Science Fiction University:The Purpose of Art: Part Eleven: Movies and Television

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture

Here near the end of this quarter long study, we’ve been discussing how to experience art: how to look at paintings, sculpture, and architecture and how to read literature. This week we look at how to watch movies and television. “But don’t we already know how to watch TV? Just grab the remote and press the ‘On’ button.” And that of course is the first problem.

Content vs. Method

For years Christians have complained about the content of television and rightly so (by the way we’ve been complaining about the content of art for centuries, way before TV and movie came around—all manners of art can be both wonderful and dangerous). But in terms of how we watch movies and TV we’ve only ever tended to say that they are inherently bad because they turn us into couch potatoes who “zone out” in front of them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. The issue of content is the easy one: monitor what you and your children watch. Choose not to watch movies or television that will cause you to stumble in some way. Be honest with yourself about this and think about your thoughts and feelings when you’re watching a movie or show. Choose what you will and won’t watch, and, if you need help, get someone to help you keep your integrity regarding holiness in your viewing.

The more complicated issue is method. Do you remember when computers exploded onto the scene in the 80’s and 90’s, and eventually even people who didn’t care about them couldn’t ignore them? They became so pervasive that schools started scrambling to teach “computer literacy” (and now colleges have tended to drop computer literacy because grade schools teach it, and most students get it at home before they even get to school). But no one ever talked about television literacy. You just turn it on right? Like I said, that’s the problem. Just because we can watch TV and movies without being taught how to, doesn’t mean we should. I try my best not to be a mindless couch potato when I watch TV and movies (I don’t always succeed), and I’ve taught my family to do the same. We can’t afford to be mindless in our viewing regardless of the content. So let’s talk about how to be mindful.

Technique, Technique, Technique!

One of the best ways to watch film or TV thoughtfully is to pay attention to film techniques. Here’s a quick list of things to look for:

Understand the plot: films tend to follow a three act structure with a problem established, a series of challenges where the hero is tested to see if he or she can do what it takes to overcome the problem, and a final confrontation. Many films make use of a MacGuffin, a single object or task around which the entire film revolves (for example, Indiana Jones having to find the lost Ark or the Holy Grail). As with literature, also pay attention to the characters: what are their problems, how do they grow, what must they overcome?

Pay attention to how cameras are set: their angles (a low camera angling up makes a person look larger than life; a high camera angling down makes a person look small and vulnerable), and their motions (film students learn several basic motions—track, dolly, zoom, pan, tilt and crane—and all can be used for various effects). Then pay attention to the construction of the frame. A good director will be like a good painter. He will be concerned about every element within his “canvas” (that canvas being everything inside the frame of the camera lens). He’ll be concerned about what’s in the top, middle and bottom thirds, the left, middle and right thirds, the foreground (up close to the camera) and background and even with what’s not in the camera frame (called the “off screen space”—think about how a film can frighten you by NOT showing what’s just outside the frame).

In addition, then, look at editing techniques (how images are joined together, placed one after the other, paced for action or drama), lighting (soft or hard, foreground or background, light and shadows combined for various effects), color (in costumes, sets, even makeup), set design, music, and lastly the use of various film conventions (such as suspense music, match cuts, or parallel development—cutting among several story lines at once so we see how each one develops simultaneously).

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, I recommend you read a book or two about film technique. There are plenty of good books on how to watch movies out there.