How Ron Watches Movies

David’s recent post about How We Watch Movies got me thinking about this issue. I decided to post some of my thoughts on this topic. The first time I watch a movie, I simply go with the flow and try to experience whatever it is that the filmmaker presents to me on the screen. I find that if I enter into an analytical mode in which I am thinking about the movie while I watch it, I am not able to fully “experience” the movie. Once the movie is over, I reflect back on what I have seen. This includes thinking about what the “experience” I have had “means” to me in various larger contexts, and also thinking about technical issues about how the filmmaker went about creating the film in such a manner that it caused me to have these specific experiences. If I am sufficiently engaged by a really good movie, I like to go back and give it additional viewings, watching it now from the perspective of a more in depth analytical mode.


There are three levels of analysis that I find useful to employ when watching or thinking about a film in analytical mode: micro, at the level of individual images; macro at the level of the individual scenes; and holistic at the level of the entire film. I will discuss these three levels of analysis separately.



Micro-analysis at the level of images

This level of analysis fascinates me at a technical level. My professional background is as a scientist doing research on the topic of visual perception. Much of my professional thinking on the topic of perception of images was highly influenced by the perceptual psychologist James Gibson (a psychologist whose ideas almost no one, including many of his so-called disciples, understands correctly). I took a sabbatical leave from my professorial position back in 1991 during which time I did nothing except read and study Gibson’s original papers and think about his ideas. Gibson makes a distinction between “direct perception”, which he argues is how we perceive the world when operating in our natural (“ecological”) environments, and “indirect perception” which we employ in certain artificial environments such as when watching a movie. In direct perception, we see the world veridically, as it really is. For example, if we perceive a tree in the forest, that is because there really is a tree in the forest present that is causing the percept. Watching a movie is quite different. If we had truly had direct perception of movie, we would describe our perceptions something along these lines:


I see a flash of light reflecting from a screen. The flash lasts for only a fraction of a second. The light in the flash is not uniform in either brightness or color. Some regions of the screen are very bright, others are very dark, with various shades in between. Similarly the screen is not all one color, some regions are saturated red, others are pale green, etc. When that flash is over it is replaced for a very short period (a fraction of a second) by a blank screen. Then a new image is flashed briefly on the screen, etc, etc, etc.”


However, that description is not at all what we actually report seeing while watching a movie. The actual description of the person watching the movie will more likely be something along the lines, “I see a forest full of trees.” This perceptual experience created by the film is an illusion. (indirect perception). What is really out there in the world (reflections of light flashed on a screen) is different from what is perceived (a forest of trees, or whatever).


The explanation for how film images produce these illusory experiences comes from understanding the evolution of perception. Over evolutionary time, biological eyeballs were stimulated by light entering the eye and forming images on the back of the eye. That light entering the eye was not uniform, but varied across space and over time. As biological brains evolved over millions and millions of years, certain knowledge about the relationships between patterns of stimulation of the eye and properties of the external world got built into neural circuits. For example, whenever the light entering the eye has certain particular spatial-temporal properties, that means you are looking at a forest of trees. In the natural (ecological) environment in which evolution took place, that particular pattern of light stimulation entering the eye would never occur except when one was in a physical environment with a forest of trees present.


So the “trick” of film making is to flash images of light into the eye whose basic spatial and temporal properties are similar to those that would have entered the eye if the individual viewer had been in a physical environment that the film maker wants to cause the viewer to experience.


Spatial temporal patterns of light entering the eye over evolutionary time have come to be associated with emotions and feelings as well as with knowledge of physical objects (e.g., “This pattern of stimulation signals danger. Get your heart pumping fast so you can be ready to run for your life.” Or, “This pattern of stimulation means I may have an opportunity for sex. Get the hormones flowing so I am prepared to act when the time comes”, etc., etc). Great filmmakers know how to put together a series of images to be flashed momentarily on the screen to evoke the full range of human perceptions and associated emotions that we are biologically equipped to react to in actual physical environments, as well as unique perceptions and associated emotions that no actual physical environment could ever elicit.



Macro-analysis at the level of individual scenes

Lets jump up a level of analysis now and consider the individual scenes shown in a movie. (There are of course intermediate levels of analysis, that fall between images and scenes, but I am trying to simplify here to keep this posting from becoming a tome!) A primary question that interests me is how a filmmaker strings together individual scenes in such a way that the viewer experiences continuity. Think back to an epic film you watched some time in the past that depicts events that occur over many years. When you think back to try to remember what that film was about, you probably have a memory that appears to be a continuous narrative: the hero was a young boy; he grew to be a young man; he performed one or more heroic deeds; and then died tragically, etc. If you had actually seen all of that play out, you would have been sitting in the theater for years. So what did you actually see that caused your brain to form this memory of a continuous narrative?


It is often quite surprising to go back and watch the same movie that created this continuous narrative, but watching it now in “analytical mode” rather than in “experiential mode”. In many cases the scenes are not even laid out in chronological order (flashbacks, flash forwards, etc), and even in cases where they are, there are large gaps and discontinuities from scene to scene. This jumping around in time and space from scene to scene is usually relatively transparent while one is watching the movie in experiential mode, and only becomes apparent when one makes a point to specifically look for each change in scene.


The explanation for why throwing together a sequence of individual scenes can produce an experience (and subsequent memory) of a continuous narrative is related to how our minds construct memories. All of us carry around with us a “life narrative”: “I was a nice little boy who always loved my mother, then I grew up into a nice adult, later I got married and had nice children of my own, etc.” The individual events that went into producing this narrative were not consistent like this at all. They were all over the place, and someone else seeing the same individual events playing out might have formed a completely different narrative: “That little brat was always in trouble, and now his children take after him, etc.” It is obvious that our memories are not verbatim recollections of all of the actual events that we experienced during life! Instead, they are a VERY SELECTIVE memory of a few specific events that tie in with a psychologically consistent life narrative we have constructed to give meaning to our lives.


A good director knows how to exploit these facts about the way narrative memories are constructed. The director has a narrative in mind, and simply strings together a small number of scenes that are consistent with this narrative. Since our minds are working all the time (subconsciously) to try to construct consistent narratives based on what we have experienced, when a string of scenes consistent with a particular narrative are viewed, that narrative is constructed effortlessly. It does not particularly matter that there are gaps (in space and time) between the scenes, or even if the scenes are shown out of order (within limits of course). The mind as it operates in the real world has a difficult task. It must pick and choose those individual events that are consistent with the narrative being constructed and ignore everything else. A good director simply makes it easy for this psychological process to work. By having all/most of the scenes in a film consistent with a particular narrative, the psychological process does not have to do all of the work usually required to discard all events/scenes inconsistent with the narrative being constructed.


Poor directors do not understand how this psychological process of narrative construction works. Nothing is more boring than a film made by a director who tries to fill in all of the gaps with details, going on and on and on, when a few select scenes in the hands of a good director would have sufficed. If we humans want to sift through (hours, days, months, years, or even decades) of boring, mostly meaningless, scenes/events to select just a few special ones to construct a meaningful narrative, we can simply go live our lives. We go to a movie to have the opportunity to experience a meaningful narrative that is constructed effortlessly and efficiently. Good filmmakers know how to use the language of film, stringing together sentences constructed from individual scenes, to produce these meaningful narratives.



Holistic Analysis at the Level of an Entire Film

When I think analytically about an entire film, I try to figure out what narratives the filmmaker was trying to convey to me. One major tool I use when doing this level of analysis is to consider why the particular scenes shown in the film were chosen, and why all of the (huge) number of other potential scenes that might have been shown were omitted. My experience has been that when watching a Hollywood blockbuster, this analysis is usually pretty straightforward, boring, and unworthy of expending any effort on. Blockbuster movies are made based on formulas that have been market-tested based on the audience that is being targeted (e.g. — include at least one car-chase scene, and at least one long chase scene on foot of the hero scaling stairs and obstacles while being pursued by the bad-guys, etc.) Similarly, movies made by mediocre directors/producers often do not warrant doing this kind of analysis. The scenes may have been thrown together haphazardly without much thought put into it. However, when watching a film by a master filmmaker, every scene is there for a purpose. Just as a master writer chooses every word that goes into every sentence with care, a master filmmaker chooses every scene that goes into constructing the film with care.


As I wrap this up, I want to turn my attention for just a few more sentences to the topic that initially launched this series of postings – What is the narrative theme of the film Babel? I realize that anyone who watches any film has the “right” to come to any interpretation or belief they care to adopt regarding the meaning of the film. It is ludicrous to argue with anyone that their individual interpretation is “wrong” — your personal interpretation belongs to you, and you are the supreme court when it comes to deciding what you believe.

However, there is a related question that is more objective, and open for argument and evidence. That question is: Are all of the scenes in the film consistent with your interpretation? I have proposed an interpretation of Babel based on the hypothesis that a primary narrative theme in the film has to do with evils of incest. I delineated in my original commentary on Babel some of the elements of individual scenes that are consistent with this interpretation. What I would ask of others who have different interpretations of the movie is to provide an alternative explanation of why the specific scenes I reference in my commentary were put into the film. Here are four possibilities that come to mind: 1) It was a Hollywood blockbuster, and themes of incest “sell” to the target audience, whether or not they have anything to do with the narrative theme of the film. 2) It was a film made by mediocre filmmakers, and the scenes were chosen in a haphazard or random manner. It just happened by chance that there were so many (direct and indirect) references and allusions to incest depicted in the scenes included in the film. 3) I (Ron) have read the language of film composed by this group of filmmakers correctly, and thus my interpretation of the film is a valid one. 4) There is some other good explanation of why these particular scenes were chosen by the filmmakers for inclusion in this film. I invite anyone with arguments along those lines to spell those out.


6 thoughts on “How Ron Watches Movies

  1. Ron:

    Wow, and double wowser; the Professor steps forward and sounds off! I have spent 30 years working with vision, and thinking about it as a perception, a brain function –and yet somehow in my muddled mind I have never been able to connect many of the dots. Thank you for sharing. I love this stuff. It is so impressive that when I get around to composing my reviews and narratives into some kind of book, I would like to use this piece as the Forward.

    Because I have been raised in dark theaters and drive-ins, I have always seen the “real world” as my personal movie. The hundreds of thousands of cinematic moments are mixed deeply into my psyche, to the point sometimes where I have difficulty separating the selective memories that actually happened, or happened at some point at 36 frames per second. When I used to hike in the mountains alone I could hear a rousing film musical score and a chorus of angelic voices as I peered at the wonders in front of me. When I write or daydream, events, ideas, and images are born from a slumgullion of cinematic stew that is always cooking somewhere in my cortex. I was so caught up in this special set of perceptions, it only seemed logical to me that I would be in movies, that I would add my self to the artificial perceptions that could color other people’s lives. What a shock it was to discover that movie making is 90% technical, and only 10% creativity. However if the director does not have an ironclad “vision” of the patchwork of images he is going to create, reinforced with specific story boards, and carefully modulated by sharp editing skills, enhanced by the genius of a good film music score created by a modern classical composer, interpreted by a cinematographer that is more than a technician, with dialogue that crackles with wit and is drenched in symbolism, poetry, and clever wordsmithing –then the film becomes drek, just so much celluloid toilet paper; use it once and throw it away.

    So I watch a film first as an innocent child at the knee of his grandfather, listening intently to a yarn, a story, or narrative. Somehow I conjur up the naivete to just watch the film, and let it pour over me, and seep into me. Of course we are all more complex beings than we give ourselves credit for. Lurking right below the surface as I view the film is the writer, the critic, the actor, and the poet –and they are looking at each frame under a microscope, making note s on the technical aspects of camera, score, movement, editing, dialogue, and acting. When the final credits roll, all these diverse aspects of myself sit down together and compare notes.

    What is truly fascinating about our group, the TFC is that we are building a trust base, a film family of very diverse perceptions, and what one of us misses, the other sees; or thinks they see. As we discuss a movie, insights are formed, opinions are often changed, concepts become clear, and history is illuminated. Psychology, classical literature, classical music and modern music, dance, and art all come along into the mix, like spices. Ideas are shared, or are born, or are conceived; and we all feel satiated, full, and pumped with emotion. The fellowship runs deep into some kind of psychic aquafer, some hidden but treasured, no longer insulated room in us, that was opened for a time, and bathed in many colors of light and sound. Quite an experience actually. It keeps bringing me back for more. As my lovely wife often says,” I like it. I love it. I want some more of it.”


  2. Ron:
    Thinking about vision vs. film a bit more, I have come to some startling conclusions. Perception is a powerful and very personal thing. What is they say, the least competent part of a criminal case is the “eye witness”; that several people witness the same event and each of them process it differently, as to their predispositions and life experience. I have heard it called “The Rashamon Complex” medically; vastly differents sets of recall for the same “real” event.

    Well, I think we all watch a film in a similar way; and that we can only process what we “see” through our own veil of perceptions. It is one of the reasons that there can be such vascilating between movie goers as to the plot or merits of any film. It is one of the reasons the TFC is so fascinating to me; to compare all those different perceptions, and to watch the patterns of viewing for each individual. I have friends who swear,”Glenn, you like evey film.” Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. First of all I don’t attend films that probably I will not like, sappy comedies, ethnic “crime thrillers” done by Rappers, and Teen milksop or Religious dogma. But yes, often I will find something about a film that I did like, even in a “bad” movie. The exception seems to be DOGVILLE directed by Lars Von Trier. I still foam at the mouth when I think of the choices that he made deliberately just to fuck with the audience, and our perceptions. Yet I will watch his films because of the challenge to me and my senses.

    Then there are those movie goers that just do not want to be challenged, that only thing of movies as “entertainment”. I like many of those blockbusters too. I loved the remake of KING KONG, SUPERMAN RETURNS, and BATMAN BEGINS. I am looking forward to SPIDERMAN 3. I did not like ERAGON much, seeing it last weekend. It had a weak script and some muddled action scenes, shot too rapidly, that always infuriate me. Action in sword fights shot tight on the actors so you can not see or appreciate the fight choreography; the lazy director’s solution. Melva is often stressed by her job, and her life (especially her role as my spouse), and she favors light comedies and straight forward dramas that do not make her “think” or emote too much. So I will sit through THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA just for her.

    Returning for a moment to “vision” and how it works as a brain function, as a peception. After shards of light have been focused by the chrystalline lens, and it travels the length of the eye through the vitreous, it hits hot first on the fovea, on the macula; and then spreads out instantly to the peripherary. The retina, our film in the camera, is made up of dozens of layers. The first layer is called the retinal pigment epithilium, and right below it is the photoreceptors; the cones and the rods. Most of the cones are in the macula; roughly 10 degrees in the center of our 170+ degrees of total vision. Cones are designed to give us clear central acuity and color perception. But they thin out quickly, and in the peripherary, they give way to the rods, which were designed for night vision and object perception only. In the macula, in an area the size of the tip on the point of a pin, there are nearly 8 million cones; talk about lines of resolution. So these millions of light receiving cells capture their share of the light entering the eye; which is as you say reasonating at various vibrational frequencies. The photoreceptors fill up and create a pulsation of energy that is conducted up the optic nerve on its way along the visual pathway to the occipital lobe; or visual cortex at the back of the brain; and it is there that the “image” is created, interpreted, and/or discriminated. They theorize that the retina has the capacity of shaping those vibrational frequencies into some kind of code, or language, some special kind of data that the brain can receive. We, today, have not cracked that code. These pulsations of light are very fast, and extremely close together; like alternating current supercharged. How many times a second these pulsations are sent is also an unkown. But isn’t it interesting that the brain is processing light in a way not unlike the way a projector is putting together those 36 frames per second, and what we see has proportion and an identity. So this physiological parallel makes me even more fascinated by those pictures that move up there on the silver screen.


  3. Glenn,
    I enjoyed your comments. There is of course SO much more to say on all of these topics! Personally, I find that writing and understanding are iterative processes. I think about some topic for a while until I think I have some understanding of it. Then I sit down and write my thoughts on paper. Then I come back later and look at what I have written, and realize that there are many gaps, inconsistencies, flaws in logic, etc., in what I have written. So I think some more, arrive at a more complete understanding than I had originally, and write again, etc., etc. This can go on indefinitely. I think this blog site has the potential to aid that intellectual process considerably, by providing feedback and independent thinking about the same/similar topics. We have a rather unique group of individuals in the TFC and hopefully, over time, we can encourage more of our members to join us in these kinds of discussions.

  4. Ron:
    You old wordsmith. After looking up “iterative”, not being familiar with the word, and finding out that it means a process of repetition, I have to thank you for adding another fine word to my meager vocabulary. Then I would submit that writing for me is a form of passion, almost an ithyphallic process. Since I was 10 years old I have thoroughly enjoyed being secluded in a room, alone with my thoughts. As I write, as the words appear in long hand on the paper, it is the beginning of a very pleasurable experience.

    Before computers and word processing, I used to do all the blue penciling in long hand, up to the third draft. Then I would bang it out on a typewriter, making sure I had the correcto-tape or white out handy. Oh how I loved my first IBM selectric, with the ball, with the built in correction fluid and tape. When the words begin to appear on the naked paper, they begin to take on a life of their own; their shape and sound and imagery. It was always a thrill to see that first typed page of my laborious long hand. Like Ernest Hemingway, I like to feel “connected” personally to my writing, so I never liked doing the initil writing with a typewriter. Even today I always start out in long hand. The TFC has kept me so busy over this last couple of years, writing dozens of film narrative reviews, that I have about a four foot high stack of folders on a chair in my den. Some day I will through away the 40 year old paperwork in my ancient file cabinet, and begin to organize a complete drawer just for my writing. When of the reasons I love to write free verse poetry, is to watch how the words appear in it; the length of the lines, the curve of each letter, how words look next to each other, and one on top of the other. So I am so very grateful that not only has the Club given me an excuse for getting back to my eldest passion, but that I have somewhat of a built-in audience of readers who are “willing” to slog through my complex sentence structure, verse, dialogue, poetry, and research. I remember in college, I had written a novel, and existential Western I called BLACKTHORN. It had graphic sex, language, and violence, and it had free verse and soaring symbols. It had metaphysical overtones, and a touch of the Sci-Fi in it. My professor went ape shit, telling me that I broke every convention of the genre, that the Western Writers of America would have a hernia if any of them read it. “It is as if Kurt Vonnegut has written a Western,” he finally blurted out. I considered that a compliment.


  5. I think my love of film falls between the paraments set by Ron and Glen. As a child I was forbidded to read or watch anything my parents did not approve of. They had very strict standards, so I my childhood was very sheltered. The first PG movie I ever saw was Star Wars. During the bar scene when the alien gets his arm cut off, my mother leaned over to me and asked “Is this too scary? Maybe we should go.” I pleaded with her to let us stay and watch. As a child, film helped me to realize that my life could be different, that I didn’t have to live the sequestered life my parents did. Film was my escape from a lonely childhood.

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