Why We Watch

When I took my first screenwriting class, the teacher asked the class a question, “Why do we watch movies?” Eager to participate, I replied with something along the lines of “To gain someone else’s perspective on a situation, or  to experience a situation that might not normally be possible for the viewer. Or, maybe, to see what kinds of things you would like to do, or shouldn’t do, in the future?” Looking at me as if I had just thrown up on the floor in front of the class, the teacher announced that we actually watch movies to escape from our own dreary lives, to make ourselves feel like our life isn’t so bad by seeing people in worse situations than our own, or to experience the the horribleness of the real world without actually being hurt. I sank back down in my chair, watching the rest of the class nod in agreement, and wondered if my entire class (and teacher) were clinically depressed and so detached from reality that they didn’t realize it. Why do most people watch films or read stories? Why do they make films or write books? Are they writing books/screenplays as some kind of cheap self-therapy, using the expression of their own madness for wallowing/catharsis and labeling it as art for the purpose of justification? That’s a scary thought. For the sake of humanity, I hope it’s largely untrue. I guess it’s like the old joke (that’s not really much of a joke) about people going into psychiatry to solve their own problems and making others worse as a result.

Well, anyway, that was about three years ago, before I even started calling myself a film student. Since then, I’ve taken about a half a dozen ‘film studies’ classes and recently took what was supposed to be the biggest, scariest monster of a non-production class there is at my university (my online JC classes were harder). In all this time, that same idea (that the primary purpose of viewing cinema, TV, etc. is escapism and/or catharsis about one’s miserable life) has been a common thread in pretty much every reading assigned (JC or UC). It isn’t always expressed as the only purpose, but other viewpoints are generally misrepresented or played down if they’re even mentioned at all. Now, in order to maintain good grades, I often write (hypothetically, at least) as if these opinions are as sacred as my instructors seem to believe they are (with tongue firmly in cheek, not that they’ve noticed yet). It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago, however, that I realized how dangerous doing something like that habitually for several years can be to one’s sanity. Like any form of brainwashing, repeating an idea constantly as if you believe it over a long period of time can twist your sense of reality.

Additionally, the media that I’ve been watching has gradually (and, in no small part, due to the viewing requirements of my classes) been lowering in quality. It was some time last quarter when, upon deciding what movie/show to watch for my own entertainment, I suddenly found myself using the criteria of what would would provide the best catharsis (what would provide a sense of temporarily removing myself from my personal reality or mollifying my feeling that my day had given me no enjoyment). In defining those parameters consciously in my head, it became strikingly obvious that I had succumbed to the logic of mental illness that pervades my schoolwork – I was using media like a drug, and had been doing so for some time without consciously realizing it. This wasn’t such a problem in community college (where they sometimes encourage a modicum of individual thought, even well-argued rebellion in some cases), but larger universities have an unfortunate tendency to take a factory approach to education by stuffing a couple hundred kids into a lecture hall and enforcing their particular brand of one-size-fits-all teaching by fobbing normal class-sized groups off onto inexperienced teaching assistants for grading – thus, allowing the teacher to completely ignore anyone who doesn’t show up during office hours like a chronic rash to chat. This is not the way to become a good filmmaker, or viewer for that matter.

Although, as a film student, I am forced to do in-depth analyses of junk like Cabaret, Lost in Translation, and Citizen Kane (yeah, I said it!), that doesn’t mean that I have to watch similarly pretentious (yet unbelievably dumbed-down), didactic, self-congratulatory, and/or excessively salacious movies/TV of my own volition as well. If anything, one should make a conscious effort to watch things that don’t suck whenever possible to detox one’s synapses, while still being mindful of the danger of relying on merely watching non-sucky content instead of creating it as well. Furthermore, writing dissenting opinions (like this one) are helpful as an exercise for keeping one’s brain from becoming to automatic in the practice of regurgitating the garbage oozing out of poorly written textbooks (and lectures) espoused by highly renowned academic lunatics (viz., Metz, Mulvey, etc.).

Remember: what you watch isn’t nearly so important as why you are watching. If you don’t have a choice, resist enculturation by your crazy media theory overlords (e.g., teachers and TAs) in any way you can (short of being honest enough for them to feel that their personal reality is threatened, and to retaliate by defecating on your pristine GPA).

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