Film analysis and why it’s important

Ten years ago I started posting short film analysis videos on Youtube thinking it would just be a short term hobby that would only capture the interest of film students and film makers. What amazed me is that so many non-film makers quickly took an interest in the videos and demanded more. I’ve since had probably over ten thousand email responses including many from academics and people working in the movie industry itself.  At the time of posting this article my main channel is just short of 50,000 subscribers – not a huge number, but not small fries either. There’s been about a hundred incidences of mainstream media and high ranking websites covering my work too, and usually with positive regard. I even earn my living from selling my offline vids and articles, which I never expected at all.

At the same time, other film analysis channels have been popping up on Youtube that cater to different types of film fan audiences. Some of these alternative channels are well funded enterprises with teams of technical staff producing eye candy graphics and fast-paced editing to capture the lower attention span audiences. Others are just individuals like myself, but with a general difference being that I’ve actually written, produced, directed and edit several fiction films. Overall, film analysis videos have become a small online industry.

Taking part in all this has made me realize that fiction movies and fiction TV shows are psychologically very important to the masses. For a lot of people it’s not enough to simply watch and enjoy a movie. They want to know how films are made and they want a deeper conceptual understanding of their favourite films. That’s why most movies are now released on home media with film maker commentaries, behind the scenes documentaries and so on.

So why are people so fascinated with movies to the point where individuals spend hundreds or even thousands of hours in a single year sat staring at an electronic box which, at a base practical level, does nothing more than display patterns of light and sound? They spend all this time watching fiction movies knowing that it’s all just a piece of perceptual trickery. They know the actors’ expressions are faked. They know that what they’re seeing never actually happened and never will. And yet the power that movies have over people is evident in a multitude of ways.

Pretty much all human emotions can be triggered by movies from belly aching laughter through to intense fear that triggers nightmares or even induces phobias (think Spielberg’s Jaws and the fear of sharks). Advertisers and PR companies are so convinced of the power of fiction movies to influence people that they put a ton of money and effort into product placement and various forms of propaganda to underhandedly sway our opinions and behaviour in the real world. There are huge fan clubs for specific movies and genres. Talented actors and directors are held in the highest public esteem, more so than most politicians and academics. And there are thousands upon thousands of people who strive to become film makers either through academic training or independent hands on experience.

Academics and journalists are generally in agreement that there’s more to movies than just escapist entertainment. They provide film theory classes and publish in-depth books offering their own interpretations of specific films. However, the written text format of those books is very limiting and that’s where the new video based film analysis essay has stepped in to fill a void. Video essays can show specific parts of movies, combined with narration, instead of relying on a reader’s limited memory of a particular movie. Ironically the academics of film analysis don’t edit film analysis videos to present their work.

Most people also have favourite movies that they keep watching again and again and don’t get bored of and they don’t get tired of discussing those movies with other fans. They know what happens at the basic plot level, they know the ending and sometimes have most of the dialogue memorized, but they keep re-watching. And this I believe is in part because certain movies are so complex, so multi-faceted, that the viewer simply can’t take it all in during a single viewing. So each viewing becomes a new experience depending on what is being paid attention to.

People even choose to watch movies where they already know what happens based on familiar genre formats. We know James Bond and Superman aren’t going to get killed or lose their battle, but we still watch those same generic stories across multiple movies. And that’s because the details are important. The variations in challenges faced by the protagonist make each journey distinct, despite the overall repeat formula.

Another reason I think people re-watch the same movies or the same genre formulas is because they like to think about what they would do if they were in the shoes of the characters. They like to think of a solution and then enjoy watching it work for the character, or they like the character to surprise them with solutions the viewer didn’t think of. And for that reason people tend to watch genres that relate to their personal world view. If you think that life is all just a big game of flirting, dating, social status and starting a family then rom coms and domestic soap operas will have you glued to your seat. If you think life is more of a survival of the fittest, dog eat dog affair then you’ll be watching horror or action thrillers.

This psychological use of fiction for organising our understanding of the world starts very early in childhood with fairy tales and nursery rhymes before kids start creating their own stories with character based toys and by drawing pictures and role playing with their friends. Stories help kids learn what to expect in given situations, to imprint and re-inforce understandings in their own minds and it safely teaches them ways of dealing with dangerous problems. And this carries on into adult hood with novels and fiction movies. It’s the same principle but with a lot more sophistication.

The power of movies is also communicated by the fact that we have age restrictions, censorship and outright bans on certain types of fiction content, far more so than with novels. And there’s the fact that individual movies can be incredibly controversial or can draw needed attention to specific social and psychological issues, thus spurring intellectual debate.

Yet there are still some folks who believe that films have no meaning at all. That it’s all just escapist entertainment that has no worthwhile meaning other than what the viewer projects into the movie. But if that were true then The Exorcist and The Jungle Book would be perceived in the same way by the same viewer. People who hold that dismissive opinion of films are almost never film makers and are the type of people who tend to watch a particular movie only once or twice.

Contrasting the dismissive view, novels, stage plays, architecture, famous paintings, and musical compositions are intensely studied and debated in and outside of academia. A single painting that lacks animation can be crammed with meaning. But by comparison with those other art forms movies are a lot more complex. They’re multisensory, they’re continuously moving, they incorporate a new complex medium called editing, and a single movie experience can last several hours or even longer if it’s a long running TV series with dozens of one hour episodes. Individual movies can take many years and hundreds or thousands of people to make. There are usually multiple concept changes and script drafts. Every line of dialogue is carefully considered. Every camera angle, costume element, prop, sound effect and piece of music is chosen. Very little is actually random. So to assume that movies and their effects on people are merely simplistic is to deny the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Art is an essential psychological facet of human civilization and its role in society goes back way before the industrial and technological ages and before our academic institutions existed. It exists in all our societies and it’s probably as old as religion, maybe even older. Art was almost certainly a valuable communication tool back when human languages were too basic to communicate complex thoughts. Still today children learn to recognize basic artistic renditions of objects before they learn to brand them with verbal labels.

But through academia and the onset of mass literacy, verbal descriptions of reality have come to dominate the modern conscious mind-set to the point that we over-rely on it. We begin limiting our world understanding to verbal descriptions, not realizing that words and calculations and the letters and numbers they’re comprised of are in themselves just symbols. If language was truly the highest and most advanced form of human thought and perception then art would disappear from our society, but that hasn’t happened. Commercial quick-fix entertainment markets may currently be dominating what kind of art becomes mass distributed, just as religion once did the same, but the basic human appetite for art continues. Art has always been both an expression and a reflection of those parts of the human condition that we don’t have sufficient words for. That’s true for us individually and as a whole society.

Being that movies are the most complex and multifaceted form of art available to us, the studying of movies allows us to gain insights into the hidden psychological undercurrents that exist in our society. But being that film making is, in historical terms, a very young art form (just over a century old) it’s generally been perceived as being like a fad, gimmick or a new toy. So, like with children not consciously realizing the purpose or effect of stories told to them, adults mostly don’t realize the power of the fiction movies and TV shows that they watch. They feel the effects emotionally and subconsciously, but mostly they watch and listen to films with intellectual blindfolds (and earplugs). Some people naively assume that by not thinking deeply about what they watch they somehow can shield themselves against being psychologically influenced, but that attitude actually makes them a lot more gullible to misleading ideological propaganda and product placement. It’s a simple fact that if you can spot product placement consciously then you’re less likely to be affected by it right?

So film analysis helps us understand what we’re watching and how it affects us. It can help us to understand important themes expressed or encoded by film makers that would otherwise be missed. And the perceptual trickery of film in itself, the fact that it’s all fake yet we react so strongly to it, means that movies are a fantastic opportunity for us to understand our inner selves. Because out of all the different art forms, movies are the ones that come closest to matching the complex thoughts and emotions that determine our own identities and behaviour in real life. There are very few areas of human experience where fiction movies can’t provide valuable reflection.

Maybe the biggest benefit of film analysis is that once a person has been shown the intricate depths of just a handful of their favourite movies, they develop an enhanced understanding of other movies without being handheld through the process. And that kind of enhanced perception can cross over into everyday experience as well. I’ve received many emails over the years where viewers of my videos have spoken of this generic knock on effect in their own experience.

So those are the reasons I consider film analysis important. And that’s why I’ve personally taken what began as an unusual hobby and now treat it as a serious line of work, which I consider just as important as any other line of work I’ve ever been committed to. That’s why I approach the subject with as much determination and methodology as you’d expect in the worlds of business and academia.

So with all that said, it’s back to the grind stone for me.

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