Radical Re-Visioning: Expand How and Why You Watch Movies / by Samuel B. Prime

Less than a week ago, I attended a revival screening of Andrew Dominik's THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. The theater was packed, every seat sold to someone either eager to see the film again on the big screen or, for those in the majority like myself, to see it for the first time in an ideal setting. Shortly after my arrival, I ran into a variety of friends and acquaintances, some whom I have known for years and others who are familiar faces only as of the last several weeks. Cordial greetings and salutations, per the custom, and before long we were in the theater, sitting down, and delving deeper into conversation - both about the movie at hand and about topics tangential, as well as altogether unrelated. Here we are about seven days on and there is one topic in particular from the evening's stimulating conversation that my imagination has yet to yield from - how and why we tend to watch movies. 

No doubt every viewer brings something of themselves to any cinematic experience and some seek movies purely for entertainment - an occasional dalliance and a treat to titillate the senses. It should be said, even if obvious, that there is not really a wrong way to watch a movie. There are, in my opinion, objectionable ways, but let's leave that for a future essay. In the context of the conversation, however, I was speaking passionately about recent viewing experiences with two likeminded salon members who identify above all else as filmmakers. Both were taken aback when I admitted that I had not seen the film we were about to watch together, which sparked a thread about what we individually seek in a film: what we appreciate and how. They both quickly agreed that they are drawn to technical expertise, mastery of craft, the sort that win awards (or, if not justly appreciated in their initial release, ought to have). The film we were about to watch meets these qualifications in spades - nearly every aspect of the film is thoughtfully and painstakingly constructed, supported by the text, and manifests as a kind of visual poetry. The flip side of this conversation is my own perspective: that genuine enjoyment of cinema is not in the least limited to films perceived as mainstream technical achievements or canonical classics. I am not stingy about this - there are many big budget, canonical films that I adore and that are as incredibly influential to me personally as they are to the history of cinema. Moreover, my point was that there is often more to appreciate in realms of exploitation cinema, visual essays, and other cinephilic nether regions than the standard of expertise - which is not to say that it is impossible for such films to be masterful. A film as cheap, bold, and lyrical as Paul Morrissey's BLOOD FOR DRACULA comes to mind as just one example.

Earlier that day, I had watched a 1988 film called WORLD GONE WILD - a post-apocalyptic, tongue-in-cheek MAD MAX rip-off wherein desert hippie Bruce Dern must battle cult leader Adam Ant at the last bastion of freshwater. The premise is ridiculous, the cinematography is inept (comprised of awkward masters and close-up reaction shot inserts), and the staging leaves something serious to be desired. However, I am instinctively drawn to these sorts of movies. Why? Because there is an inscrutable element within the film that captures my attention, long before I have seen it. This was my explanation to my two filmmaking friends. In the case of WORLD GONE WILD, the only pitch I needed to hear amounted to: Bruce Dern versus Adam Ant. Dern is one of my favorite actors from the New Hollywood generation and when I discovered Adam Ant's music at age 16, something about his post-punk sensibility just made sense to me. For me, all I needed was one element to sign on and give it a chance. Even though WORLD GONE WILD comes with serious misgivings, it features an incredibly witty script, imaginative costume and production design, and more explosions per minute than most fireworks displays.

I may not recommend WORLD GONE WILD to everyone, but it is a film that I genuinely enjoyed. And, importantly, on its own terms. It feels a bit awkward to say that I have an empathy for films, but the impetus is something quite like that. My personal approach towards film spectatorship registers as a kind of radical re-visioning, a skewed and alternate perspective in favor of an optimistic, open, and sincere experience of any film for which I cultivate an intrinsic interest. This approach has two principles at its heart, one that comes from film critic F.X. Feeney (as quoted in Xan Cassavetes' marvelous Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION doc) and the other from author William S. Burroughs (from a 1979 class he taught on the subject of 'creative reading'): 

  1. "It's not whether it is a good or bad film, but instead whether the film is a good miracle or bad miracle." - F.X. Feeney
  2. "A film of five good minutes is really a good film." - William S. Burroughs

Feeney's point is that every film is itself a miracle and so should be thusly considered. It is awfully difficult to make a film and requires an enormous amount of unification, collaboration, and vision. Scott Raab comes to the same exact conclusion in a recent Esquire Q&A piece with Jeff Goldblum. In concert with Feeney's assertion, Burroughs means that even in an imperfect film, there is often (not always) something worth gleaning - whether a perfect scene, a memorable score or soundtrack, or maybe even an element that transcends the established narrative altogether, such as the way it captures / documents a particular place at a particular time (i.e. film functioning as incidental history). These are just a few examples of how a film that does not meet the typical standards of expertise might be seen as equally relevant, interesting, or hailed as genuine masterpieces. 

Here described is an approach to viewership that encourages a certain amount of uncertainty. From my perspective, uncertainty and serendipity are two of the greatest joys life has to offer. Give something weird or marginal a chance: you might discover something you like - and even if not, you will have gained some kind of experience and with it, maybe a story or an anecdote. The risk, small as it most certainly is, is well worth it.

Samuel B. Prime

Founder, LA Ciné Salon