How We Watch Films

Plenty of words are written about what people think of movies but less attention is devoted to how we actually see them.

Plenty of words are written about what people think of movies but less attention is devoted to how we actually see them.

This week on BBC Film 2012 Danny Leigh did a piece where he analysed himself watching Blade Runner (1982).

With the help of cognitive scientist Tim Smith at Birbeck College in London, his eye movement (‘gaze behaviour’) was recorded and the dissected (UK viewers can watch the episode on BBC iPlayer by clicking here – the piece starts around 23:06)

Smith has previously written a guest blog for David Bordwell’s site which accompanied videos showing computers tracking an audience’s eye movement as they watched There Will Be Blood (2007) – a good film for this kind of study with its interesting visual style and editing rhythms.

The article is a fascinating example of science being used to explain how we process art and covered such topics as why we don’t always notice continuity errors, how a viewers gaze can be directed and the importance of motion contrast.

Audience behaviour whilst watching a movie is a key part of how we first process a film.

Yet most reviews don’t actually tell you about the circumstances in which they were first seen.

On the one hand, why should they?

I don’t particularly want to read about the sandwich Peter Bradshaw had before he saw a film at a Soho screening room as that probably has little bearing on the film.

Yet, if critics are honest they are probably influenced by things they never write about.

For example, I once witnessed the late Alexander Walker (film critic for the London Evening Standard) get angry at a PR person right before a screening of Moonlight Mile (“If there’s no press notes, there’s no review!”).

Are you telling me that for at least the first ten minutes of that film, his overall judgement wasn’t affected by this outburst?

The default justification given for a critical verdict on a film is that it is a ‘matter of opinion’, but there are deeper factors that contribute to that opinion in the first place.

The following areas are worth considering:

  • Bias: Most critics wouldn’t admit to having a bias before seeing a film, but it surely exists to some extent. The latest film from a director they admire is going to excite them more than one they don’t. How much does this bias shape perceptions during the running of the film and our final verdict when its over? With reviews available online immediately after its festival premiere, how much does this reaction shape (even indirectly) what other critics say?
  • Venue: Most critics (certainly on national newspapers and magazines) see films in screening rooms with dedicated projectionists. Yet the public often have to deal with such distractions as the glow of mobiles and the eating of food. Do these different environments create a disparity between critical opinion and wider audience opinion?
  • Big Screen: We all know the differences between cinema and home viewing (bigger sound and vision) but how exactly does this manifest in terms of our brain activity? If you go at the right time, cinemas are one of the few darkened rooms where you can escape the distractions of the modern world. Its like a church mixed with a Victorian opium den.
  • Wide Screen: Widescreen was an innovation of the 1950s as cinema tried to counter the effects of television. But with almost everything in widescreen now does that shape how we view films shot in 2:35 or 1:85? Has it lost its novelty? Do films like Elephant (2003) or Fish Tank (2009) deliberately use the 1:33 aspect ratio to stand out in a world dominated by widescreen?
  • IMAX: The most extreme form of cinema is natively shot IMAX, projected at 70mm. The Dark Knight (2008) was the first major release to pioneer this. When I saw the opening shot of the film at the IMAX Waterloo the audience gasped and some actually reached towards the screen. A similar thing happened during the Dubai sequence of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (also shot and projected on IMAX). Does seeing and hearing films at this gargantuan size and resolution supercharge the already potent effects of cinema?

In 1943, George Orwell wrote about the “drug-like pleasures of cinema and radio” in a book review for The Listener.

In 1968 audiences used the star-gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey as a backdrop to taking LSD (which someone even did for real back in 2010).

In 2010 people were reportedly depressed that they had to return to the real world after seeing Avatar.

Gaspar Noe did the most trippy opening titles for his film Enter the Void – a sequence which Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the greatest in cinema history”:

Compared to painting and theatre, cinema is still a relatively new art form but its unique blend of quasi-religious ritual (the act of watching a film in a darkened room) and the intensity of the very best works do indeed make it drug-like.

Blade Runner was based on the book ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ but perhaps a more relevant Philip K Dick work was A Scanner Darkly, subsequently turned into a film by Richard Linklater.

The story involves a highly addictive psychoactive drug that causes “a dreamy state of intoxication and bizarre hallucinations”.

Sounds an awful lot like cinema itself.

Maybe further ‘clinical trials’ like the ones run by Tim Smith are needed.

> David Bordwell’s original post
> Danny Leigh on Twitter
> Birbeck College