Why I Watch Films

It all started in 1999, with a little film called The Phantom Menace. Yes, I saw the originals first, but on a tiny TV on VHS, inches away from the screen lying on the floor leaning forward. I loved them. They proved far more exciting, rich and fantastic than the Disney films I’d seen before. They stimulated my imagination and had me interested in that which lies beyond a mundane existence as a home-schooled kid stuck in a decomposing, rodent infested apartment.

By 1999 we were settled into a nice house with a pool, the little brother I always wanted was on the way (and he also turned out to be a big Star Wars Prequel fans) and The Phantom Menace came out. I loved it. Hey, I was only 10 years old. It was this film that drove me deeper into Star Wars, not because it was better, even then I had the good sense to know that Empire Strikes Back was the best Star Wars film ever and I would debate anyone and everyone on this point.

However, I watched the prequels more. The action was more exciting, the image quality was better and I saw them on the big screen and they amazed me. I bought books about the series, played video games about the series (mostly just Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast which I still contend is the most awesome Star Wars game ever made) and talked about Star Wars all the time.

I now have a little brother who does the exact same thing, making me realize that every parent of every kid that loved the prequel films deserves a gold medal for their services above and beyond the call of duty for not strangling their kid to death for pontificating on the merits of Jar Jar Binks as comedic relief. “That Jar Jar sure is funny.” “Yes, son, he sure is.” Confession: I taught my little sister who Jar Jar Binks was before she knew who Barney was. And this is why I believe than except for divine intervention my soul will forever be damned to hell for sins against, God, nature and Irvin Kershner (RIP).

I saw Attack of the Clones with my grandfather because I made the silly mistake of agreeing to accompany my little sister on a week visit to them 4 states away after only being awake after five minutes. It was with great horror that I realized the next day that it came out that week. There was no way I was missing that. It was with great nervousness that I had to experience what I’m sure my grandfather saw as inappropriate flirting and an overwhelming exposure of midriff by Natalie Portman (who I didn’t think was hot during puberty. Still don’t think she’s hot.) but all he mentioned was the hand decapitation.

I saw Revenge of the Sith the day before I had to go off on what was one of my least pleasant experiences in the Boy Scouts. Luckily, I got to gloat about the fact that I saw the film to all the other kids who didn’t get to see it because they weren’t homeschooled and didn’t have a kickass mom who decided to take a field trip to see Revenge of the Sith. This is why I always scoff at people who mock homeschoolers. Not only did I read more great literature in one year on junior high than most did in four years of high school I also got to see Revenge of the Sith in the middle of a school day!

I use to like Revenge of the Sith the most out of the three; I even liked it more than Return of the Jedi. I rewatched it on Christmas Day in 2005 when it came out on DVD and I realized that it wasn’t as good as I remembered. Then I realized that the prequels sucked. Then I realized that a lot of stuff I loved was terrible. This resulted in tons of terrible novels being sold, a good number of DVDs being traded in for gamecube games and a general skepticism towards things. I endeavored to never be fooled again. When I saw King Kong, I wrote my first film review, it was scathing because the film was, first of all, terrible, but also because I was looking for the flaws, the mistakes, the things that didn’t work. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I quit watching Star Wars films as a way to convince myself I was onto bigger and better things. Five years later and I still haven’t rewatched a single Star Wars film. It’s my strange way of shutting out the fact that I invested so much love into something so terrible. This will probably sound stupid, but the Plinkett reviews have helped me go back and sort through these films again, remember how I got caught up in them as a naive kid who had barely seen any movies and how now as an educated film major I can look back and laugh at how terrible these films are, maybe so I don’t cry at how stupid and shamelessly tasteless I was as a kid.

The Star Wars phenomena was the gateway drug, but it was my love of literature that got me back into the theater seats after seeing The Phantom Menace. As a kid, I was a voracious reader. I don’t remember not being able to read and most of my childhood I had a book within grabbing distance. My favorite book became The Lord of the Rings (still is). I read them around the time The Phantom Menace came out and there was something odd written on the back of these books “Soon to become a major motion picture.” No details, no movie stills, just the simple line.

I was curious. I read and reread the books and when The Fellowship of the Ring was released, I dragged my father to accompany me to the film. Being the awesome and epic film that it was, I loved it. However, it should be noted that this was the first and last film I ever watched while drinking anything. I drank my large root beer before they even got to Rivendell. And I refused to miss a single moment of the movie, something I still adhere to today.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, all of which I saw on opening day, made me wonder how films were made. Enter the totally epic Extended Edition DVDs, all of which I bought on release day. Here was some of the most extensive, in depth and detailed analysis of how a film was made. I watched everything, except the commentaries which I found were not serious and informative enough for my analytical mind.

And Peter Jackson was making another movie called King Kong. I didn’t care about the actual movie, but he was putting up weekly clips about making the movies and I watched a good portion of these on a rather poor internet connection. I fell in love with the idea of filmmaking before I actually fell in love with films. I found myself buying DVDs for the extra features and behind the scenes.  I even remember blindly buying 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because it had a hefty looking set of extra features.

King Kong came out and it was terrible. It was so bad I did something I had never done before: I wrote about a movie. A user review on a long forgotten account on Xanga had one belligerent 16 year old shaking his fist against the crime against humanity wrought by Peter Jackson’s terrible and shameless CGI induced spectacle.

And then, a college professor at a technical college ruined my life. Lynn Parks, a lanky figure in a tweed jacket and a striking resemblance to Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips, taught a dual credit class on literature. This wasn’t just any literature class, but film literature. The first day we came in and watched Casablanca. Every week we wrote a review of what we saw and reconvened to watch another film. The class ended and I kept writing reviews and kept posting them on my Xanga. Eventually I launched a poorly designed website that I ran for about a year. After a couple years away from movie writing, I jumped back into it as I entered the university, resulting in this site.

I’m not the smartest person around, but I achieved a level of academic performance in high-school that convinced me that I could go on to be just about anything I wanted. My first official college class ruined any possibility of me becoming a lawyer or something else that might be valuable to society like an engineer or an English teacher. Instead, this class hooked me on the most worthless pastime that everyone partakes in: watching movies.

After all, they’re just movies, right? That’s what I thought until I read an interview on a man known as Jeffrey Overstreet, who must also take credit for ruining my life by driving me deeper into wasting my life away watching movies. He had this crazy notion that films could be more than entertainment, that there was great and vast value to be had in watching movies, that films could be life changing. The notion of justifying my new pasttime excited me and I decided to test this idea.

I checked out Overstreet’s list of favorite films and two titles instantly jumped out at me: The New World and Three Colors: Blue, which, not coincidentally, turned out to be two of my most watched films ever. I also picked up his book, Through a Screen Darkly which chronicles his own life journey through films.

I saw The New World first and I still find it hard to put into words how the film affected me. It literally changed the way I looked at the world. Seriously. I physically notice different things in the environment that surrounds me because of the way Terrence Malick uses the camera to view the world. That’s what has intrigued me the most about films, the way films allow us to see the world in a completely different way or to see a world that can never exist.

It challenges us, makes us question why we do things the way we do and think the way we think. Film after film after film made me struggle with a deep philosophical question or caused me to rethink my stance on an issue. It has allowed me to understand that there are people out there who have vastly different experiences than my own that have shaped and defined them in unique ways and that condescension and judgment will never help these people. Turns out, condescending and judging people’s movie preferences can be just as bad.

I remember trash talking Fantastic Four over a dinner with another family only to discover that the host of the dinner loved the film. The bad part is that I hadn’t seen Fantastic Four and was unable to counter any of her points. It taught me a valuable lesson: to never judge a film before I see it. I then went home and promptly watched Three Colors: Blue which probably would have turned me into a pretentious film hipster if not for the humble pie I had eaten a few hours before.

Three Colors: Blue was the first foreign film I had seen, bold, daring and deeply interested in exploring something beyond the confines of the screen.  I’m still not sure if I’ve figured out what that something is. It’s a highly emotional film involving themes of grief and loss. It also taught me that real people surprise you, defy easy definition and are often filled with contradictory notions.

Watching Juliette Binoche play Julie, getting glimpse of her true self beneath the cold, bitter exterior reminded me to be slow to judge bitter people as I’m unable to see trauma beneath the surface, the ugliness of life has taken their toll. I’m still not good at this. I can’t abide bitter people, callous and cold people who can be ruthless one moment and then surprise you with inexplicable vulnerability the next moment. It’s a phenomenon that baffles me and one I’ve experienced time and time again with someone close in my life.

Obviously, not every movie is life changing, not every movie will challenge. That’s part of the reason why I watch all sorts of things and why this blog can be a bit scatterbrained. But the only way I’m going to find the challenging films if I challenge the film itself, shake it around and see what falls out. That’s why I do more than simply watch movies.

Writing is an integral part of the way I process movies. It makes me think about and reflect upon what a film has done. Most films, I’m simply hitting the highs and lows, the good and bad, making me think more about how I engage films. But when I hit on one that strikes something home, when I push and meet resistance, it’s time to dig. I’m sure this makes me look like a madman at times, especially when I find a treasure in places where few takes films seriously.

I’m sure many of my readers who agree more with my tastes were confounded by my stint into disgusting, repulsive and trashy horror films. I’ll probably get some laughs when I say that I found some truly profound and deep moments amid my Freddy vs. Jason marathon that made me rethink some of my notions about films.

I’m sure people think I’m nuts when I go on about how superb I think Speed Racer is. I mean, it’s essentially Chariots of Fire with all the boring parts cut out and way more colors: lauding the value of pursuing excellence in whatever you find the most pleasure in doing. And I’m sure I’ve confused a lot of people by suggesting there is more to Tron: Legacy than the crazy techno vibe, awesome music and insane action sequences.

This is why I explore film, why I write about it regularly, why I spend day after day watching films with funny titles or middling metacritic scores. Films can be a force of change, and a highly entertaining one at that. Yes it’s fun, yes I enjoy just about every moment of it, but I do it for those precious moments of pure revelation, when the light-bulb blinks and those dissociated and subconscious thoughts come together to form something cohesive, when that silly prejudice is torn down, when ignorance is cast out.

That’s why Inception is brilliant. The power of film is the idea, the ability to subconsciously infiltrate and suggest something new and different to an audience. Yes, it’s a dangerous game. It’s why I always have my guard up and often come across harsher to a film that most. It’s a dangerous business, watching something that has that kind of power, the power of persuasion and suggestion. If you don’t think it does, just wait till we get to some more of Leni Riefenstahl’s films and dig into the raw power of film.

This is why I’m in this. Frankly, and much to the chagrin of my parents who are paying for my Film and Digital Media degree, I couldn’t care less if I ever get paid for writing a single word about film. It would be nice. It’s not about the money (what film critic makes money?), the potential of going to prestigious premiers, the ego trip of trashing someone else’s work or the glory of internet infamy. I’m chasing after those fleeting moments rare, indelible and transforming.

And here it stands. This is my answer as to why. More importantly this is my response to every person who’s ever uttered “It’s just a movie.” It’s not. We gather together and immerse ourselves in darkness to watch the light. It’s an almost religious experience, watching a great film, and in some moments I’m certain it is. The deathly silence (ideally), the gentle gasps of surprise, the soothing “ahhs” of revelation weave something that goes beyond simple flickering of light on a wall in the dark. Perhaps there are tears, perhaps laughter, ideally both.

There’s something strange that happens after I see something great. This feeling washes over me, it’s not euphoric or pleasurable. It’s a sense of deep calm, complete stillness. The world around fades and I’m almost certain I’m walking on air. The word that best describes it is serenity. And I know why I’m here.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing