How to watch a movie

When I wrote my Bachelor’s Thesis, I chose to look at how gender roles were adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear, to Ran, the classic samurai film by Akira Kurosawa. At the time I had watched Ran once when I was a teen, and had recently rewatched it, and given that several genders had been switched from play to film, I figured there was “something there”. The play and the film were some of my absolute favourite pieces of media, so I figured it would be fun.

So, I watched the film again. I watched it and took notes. I watched it in chunks, I rewatched certain scenes again and again, and eventually I reached a point where I could basically replay the film in my mind – every plot point, every scene, and eventually every camera movement was basically put away somewhere in my brain where I could always place them in relation to each other. Not always perfect, but you get the idea. And then I noticed something.

Note: John Patterson of The Guardian calls Lady Kaede “Macchiavellian”. Either he didn’t pay attention, or he has never read any Macchiavelli.

In the original King Lear, the three daughters stand to inherit the King’s lands. In Ran, we have three sons instead (Kurosawa couldn’t conceive of a feudal japan where daughters could inherit). The ambitious Edward has been adapted into the vengeful Lady Kaede, and the other principal female character is Lady Sue, who has largely forsaken this world in favour of Buddhist asceticism.

What I noticed is that the gaze was quite deliberately placed to emphasize the characters in power. When Hidetora, the warlord, visits Lady Sue, his entrance quite literally wrenches the camera to focus on him. The female characters are static, the male characters are dynamic. This changes when Kaede achieves power, and while Lady Sue remains (willfully) powerless and do not dominate the audience’s view, Kaede starts wrenching the camera back. I couldn’t find any scholarly investigation of this, and I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t have noticed how this Gaze of Power profoundly affected the film, if it wasn’t for the hours and hours I used watching it. I have ever since wondered whether I was right or it was a coincidence, but for our present purposes that is kind of besides the point: The point is that constructively watching films makes you see patterns that were hidden to you before.

This, dear friends, is where my manifesto begins. I think we, as a culture of media-consumers, are watching movies (and consuming media in general) wrong. If you’ve ever been to a party filled with media-savvy academics, you’ve probably been bombarded with recommendations for movies you have to watch (or if they’re rude, things you should have watched). If you are at some sort of creative gathering, you might even feel left behind if you haven’t watched that or read this. I know I sure have.

Add to this the massive selection of films you can watch through streaming, and we arrive at the landscape we are in today, where media is consumed broadly, rather than deeply. After all, if selection is unlimited, why not try something new? If you keep watching the same stuff, you will be left behind. And in our days of streaming, a subscription to any service essentially means that you will never run out of new things to watch.

Lord of the Rings and Miss Congeniality (ohgodwhy) also apply

Compare this to the days of old. Back when I was a kid, I had a limited amount of VHS tapes at my disposal, and I was carefully considering which movie should be on each. When I first watched A New Hope, I taped it, and I re-watched it every single day for a week, which is when The Empire Strikes Back was on, and I watched that one every single day, and the cycle continued. When I got the original films on DVD, it started the cycle all over again, now that it was devoid of unnecessary CGI. It was a whole different approach to each individual film, and one I think shouldn’t be (totally) relinquished. Having seen a broad set of films is very valuable, but I think it is equally important to see films several times, each one deepening understanding. That is what this post is really about.

Why? I mean, really, why?

Because feeding your brain matters. And having a relaxed approach to media consumption also matters. Hell, it might even save you some money on monthly subscriptions.

I believe it is important to go as deep as you go broad into art. I think creativity is more than just putting together genres and tropes blocks and bits in novel ways, and studying how a film functions at a deeper level has been a lot more helpful to my writing, than the large amounts of films I’ve just watched once.

So here’s how I do it

The roadmap

While you don’t need to know exactly when you’ll watch a movie, it is helpful from the start to plan on watching the film three times. For me, it’s a question of peace of mind, so I usually plan on watching them like this:

First viewing: Intuitive watching

Second viewing: Technical watching

Third viewing: Cultural watching

Technical and cultural can easily be switched around, but I’d recommend always watching intuitively at first.

Now here’s an important point: This roadmap doesn’t presuppose that you have to watch every movie three times. Hell, sometimes I don’t even finish movies. The reason I place intuitive watching first, is that I find an intuitive approach to be the simplest way to evaluate if a film is worth watching more than once. Even good films are sometimes not worth a rewatch.

Intuitive watching

This is where I refer back to my piece on automatic drawing. Whenever I watch a movie for the first time, I do my utmost to watch it intuitively – pretty much like a child. I consciously block out all thoughts of technique (be it in narrative, cinematography, lighting or whatever) and culture (be it in narrative, historical context, place of origin or whatver), knowing that I’ll get to that in a second and third viewing. I also put away smartphone, sketchbook or other distractions, and focus wholly on the film

This can be pretty difficult, but I found that when I practiced this, to me, radically different way of first-time-watching:

  1. It allowed me to meet the film at its own premises – without the usual thoughts of genre, narrative structure, and so forth, but watching it like it wants to be watched.
  2. I more often like films for what they are.
  3. It allowed me to relax with the film a whole lot more.

One thing I’d note is the difference in Automatic viewing (not sure this thing exists, but it would be more akin to meditation), and intuitive viewing, where the latter does not mean blocking out all thought whatsoever, but instead means pushing the analysis of the film in front of you. When thoughts of cinematography, or the adaptation of historical material pop up, I quite literally think to myself: “not today”

Technical and Cultural viewing

These two are by purpose broad. By technical I mean any technical aspect of the film which you are interested in, and by cultural I mean any historical or cultural aspects you can connect it to. I think the most common technical viewing is that of narrative analysis, an entire field in itself, and also one of the easiest ways to discuss film with other people, because everyone knows something about narrative, by virtue of being human.

The most common cultural viewing is probably (going on gut feeling here) either focused on genre or relevance to the current situation. Many discussions can be had about what genre a film fits into, or how it subverts its particular genre assumptions.

And that I think is the key difference by the various kinds of viewing. I don’t know if other people think this way, but I automatically go into a kind of internal discussion mode when watching film, unless I actively try to shut it up.

This ends the useful, let’s-all-have-fun part of the post. Now, if you don’t like it when people preach about the problems of capitalism, this is where you should stop reading.

The problem of Capital in culture

So, I think late-stage capitalism has a lot of problems, which it cannot fix by itself, but have to be addressed with policy. As it is right now, even though I write from an ostensibly social-democratic country, culture is one of the primary ways US culture asserts itself across state institutions. As huge US-based media companies establish localized productions all over the world (has Netflix gotten to Africa yet?), we cannot simply ignore how a few giants maintain a stranglehold over creative industries.

The films we watch are fundamentally the goods that its holders (through rights and distribution) use to make money, and these goods have, like many other things, consolidated into the hands of diminishing numbers of tech companies. Disney, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO, etc., want you to consume on their terms, which means subscribing to their platforms. Their prime goods are exclusivity and actuality, and they are willing to manipulate you and the press to appear the most exclusive and actual.

First came Economic Capital, then Cultural Capital and now we have Ironic Capital.

Let me give you an example: When Netflix’ Squid Game was the new hot thing, it was all over the press. It even reached Deadline, a news program which I watch every day, talking about its TikTok aesthetics and criticism of capitalism and all that bull. The reason it was worthy of discussion, it was noted, was that it had the most-watched debut week of all time on Netflix.

Never once did I see anyone mention that Netflix pretty much decide themselves what is the most watched thing on their platform – their algorithms can just be tweaked to make sure that Squid Game, or Tiger King, or Who’s Not Fucking on an Island, is featured prominently, and their SoMe managers can help bump these numbers, and all of a sudden Some Show is the most watched thing ever (on Netflix). And you can bet that Netflix has publicists and media consultants ready to use these statistics, contacting the press across the globe.

They are competing against their competitors by pushing the idea that you need to follow their new shows, because it is socially and by proxy societally, relevant. The bonus is the continuous production of high-quality films and shows – make no mistake, I LOVE Squid Game (and have watched it twice, third coming up). But it also has a downside – in the battle for our attention, encouraging repeat viewings make less sense.

A good consumer is in this case not a good critic. The segment on Squid Game I saw on Deadline was awful. Despite being a good quarter of an hour, it did not reach anything beyond “Hey, this has TikTok aesthetics, which is the thing young people like” and “This show is critical of capitalism… but it is aired on Netflix… isn’t that absurd”.

This is not a call to make the way we watch media a form of protest – we need political action (and as a Dane I am sad to say it needs political action in America) to curb huge multi-national companies. It does not fall on individual responsibility to consume so good that capitalism fixes itself. It is more of a gentle reminder that actually, you don’t have to watch the new hot thing, and give each individual piece of media some more love.


That got a lot more intense than I planned. I hope to make some more creative-consumption oriented posts in the future, and now that I’ve got this out of my system, they’ll probably be a lot less ranty.

One thought on “How to watch a movie

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