insight into both the movie itself as well as our own biases, tastes and optimal methods of viewership. It was an endorsement of patience and focus when it comes to evaluating a film that we either have been told by numerous sources is deserving of such attention or that we simply have a hunch possesses a certain quality, be it excellence or cultural significance or both, that necessitates further investigation. A movie like The Master has these factors, if not compelling on the merits of experiencing it, then at least in terms of the auteur behind it and the overwhelming opinion of the purportedly more informed class of viewers, i.e. professional critics, that it is a work worth appreciating.

But this isn’t the only way, or the best way, or even necessarily my preferred way of experiencing movies. There’s a tendency among “serious film people” to frame cinematic experience as primarily intellectual, an exercise in cerebrally understanding what a film is saying, how it’s saying it, and why what it’s saying matters (also characterized as “what it’s about”). And the joy in this type of experience for many people is the act of putting into words their interpretation of this message and an analysis of the execution of communicating such a message. That is, movies can be enjoyed insofar as we are able to write and talk about them intelligently with other people. It’s a very academic way of engaging with film. A grad school colleague once told me that he is essentially interested only in movies that he can write a lot about, the implication being that anything he watches that he can’t explain in (thousands of) words isn’t really worth his time or attention. I understand the appeal of this mode of cinematic viewership. It can be incredibly productive, enlightening, and really, really fun at times. I am a sucker for podcasts that break down the plot (especially the “stakes”), character motivations, and other elements of movies I’ve recently watched. I just think using this kind of criteria as the only avenue through which we can find enjoyment in film is far too limiting and results in missed opportunities for some truly special cinematic encounters. The most recent special encounter for me was Cloud Atlas, which I’ll get to in a bit.

These instances are terribly difficult to describe, which explains why they’re seldom written about at all, let alone written about well. One requires a certain skill of poetry I think to really get at the effects art can have on a viewer’s emotions. Describing that effect is one thing, and then trying to explain why the effect matters, and why the artist responsible for inducing that effect deserves credit, is another challenge altogether. I’m not going to try to nail everything down here, but I will share a few experiences of my own that will hopefully illustrate a vague picture of what I’m trying to describe. Let someone more skilled with language be the one to clearly defend the emotional importance of movies. Or maybe it’s impossible, and that’s the point.

I watch movies very differently than I once did. I’m not entirely sure how much of this was a conscious decision, but it did come while I was studying film in university, so chances are it was either the result of some kind of enlightenment or just utter exhaustion. The question of “how to watch” is one that has interested me greatly for the longest time, but it wasn’t until I was forced to take a class on experimental film that I was confronted by the range of purpose and affect that film carry out. Non-narratives films don’t allow the viewer to get fixated on what happens next in the story, because there is no story, at least not as story is commonly understood by mainstream feature films. You can’t analyze character arcs because they don’t exist. You have to shift the way you watch because the material you’re watching can’t be evaluated in the terms most of us would have always used to distinguish a good film from a bad one (whatever that even means), or even to make sense of what we’re watching. There’s not necessarily anything to “get” about Maya Deren’s studies of the movement of dancers—you just watch, and see. Put simply, it taught me that working to make sense of what’s before you isn’t always the key to understanding or appreciating it. In fact, for me at least, at times this pressure to process film or any art intellectually is completely debilitating, and a failure to be able to explain it to someone results in a failure to appreciate the work on its own terms. It’s tremendously freeing to remove this pressure and simply experience something and not know what to make of it and have that be okay. It could also just be laziness but let’s try to stay positive here.

This transition took a long time, but I’m fairly certain that I’m able to appreciate movies now that I would not have and did not appreciate previously. The simplest way of putting it is that finishing a movie and thinking “WTF did I just watch??” used to be a bad thing. Now, it’s at the very least intriguing, and sometimes it is genuinely exhilarating.

I watched Cloud Atlas last week, and was reminded of this WTF feeling, which I had not experienced for a while. The last time was when I watched Joseph Kahn’s Detention. The thing about these types of movies is that they are extremely divisive to the point of having only a few fervent defenders standing firm against a wave of derision. This was certainly the case with Detention, a film about…alright you see, that’s another thing about these WTF movies: trying to offer up a description just seems stupid. The film’s about a high school where just a bunch of crazy shit happens and it’s depicted in an insane way. There’s weird sex acts performed on taxidermied bears, Dane Cook acting like a dick, time travel of course, body switching, and so many more things that I’m surely forgetting or were simply missed because I closed my eyes for a split second. I was and remain completely baffled by the film and could never hope to write about it in any intelligent way, but my impression remains that it was one of the most compelling and fascinating movies of the year, not to mention groundbreaking, passionate, and flat out ballsy. I wish everyone would see it if for no other reason than to see the look on their faces immediately afterwards.

The one popular film that most dramatically altered the way I processed this WTF feeling was Moulin Rouge. Again, this is usually the part where a writer gives a brief description of the movie but I honestly don’t know what to say about this film. What I can say is that the incessant pop music soundtrack, seizure-inducing visuals, campy acting and absence of any coherent plot made me think it was the worst movie I had ever seen until about two thirds of the way through, at which point my mind did a complete 180 and I adored every remaining minute, as well as every minute of every subsequent viewing. If asked to detail precisely why I think it’s so brilliant, I can try to spit out an unsatisfying appeal to uniqueness of tone and appropriation of popular songs to both indict the industry of romance and celebrate the source of emotions that allow the industry to thrive—such explanations become easier the more times I watch it—but when it comes down to it, I really have no earthly idea what the film is supposed to be “about” or why I am so energized with every viewing. Or at least it’s something I can’t put into words. Something about it makes a kind of sense, though. I more than just dig it, I think it works in a tremendously innovative and emotionally satisfying way that probably has an intellectual component I just can’t put my finger on yet, and maybe never truly will.

That sets the scene for a movie like Cloud Atlas. I would hope that I’m not the only individual for whom this film rated very highly on the WTF scale. Judging by the reviews and opinion pieces I’ve read about it online, ‘WTF’ appears to be a near-consensus impression; they diverge, of course, in whether this is a good quality of one that ruined the entire experience for them, which is fair. The connections between the different plotlines were too obvious or completely unclear. The varying tones and genres between the segments were too uneven or a nice change of pace. For me, it all worked seamlessly and had me spellbound for the final half hour. I don’t know why. This is a movie that best exemplifies what I’m trying to communicate: I reached the conclusion with the feeling that I understood everything (I am one with the true-true!) but the moment I tried to put into words what I thought the whole thing meant, that feeling of understanding slipped away, like a forgotten dream. Does that mean the entire experience was shallow? If we can’t express the feelings a movie stirs within us in a coherent verbal fashion does that mean our visceral response to it was the pure manipulation of our emotions by some sneaky filmmakers?

Recalling and then justifying the feelings I get when watching a movie during the process of trying to write something thoughtful about it after the fact is one of the greatest challenges I face as a writer of such matters. It gets easier to intellectualize your impressions of a film with multiple viewings, and if nothing else, some BS interpretation starts to sound good in your head and you decide to just throw that in because you can’t simply share your feelings with everyone. That would be interesting to precisely no one. We do the best we can. Still, in a community of reception that values verbiage far above communicating through images, rhythm and tone (best exhibited by that criticism most boring: “the book was better”), I wish there was a way to express the beauty of non-verbal expression that movies can provide so uniquely without just ending up sounding totally lame. Perhaps this is why so many movies are made about the movies—the only way to adequately communicate the feeling movies give us is through film.

This is, of course, a position that promotes heeding the feelings produced from a movie’s first viewing, which I sort of argued should be treated with some skepticism in my last piece. I maintain that skepticism of these first impressions is healthy and good to be measured against reactions from other trusted sources. And really thinking about a movie to interpret it in an interesting way is great. At the same time, there are some movies that can be watched many times and remain impossible to decipher rationally but remain somehow satisfying. Or else there are cases, which would apply to my own state right now with Cloud Atlas, where one viewing leaves such an emotionally and spiritually satisfying sensation that you just kind of want to bask in it for a while before investing the three hours to see if it holds up again.

I like to try to be cognisant of the variety of responses a person can have to any film. I tend to find them all acceptable and interesting and cool. The most fascinating, for me, are these instances of pure intuitive affect, often the result of what Noel Carroll (or someone else who I read over the summer, I don’t remember) called “surrendering” to a film—when you stop thinking so much and just let the stuff work on you.  It took me quite a while to let myself watch this way but I now appreciate a much greater scope of film expression as a result. At the very least, it provides me with justification for writing vague, gushy pieces about stuff I’ve watched.


I am an aspiring film writer in Ottawa and a former student of the York University Cinema Studies graduate program. When I'm not watching movies I'm usually stressing about not watching enough movies.
  • Katharine C.

    Awesome stuff, Darren. I file this under “Why I Loved Tron: Legacy Despite Its Undeniable Terribleness.”