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Introduction to Watching Back: Writing on Films that Light Us Up

Monday 9/5/22

Movies can make us feel like they know us so well. The better a movie appears to know us, the more that movie is apt to surprise, which begs a question: Do we find ourselves startling when honestly presented with what we like, or what makes us "tick," or what thrills us, scares us?

Movies excel at making us plain to us. I think that's a reason why watching a movie in the theater with people all around you causes parts of that movie to resonate in ways they wouldn't if you were at home on the couch. We feel as if our fellow audience members are now aware of something about us, and whatever that something is hangs in the air, as visible as the action playing out on the screen. We are acutely aware of our individuality, within the communal setting. Life is going as it should go when we're having this experience at the movies.

I like this feeling, and in part because of movies, I courted it elsewhere in my life, until it was just there. I didn't have to summon it or search for it. Openness and individuality became my natural order, and I kept watching.

We watch movies for all kinds of reasons. To escape, though that's not how I watch them. For entertainment. Art. Clarity. To laugh. To be frightened: and because "it's only a movie," gain further perspective into what fear really means. Our reasons for viewing will have a significant influence on what that movie does to us--whether it's some life-altering experience, at one extreme, or an annoyance we're glad to be done with after two hours.

For instance, I would have loved to have been at the March 1942 preview screening of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons in Pomona, California. The screening featured a longer version of the film than what was released later that year. I'm positive that would have been one of the best movie nights of my life. Having seen and loved Citizen Kane, and after devouring everything Welles did in every medium for years going back to his 1937 radio adaptation of Les Miserables, I'd have been primed to be blown away. Which isn't to say that it wouldn't take much to impress me. Impressing someone is like garnering their respect; it has to be earned.

But the people in attendance mostly laughed and complained, and offered notes, as it were. One viewer said that what people wanted were movies to forget, not movies to remind us about life and how it worked. Or how we work.

A truism of life is that you can do the best job possible, be the best at whatever it is you do, and if a person is not willing to be active and instead sports blinders and an agenda--or with insecurities that double as scales over their eyes--they won't torpedo what it is you've done, but it will be the same as if they were not present for it. They might as well be in standing in front of their laundry machine, arms empty, unsure why they'd come in that room in the first place.

The same goes even if what you do is something that is vital to helping us see who we are, who we might be, and who we can better become as a person, and then, in following, as someone who helps others, with society and culture changing and growing to the good, because the macro level has been impacted by so many people at the micro level having already been touched, charged, and changed by a great work of art. That's what art is for. And if the art is also entertainment--and to me entertainment is a crucial component of a work of art--then nothing is better or more necessary. There's no political party that comes close, no piece of legislation, no nation, no religion, no history.

But: If you went to that preview screening of The Magnificent Ambersons wanting to see a silly musical, and maybe shots of some sexy ladies where you could even--gasp--behold their ankles, and exaggerated Bronx accents from a couple of cab drivers who kept it real and cracked wise about their scary wives and mothers-in-law, then Welles was sure to disappoint, through no fault of his own.

That's because movies require us. They build what they are from what we are. Take super hero movies. They don't require us. They're not built off of us. They don't really have anything to do with us. They are movies that play in front of us. They do their own thing. They don't do something with us. We're not in cahoots. Why do people like them? Because those movies ask nothing of them. I wouldn't say that's really liking anything. Not truly. To really like something--and to love it--you have to be involved with it and it has to respect you. It respects you because it counts on you enough to want you to be a part of whatever is happening. You are an active participant. Super hero movies are passive. They're a form of cinematic wallpaper that was already hanging in the house that you just bought. Someone else put that wallpaper there. You keep it or you don't. Does it matter? Probably not, right? It hung there before you, and it can hang there with you, or else the change is made, and that change is isn't of much consequence, save that you made it, the same way that a person who went to one super hero movie buys a ticket to another.

It can be easier for people--or so they think--to ask nothing of that which surrounds them. To ask nothing of the people they know or the films they watch. They won't get disappointed that way, which is a perk, I guess, of not having standards. Crucially, though--and this matters more to them--it won't feel like they're not good enough for anything or anyone. If a friend disappoints us because they never live up to their word, we're prone to blame ourselves. We think we're not worthy of that friend treating us well. If we say something to them about how they're rarely true to their word, we create drama, and that's a big bugaboo in our society. "This is a drama free zone." But if we toss out standards and expectations, no one lets us down, and we don't blame ourselves or ask what we're lacking, if they do.

Life, though, is inherently dramatic if one actually lives it. We get more from life when we aren't passive, when it's not about wallpaper and how laid back and chill we are. Yes, we can lose more and hurt more. But we can love more and we can live more when we expect things of ourselves, and expect things of others, and also entertainment and art. The person who is passive in their friendship is passive with themselves. That ends up being harder over life's long haul, because there's no real connection. Skin in the game is minimal. You need to have a maximum amount of skin in anything that you might care about. I think the same is true of movies, and the movies that matter understand this.

They understand this because they take cues from us. They build off of us. I don't mean that they turn to the news of the day in order to fashion their plots, and this is their central reason for existence when they work well. What I mean is that movies have an understanding of who we are, because they watch us every bit as much as we watch them. We're sitting there in the dark, observing the events on a screen, but that movie has already watched us back. Watched us before we got to the theater. Now the movie is showing us what it has observed and understood. That's why there are all of these toeholds for us to get a grip into that picture, and all but climb up into it.

Did you ever watch a film where early on you think, "That character is the one for me." The character may not be like you--at least not outwardly. But you go to them. You're fused with them. You have a cognitive and emotional investment in them, as you do in yourself. If I watch 1947's Out of the Past, I'm sitting in that Mexican cafe with Robert Mitchum's Jeff Bailey, waiting for Jane Greer's Kathie Moffat to step in from out of the the sun that is pouring through the door but still not lighting up the place. Will she show? I'm nervous. I'm nervous that she won't and that she will. People don't normally make me nervous. Why am I nervous now? I'm not Jeff Bailey. This is going to be his problem. Or his delight. Or, first his delight and then his problem.

But it's as though Out of the Past has watched me and now I'm watching it. I'm in there. The movie knows about me. It understands that I'll feel this way and later--maybe in real time--ask myself why I feel as I do, allowing that I came in willing to feel this way. By that I mean, my mind wasn't made up. I was open to being active. When we just insist on someone flying around buildings, or we insist that a movie be black and white or that it be color, or that it has to have subtitles or it must not have subtitles for the love of God, we're not allowing movies to, well, movie us. If you'e had experiences like the one I just described, you understand how that word "movie" can be a verb. A movie can movie the hell out of us.

That's because it's watched us back, and done so actively. This is a book about movies that do just that, and the sense I've tried to make of them and this process. I believe that consequential movies exist with big-time aims of outsized utility. They have vision and purpose. They want to stir us, entertain us, but they also want to get into us and alter us. That doesn't mean alter us by their meddling or what they put into us. They alter us by working with what is already there, even when we don't know it's there. We go into a movie theater with all of these ingredients, after a fashion. We tote those ingredients around. They're in our heads, our hearts, our souls, parts of our bodies. The movie is familiar with these ingredients, and without adding anything new to what we've bundled in, those ingredients are combined and utilized in these amazing ways. That is the magic of movies, and it's so active and never passive, and we're such a part of that. It doesn't just happen because we were there, or paid for a seat. It happens because what the movie is and who we are becomes insoluble. We watch the movie because the movie has already watched us, and then it shows us its stuff, and ours.

Buster Keaton's character was on to something in 1924's Sherlock Jr. when a double-exposed version of his character turns up on a movie screen, while his flesh-and-blood self watches. I've seen the scene hundreds of times, and yet I still expect the latter to wave to the former. He's perpetually on the verge of that wave, and I find that I am as well. So are we all if we're willing and the movie is right. This book is a record of some of those waves, and waves within a wave within a wave. To have that need to wave back is to be a part of what that movie is doing. You watch someone long enough, and you're going to know what they need the most for them to be them, as actively as possible. We all movie with each other, you might say, when we ourselves are watching back, the way that movies watch us. So let us watch, and let us be watched.


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