Imaginary Stories: How to Watch Movies

Last week, “Imaginary Stories” debuted with a decided bang as Arnold Schwarzenegger offered rides in his personal armored tank to promote his latest, The Last Stand (if you missed it, check it out here.

Since that incredible experience sort of took the place of a proper introduction to this column and since riding in a tank driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger is mighty tricky to top, I’ve been debating how to move forward and ultimately decided that the best way to really introduce myself is not through any sort of biography or CV but to just explain, as simply as I can, why I think movies are so important.

I’m calling this one “How to Watch Movies”, but 1) There really isn’t a wrong way and 2) This isn’t so much about specifically about movies as it is about stories.

Stories — be they films, novels, comic books, songs — are to human beings what pollen is to bees. They are the diet that sustains our hearts and minds and we spend our lives carrying them and spreading them as a second nature.

My advice, then, is simply to take in all the stories you can.

They are everywhere. Find them and devour them. Figure out the stories that you love. They might be the ones that inspire you, educate you, entertain you or maybe they’re the stories that just taught you how to love stories. If you love them, they will belong to you and no one — be it critics, detractors or even the original authors — will have the right or ability to change that love.

When you feel comfortable in what you love, try new things.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of working for the American Film Institute alongside historian Michael Jeck and I have always been fond of his explanation regarding the difference between how we experience books and films.

It’s impossible to read every book in the world, he told me. There’s just too many and the task is, clearly, impossible. The same is true with movies. You can’t watch everything that has ever been made and you can’t possibly keep up with what’s being shot on a day to day basis. The only difference is that, with movies, it somehow still feels like you can.

It reminds me of a wonderful line in Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollboth”:

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

What this means for moviegoers in particular is that there’s a never-ending supply of stories that are waiting to be experienced and that you shouldn’t for a moment believe that you can’t tackle them all. While it’s important to know what you love and support it, there’s a balance to be maintained. Like any diet, your tastes will change and you will grow to appreciate things that you never thought you could before.

This is not to say that what you eventually come across is automatically superior. It’s merely different and where you are standing to take it in will certainly make a difference as to what you get out of it.

Pay attention to the stories you don’t like.

Understanding why you don’t like something is as important as understanding why you do and the factors involved are often just as endless. This is where reading about film is arguably most important because the shining best of what a critic can accomplish is to explain how to love something that would not otherwise be loved.

Ask yourself why a movie doesn’t agree with you and then seek out and listen to the thoughts of those for whom it does. You don’t need to be swayed, although there’s certainly no harm in loving as much as you can. In the end, though, agreeing means nothing against understanding. If you can use stories as a means by which to view the world and the people in it in ways you might not have previously considered, you’ll have the best possible foothold you can get on mastering this whole existing-in-the-universe thing.

“Some people can read ‘War and Peace’ and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story,” Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor says in Richard Donner’s original Superman, “Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”

I like that quotation not just because it’s true but because, coming from a blockbuster film based on a comic book, it breaks down the illusory barrier between “high” and “low” art. Find the stories that speak to you and don’t ever let anyone else’s opinions override that experience.

Return to the stories that you love and look on them with new eyes. When you have the chance, share them with others. Build your own and share those, too. It’s not a race and there is no end. In fact, the best stories will outlive us all.

We are lucky to live in a time where our access to more than a century of filmmaking is at an unprecedented high and growing vaster every day. Let’s go explore and make our targets the mysterious, the wonderful and the sublime.

Then come back and let’s talk about what we’ve found.

Silas Lesnick is a staff writer for You can follow him on Twitter @silaslesnick.


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