Everybody has their thing. People who can throw and catch have sports. People who know how to read notes can play the piano. People who don’t do well in school go to Washington and become politicians.
I don’t have any of those useful things. I’ve got movies. I’m pretty sure that my thing isn’t going to get me into Harvard or help solve the water crisis, but I like it all the same.
For me, nothing is more important than the stories people tell. I’m an addict for narratives. I’ll read them, I’ll listen to them, but above all else, I’ll watch the hell out of them [sometimes even the bad ones].
And a filmed narrative is the best of all possible sensory worlds. You get sound, movement, and sights that you can relate to, or that you would never imagine in your wildest dreams—and at the end, you get to go back to the ordinary world with relative ease.
Yeah, I get it—it takes no talent to watch a movie. You just sit back and keep your eyes open. Maybe work your jaw muscles out on microwaved corn kernels. But like I said—it’s the thing I’ve got. And I’ve had it since I was child. When you have something that long, it’s hard to deny the power it holds over you.
I was never a sports guy when I was young. I tried, but I just broke my arm. My attention span was never good enough to learn the piano. I never understood how speaking to the opposite sex could result in becoming involved with any of them. I didn’t understand how the hell Dungeons and Dragons worked. But I knew how to read and I understood how to tell a story. And movies were stories that were simply quicker to consume.
So instead of anything really useful, I had movies. I collected them, obsessed over them, and when I did make friends, the social interaction involved was all about going out to see movies or getting together at someone’s house to watch them together.
I’m not sure where this attraction to moving images came from. Maybe it was just the most pleasing stimulus for my young, easily distracted mind. Or maybe it was only natural—after all, who living today has avoided being raised without the influence of a screen?
Whether it’s the giant wall of light at the movie theater, the small screen of the television, or the miniature monolith of the mobile device, children are seemingly born with now in the palms of their hands, the screen has become part of our being, an unavoidable mirror. We all look into it for reflection.
But there is a difference between liking the pretty images the screen shows us and thinking critically about those images, distilling their meaning and integrating the results into our own lives.
I was obsessed with films for years before I thought critically about them. There comes that moment of distinction in a film snob’s life when you finally watch one that forces you to actually think about why you like the series of images you saw projected this time. For me [like many others] that film was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie was the one that got me to think critically about film because I was forced to. When I first saw it, I had a great deal of uncertainty about what I had just witnessed, and I had no clue as to what it all meant.
By the time I had seen 2001, I had already gone fairly deep into a crippling VHS-collecting addiction. But all of the films I had collected were simply ones I liked and wanted to re-watch for enjoyment and escape. 2001 was added because I needed to re-watch the damn thing to figure it out.
I knew it had something to do with evolution—how tools and technology can advance, destroy, evolve civilizations. But also...aliens, maybe? Star babies? Was the monolith a gate to evolution, or did it just kill you? Was there reincarnation involved? Was Baby Dave going to turn Earth into a bunch of glowing monolith babies? Or was that not even Dave at all?
In short, I felt something new upon watching it. I felt stupid.
So I re-watched it. And re-watched it again. And again. And again. And then I read the novel. And then I used up my parents’ dial-up internet connection to search for any other written analysis of the film—but that only led me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories involving Kubrick’s involvement in faking the moon landing. So I went to the bookstore and bought a book on Stanley Kubrick to find out more information. And then I read about all his other movies. And then I bought all of those movies.
Before I knew it, I wasn’t just watching movies—I was investing my entire being into looking at how the stories worked and what they meant. The editing, the music, the direction, the lighting...suddenly, it all meant something. But what?
There’s a nasty tendency in most people to think that getting all critical about something as trivial as entertainment is a bit….snobbish. Well why the hell is that? I get that snobbery figures into a lot of what people pass off as criticism, but we are so barraged as a society by the moving image on a daily [hourly, minutely] basis, how can someone afford not to think critically about what they see?
I don’t think critically about what I see or read in order to pass myself off as intellectually superior to anyone [that was what my high school years were for]. I think critically about film because I’m confused as hell about how life is supposed to work.
And shouldn’t we all be the same amount of confused about it all? What’s the point in passing yourself off as more knowledgeable than anyone else in this weird and complicated world? Anyone who says they’re an expert in anything is a damn fool.
So I sought further education. And the people who made films seemed to be helping me out. And then I started making connections between all of Kubrick’s movies and the psychology behind them. Then I was making connections between other movies. And soon I was seeing how stories, as different as they all were, were all really about one thing.
Joseph Campbell wasn’t messing around when he developed his idea of the hero’s journey, that concept that all stories were one big “monomyth” that connected all human experience into one transient journey—an adventure from birth and security into separation, fear, and death.
You know, fun stuff. After all, if you’re not thinking about death, then dammit—you’re not really thinking, are you?
2001 began showing me how the power of the story is not just there to have me “like” it, but to help me understand my own experience, thoughts, and fears. It was a personal choice—I could have turned back at the first sign of danger. But I wanted to analyze films because I wanted to analyze stories—all stories. I needed to think critically because I wanted to understand.
Kurt Vonnegut’s son, who suffered from a severe break in reality at one point due to schizophrenia, remarked to his father after his recovery that “we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” Films do that for me.
I’ve entered that tall black obelisk that leads me through the stargate and into realms far beyond Jupiter. I don’t really know what the hell it is, but I like figuring it out. And I need all the help I can get.
Now, I understand the tendency to view films as empty entertainment—you can always visit the monolith without going through it, after all. Some people just need to cover their ears when that loud shriek of consciousness screams out to them. And I understand the initial reluctance to go through the noise, but I think there comes a time when you just need to put your arms down and break on through to the other side.
Not liking films at all though—that is harder for me to understand. When somebody tells me that they don’t like movies, I can’t help but wince. It’s that judgement that being an educator has afforded me. That’s like saying you don’t read books because you just don’t like them.
If you don’t like stories, where are you getting your life experiences from? Are you just doing on-the-job training for life? If so, I don’t want to be a part of your trial-by-error way of skating through life’s navigational complexities—you’re on your own, pal.
And not liking movies at all? That I just don’t get. Movies are supposed to be the easier stories to understand, the “shorter attention span” ones.
If you don’t like movies, what do you like? Serial killing?
Maybe I’m being judgmental here, but them’s the breaks. I just can’t trust a person who doesn’t seem interested in narratives. It’s like meeting a person who doesn’t like dogs. I mean...what’s going on there? The villains in movies never like dogs either. If you’re not digging into narratives, I’m not sure what the hell you’re doing to educate yourself. Maybe watching cable news? If so, good luck and god bless, but I feel sorry for you.
Watching a movie is like getting into a flight simulation, or dreaming—it’s training for life. Cavemen drew out their hunts on cave walls not just to commemorate the event, but to teach each other and learn from their experiences. Ancient Greeks performed tragic plays for audiences not just to celebrate their devotion to their gods, but to give the audience a sense of empathetic experience.
Filmmakers, when they’re doing it well, are not just entertaining us, but showing us possible means of navigation. Thinking critically about what’s going on in front of us can be a way of coping—even if it means just trying to figure out how robot-mediator Marky Mark ever got a job as a scientist in the first place.
Movies teach us and show us what life can be like, but they also get us into that sticky primordial Freudian goo that is the monomyth, that shared psychological experience that shows us that life and death do have a meaning, even if it only lasts as long as the runtime of the movie you’re currently watching.
My hope is that others will find a story and a journey for themselves because narratives, as Mark Vonnegut mentioned to his father, are here to help us get through this thing, whatever it is. Everybody has a need for narratives because everyone is on their own hero’s journey. And everyone has their own “call to adventure” out there waiting for them. For some, it may be the story of a young farm boy who learns to wield a lightsaber. For others, it might be the one about the shark who eats clueless vacationers on Amity Beach. For me, it was a mysterious black monolith that beckoned across time and space. When I navigated it, my own journey began.