The Interactive Filmgoing Experience

Posted on 18 June 2010 by Quaid

This past weekend I went to the Flyover Film Festival. Now, I know that all you fancy folks living in the New Yorks and LAs of the world think that film fests are a dime a dozen…and sometimes they are…but in Louisville, Kentucky, this is really the only local film fest of this caliber. The Louisville Film Society brought in some fantastic and high-profile films including this year’s Sundance winner Winter’s Bone.

For me, the weekend was a godsend…the kind of event I think every movie lover needs every once in a while to recharge our film-loving batteries. It was a blast, and, ironically enough, not totally because of the movies. I met some amazing people and had great conversations about film, filmmaking, film watching and film loving. I got to meet some very talented filmmakers and I got to ask some really fun questions. I even got to sit on a film writing panel and answer a few questions of my own.

Going into the festival, I had planned to do a quick write-up right after the festivities wrapped up. I was going to give you readers a quick blurb review of the movies I saw as well as a overview of those I didn’t.

That didn’t happen, and it isn’t because I’m lazy (or not entirely, at least). Instead, this weekend got me thinking about a complicated question. One that I can only really skim the surface of in an article like this. How much of filmgoing is an “interactive” experience?

Until this weekend, I probably would have answered “very little.” Sure, we all love to see films on the big screen on opening night and feel the audience around us. Nobody wants to go to the theater without a friend to chat or geek out with. And we almost always make “movie night” at home a social occasion.

Still, there is a part of me that feels like movies exist all alone…and I love to lock myself in a room and experience a movie on its own terms. It feels like a closed system, and keeping the movie separate from the so-called social aspect of watching them together feels somehow more pure and honest. More respectful.

This past weekend, though, I think I changed my mind a bit regarding what “interactive” means in this context. It started (probably) when I went to a screening for Grace of My Heart. It’s a flick from 1996 directed by Allison Anders. I’d never heard of it before (even though it stars John Turturro, Illeana Douglas and Matt Damon), and I didn’t know what to expect. It was a really great film…a fantastic portrait of a female singer/songwriter as her career develops through the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s.

You might ask the obvious question: Why screen a 14-year-old movie at a fairly hip and happening film festival? How about because the director, Allison Anders, was in attendance to receive a lifetime achievement award.

The woman was a joy, and the Q&A afterward was probing and insightful. It made me think about the movie more. It made me appreciate the movie more. And something about revisiting this film so many years later and wrapping the movie in the director’s personality really clicked for me.

From there, the festival just seemed to open up. I had late-night quasi-pitch sessions at a bar (which culminated in a light-hearted shouting match to determine once and for all whether the Canon 7D is a better value than the 5D. Yeah, I’m a geek). The following morning I talked with three supremely accomplished writers on a panel about the merits and purpose of film criticism…and what role supplemental elements like the “making of” and marketing campaign play in the audience’s enjoyment of a film. Somewhere along the line, I looked at Lexi (my Werner Herzog loving cohort) and said “This is the way you’re supposed to watch movies.”

For the first time, I really realized how much of an interactive experience film-going could…and should…be. It isn’t just about the feeling the audience reacting around you or pulling from the energy of the crowd, and it isn’t about having a “loved it” or “hated it” conversation at Steak ‘n Shake after the show (though those things are part of it). It’s about letting the film breathe…letting it change as the audience and the times change. It’s about bringing the filmmaker into the picture and asking questions…even if its just of yourself.

You see, watching Grace of My Heart with Allison Anders in attendance changed the film (and I’m not talking about the broken component cable that sucked all the red out of the picture). It made the movie more fluid and accessible. When I watched the unfinished print of the horror film a friend of mine directed, it was no longer this concrete “thing” sitting on a movie-store shelf. It was a growing and changing entity, and I could walk up and give feedback and get a better idea of how the movie does or doesn’t fit into my preconceptions about it.

By talking passionately with friends about the movies, I was able to fight with myself about a film and let it change after the fact in my mind.

If this all sounds a little existential or hippie-fied, so be it. I’ve realized that somehow a film, stuck on some disc or immobile in a series of cans, can still grow and change as the world grows and changes around it. This can happen over a number of years or over a series of seconds. I’ve read entire books on the importance of discussing films and how the review and analysis of film alters the public perception of a movie, but I think it’s more simple than that. By discussing a film or learning about a filmmaker or just actively coming to a movie with a different mindset, the film can help you as an individual change how the movie works on you.

The “interactive experience” of movie-watching, then, isn’t really always about the interaction of people…it’s about the interaction of the movie with our perceptions, and the interaction of us with ourselves. I don’t want to get too annoyingly existential on you, but saying “the movie doesn’t change, you do,” doesn’t cut it. Because my perception changes, the movie does change. The light hitting my retinas stays the same, sure, but that isn’t what the movie is.

I’m reminded of an old Buddhist (I think) story I read once. An enlightened person once brought a cart in front of the king. He asked what it was…and the king, of course, said it was a cart. Then he pulled the wheels off. “Is this the cart?” he asked. Of course, the king answered in the negative. Then he pulled off the sides of the cart. “Is this it?” asked the man. The king says no.

You can see where this is going. All the way down to the platform and the axels. None of it was the cart. When there was nothing left, the enlightened man asks “So…smartypants king…where is the cart?”

I guess we could ask the same thing about movies. The movie isn’t the disc. It isn’t the actors, or the script. It isn’t really even the light that hits our eyes. A movie, you could argue, is itself a relationship–the relationship between the elements that make up “the movie” and our own minds. The way we interpret it. So, by definition, a movie is always an interactive experience, even when we’re alone.

I’ve gone a bit farther with this than I originally intended, but it’s the only way I can think of to both work out my own experience and try to impart it to you. That’s kind of what writing (even about film) is all about. But in the end, I do admit that a great film-going experience (or spiritual awakening, or orgasm) is like a great movie. No matter how much people try to explain it to you, you just have to see it for yourself.

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