Something a lot of my friends find remarkable is that I’ll seldom go out of my way to watch a movie. It’s a fine default activity to kill time with people, and I don’t inherently dislike them; there just aren’t many about which I think, “I have to see that.” Whenever I’m asked why I’m not a “movie person,” I can’t usually articulate it in a convincing way, so of course I feel compelled to sit down and write through it. Without further adieu, my take on movies.
Like any child, I enjoyed the visual stimulation of movies, and as an adolescent I spent what I would consider an average amount of time watching films. It wasn’t until college that I began to feel sort of turned off by the concept, and then I wasn’t entirely sure why. I just felt like there were more interesting things to do than watch a story unfold over the course of a couple of hours. But looking back, I think the real watershed came when I went to the theatre with a friend for the first time in a long time. As we sat and watched the endless previews with their overly-dramatic symphonic arrangements, action sequences, and one-liners I couldn’t help but feel like an animal in a lab. It felt completely like a stimulus/response model of entertainment. Somebody sat in a room somewhere and thought, “How can I elicit X reaction from moviegoers?” expecting me to react a certain way like a Pavlovian dog or something. Then another preview with the same dynamic rolled. And another. By the time the feature came around, I was on a trajectory of definite jadedness.
I remember now that I think the movie we went to see was Transporter 2. In it were numerous unrealistic action scenes, but none more so than a sequence involving a bomb attached to the bottom of a car driven by the protagonist and a crane. The hero takes his car off a ramp such that it is inverted in mid-air, and the hook hanging from a crane grazes the bottom of the automobile, perfectly scraping the explosive off in time for it to detonate and allow an unscathed landing. Turns out this clip is available on YouTube. Enjoy.
“Seriously?” I thought. “Who thinks of this stuff? And is this supposed to impress me or something?” It was at that point that I began to feel that not only the promotional trailers, but entire movies were based around the premise of stimulus and response, in effect reducing humans to something much less. A man was paid to sit in a room somewhere and think of scenes that would elicit amazement, thrill, fear, or some other emotion, ideally in a way that had not yet been captured. They were then passed off to a producer or marketing or whoever makes the trailers, along with the guy who writes the score, and eventually the whole thing came out as a package for human consumption. Why? Entertainment. Money. Because it’s a business. That guy gets paid to create stimuli that will make people think and feel things they wouldn’t in the course of normal life. People pay to be immersed in a different reality for awhile. The film industry is born.
I’ve grossly simplified the entire Hollywood machine, but as I think back about most blockbuster movies, that is the over-arching impression I get. Yes, it seems very cynical and deconstructionist, and maybe I am too much so to the point I can’t appreciate some things anymore. But is cinema chiefly entertainment or art? Most people classify film as a form of art, and I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I’ve always objected to the stimulus/response model for any form of art. My experience has led me to the opinion that acts of creativity should be first and foremost expressions of the creator and secondarily conveying or translating feelings to observers. In other words, art should not be designed for the consumer.
By this definition, there are certainly numerous cinematic works that I would consider rightful works of art, meaning the writers and directors sought first to express what was within them, and any transference to the audience was a by-product. Even when produced purely under this paradigm, film is a gray area for me. Unlike other media, such as music, it is much harder for the observer to interact in a participatory manner. By this, I mean that if someone writes a song from the heart, another can sing that same song at the top of his or her lungs, possibly feeling the same things. I think there are ways to participate in film, but they aren’t as apparent or readily accessible as this. On the surface, this sounds much like the stimulus/response model, but the distinction is this: the participant is not expected to feel a certain way, but instead invited to express their own feelings, not those thrust upon them by a man with a drawing board in California.
So it is very possible for film to be pure art by my creator-centric position, but this is obviously almost impossible to discern. Without having an intimate look at the creative process or background, one can never know the motivation of the creator. Between this fact and innumerable flicks clearly produced under the first (stimulus/response) model, it becomes clear to me why I find it hard to get into movies. Either I feel like some kind of test animal expected to respond a certain way to visual stimuli, or I feel like I need to know more about the artists involved to know whether or not I am being treated as such.
None of this means that I can’t appreciate a simple rental from Red Box to zone out for a couple of hours, nor that no films exist which stir or impact me, but at the same time, I don’t usually seek out the silver screen as a first means of spending free time. I can enjoy cinematic works that express profound truth, but at first glance very few do. Yes, I over-analyze things incredibly. I believe it helps to sit down from time to time and figure out why we react the way we do to situations in life. So the next time I’m invited to see Transporter 5, or Saw IX, or even an indie film about the Seattle music scene, I will know why my knee-jerk reaction is to think, “Isn’t there something else we can do? Some way we can express ourselves instead of being directed how to feel?”