Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

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Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

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My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

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Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

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Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  Comment below!

What you can expect from this blog

I wanted to give you an idea of what you can expect from me when I’m evaluating a film.  There are a lot of theories about what constitutes criticism, but for me, it comes down to this: a film is a film.  And I’d love to expand on that… 

A movie needs to stand on its own.  Deleted scenes, early drafts and on-set drama are all well and good – I get a kick out of that, myself – but 30 years from now, most of it will be forgotten.  All that will be left is the film, so it better work.

Conversely, a movie is not a book or a comic or a video game.  An adaptation isn’t a failure if it doesn’t rigidly adhere to every detail of its source material.  Don’t get me wrong, if a filmmaker is going to adapt a piece of work, s/he should maintain its essence…otherwise, why bother adapting? If Harry Potter isn’t an orphan, is he really Harry Potter?  Of course not, but what I’m talking about are the little things: “That line doesn’t belong to Harry!  It belongs to Hermione’s second roommate’s sister’s boyfriend!”

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I’m not a fan of the following argument:  “You just don’t understand Y movie, because you’ve never been exposed to X thing that happened in it.”  X could be any number of things — divorce, being a parent, a particular occupation, etc.  One, that argument is inherently condescending.  Two, when we take that line and run with it, the whole argument is invalid if Joe Movie-Goer has experienced X thing and still didn’t respond to Y movie.  It’s great when you can look at a film and smile or frown knowingly at a particular plot development or character quirk, but that alone does not a good film make.

Films set up their own rules, and they set up their own means through which they should be evaluated.  Broadly speaking, if you don’t laugh during a comedy, that’s a problem.  It might not be a big problem, if the characters are vivid or it’s thematically resonant, but it is a problem.  Along the same lines, a heavily plotted film, to my mind, is under a greater obligation to feel cohesive and held together than a film that isn’t so heavily plotted.

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Films aren’t under any obligation to tell stories or certainly to tell them conventionally.  Granted, a film should engage its viewers, but it should not be confined to the small box of traditional narrative structure. If Woody Allen wants to offer a 90-minute personal essay of sorts on relationships, more power to him.  If Terrence Malick wants to spend 150 minutes ruminating on man’s place in nature, so be it.

And finally, I’m going to end on a quote from Roger Ebert.  “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”  Thousands upon thousands of decisions go into making a motion picture.  What color should her shirt be?  What lens do you want on the camera?  Should we trim four frames off this shot?  How are those decisions working on you, the viewer, to produce a reaction?  You may have a preference for a film that makes you feel good or a film that makes you feel bad or a film that embraces one philosophy or another, but that doesn’t make all other films inferior.

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It’s not as if I have a checklist when I sit down to watch a film.  I’m not arguing that you can’t just enjoy a movie, and I’m certainly not trying to prove or disprove anyone’s taste.  As I’ve discussed film with friends over the years, these are some of the arguments that have reared their heads. So if you want to talk constructively about movies, I feel this is a pretty good framework.