Why Can’t You Just Watch the Movie?

There are two kinds of people in the world: the people who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the people who don’t. (**Rimshot**)  Among the many binary categorizations of humans, one that I run into a lot is: people who want to figure out why a story works, and people who don’t.  And these two kinds of people can really get up each other’s nose.  From my perspective, there I am, having a swell discussion about why the film we just saw worked (or didn’t), when someone says “Why do you have to ruin it by chewing it to death?”

Ruin it?  But that’s half the fun.  For me.  Because I’m one of those people.

Okay, some of this is just professional: when I read a book or see a TV show or a movie or a play, and I like it, I want to tease out what worked.  And I really enjoy doing that with other people, seeing what worked for them, what didn’t, what they caught that I didn’t get.  Same way, if I encounter a story that doesn’t work for me, I want to understand how they lost me.  If I’m disappointed by something that seemed promising, then I really want to understand it.

I can trace this directly back to High School, when I discovered for the first time the heady satisfaction of debating plot and character in English class.  I was aware, even at the time, that many of my classmates thought this was 1) a waste of time and 2) something to be endured in order to move on to something more enjoyable, like field hockey practice.  De gustibus. But adolescence is often the first time you get a chance to have opinions and have them be taken seriously; adolescence was when I discovered that figuring out the why of my opinions so that I could defend them was interesting in its own right.  Fun, even.

I love seeing films with my husband; aside from the obvious (who else’s hand do I want to hold during the scary bits?) he comes at films from a very different place: he’s a techie, a recording engineer, a guy who hears things that pass me by.  And he’s not too shabby in the plot department either, so talking over a movie or TV show with him is fun because he’ll tell me something sonic that I missed, that might have influenced the impact of the story in a way that would never have occurred to me.  Ditto my brother: he and I were raised in the same household, watched the same TV, were formed by the same stuff, and yet his take on film and books is wildly divergent from mine (I almost stopped speaking to him when I found out how much he liked Peggy Sue Got Married, a movie I hate) and yet his reasoning is fascinating.

I know there will be people in every crowd who like or dislike a creative work but don’t want to talk about their opinions.  Some people just have a visceral reaction and don’t care to pursue it.  Some people get anxious when their opinion goes against the opinion of the group (I thought Cowboys and Aliens was a swell movie, but voicing my opinion brought down a surprising pile of outrage on my head). Stating an opinion makes you vulnerable; I don’t know that friendships have actually broken up over whether Han Solo shot first, but I wouldn’t be surprised.  And some people aren’t good at looking at the reasons why something worked or didn’t, and the exercise offers them no pleasure.  All perfectly legitimate reasons to change the topic to gardening or where to go for dinner.

If you’re one of the people who doesn’t want to talk about it, please don’t feel you have to do so.  All I ask, as one of those people, is that you let us get it out of our systems.  Give us five minutes.  You might be amused by the back-and-forth (always happy to provide amusement for my fellow humans).  You might hear something that interests you.  You might realize you have something to say–although, again, you don’t have to.  But don’t try to head off this kind of discussion–a post-mortem is like the Hydra: if you cut off one head two more pop up, until the entire night is taken over by whether the ending of The Sixth Sense is properly set up (it totally is).

When the discussion has wound down there will still be time to talk about other things. Like gardening. Or where to go for dinner.


  1. I’m 180 from that. For me, anything resembling art or entertainment – as a viewer, consumer or reader, I hasten to add, not as an editor – is 100% visceral. It kicks me in the stomach and makes me react emotionally. I back away from crit in any shape or form, sometimes loudly and rather rudely, and yes, I’m aware of the irony, since I’m a reviewer as well. But my reviews are not crit; they’re reactions. I will literally back out of a room with my fingers in my ears when one of Those Discussions starts up.

    For me, art is sex and giggling and hunger and desire and rage and everything that means getting naked and rolling around in something until I’ve covered with it. It’s magic, and I don’t want my magic ruined by physics. Let me love the beautiful tropical bird and don’t dissect it for me, please. I am not vaguely interested in its bones or digestive tract. I just want to watch it fly and admire its glorious colours.

    • And then for some of us, physics _is_ magic. But then, I’m one of the post-mortem crowd, as well. All art requires processing, for me, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of a visceral reaction.

      • As I said: all I ask that my friends who do that give me fair warning when they’re about to start deconstructing, so that I can get out of the room and leave them to it. It’s a fair enough request, I think: the Janus face to Madeleine’s request to just give you five minutes. I do ask, however, that the post-mortem and deconstructors among my own circle of friends respect that maybe I really don’t want to take part, listen, and that maybe I’ve learned – for that, in my case substitute “absorbed” – what I want and need from a given thing.

      • Now that I know this is the case, I will make sure to take my post mortems elsewhere when you’re around. I don’t want to squash anyone’s enjoyment; it’s just that part of mine involves thinking out loud about what I’ve seen.

  2. Is it weird that I only want to do this if I didn’t like the book or the movie or whatever? If I love a thing, I just want to slip under its skin and go with it, not analyse at all (“he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason” – I only want to perform dissection on something that’s already dead) (tho’ that may just be a rationalisation, but if it is I don’t know what I’m rationalising).

    • I don’t think it’s weird, Chaz. I have to say that I’m more likely to want to examine something that works brilliantly if it’s part of something larger that works just-okay. Because if the brilliant stands out that much, it’s likely that the rest is not as brilliant as I thought it must be by contagion.

  3. The only kind of post-movie discussion I don’t like is when someone starts nit-picking on something I loved. Also, if I’ve been really moved, I’m not usually ready to start deconstructing on the drive home. But talking about why it worked, or didn’t? Fun.

    Speaking of which, I’m curious why you hated “Peggy Sue Got Married.” I remember liking it quite a lot, but it was a long time ago.

  4. So no “Discover” or “Animal Planet” documentaries for Deborah, I guess?

    Me, I’m with Madeleine on this one. Understanding how and why that tropical bird flies or how it evolved its amazing colors only adds to my sense of awe and admiration.

    Penn & Teller once did a version of a magic routine, the one where the partner or assistant (sometimes cast as “audience volunteer”) gets put in a box and cut in three pieces, the pieces separated, with a hand waving from this box over here, the head smiling hello from that one over there…

    They did this routine once normally, then repeated it with the stage and props all made of clear lucite, so the audience could see how it was done. Now, you’d think this would spoil the magic of the thing. But the fact is, it came off even more amazing than the regular version. Because when all you get is the final effect, yeah, it’s cool and impressive. But you can also assume there’s a double for the assistant providing those apparently disembodied hands and feet, a variety of mechanical aids, mirrors, maybe even some trick photography (since this is, after all, television). Instead, you discover it’s no such thing, it’s really all Teller. He zips back and forth beneath the stage, pulling himself on handholds to pop up a head here, a hand there, a foot over there. The amazing amount of split second timing and sheer athletic and contortional ability involved is absolutely stunning.

    This demonstrates a principle that exists, I think, in all art forms: that the simplest, and most effective, dramatic effects generally have a far more elaborate underpinning than it would appear. They look slick and easy and natural, but there’s a huge amount of effort behind many artistic creations which appear, on the surface, quite effortless.

    For me, appreciating the effect is great, but understanding that effort that went into producing it is even greater. It seems to me a more profound sort of appreciation, for the artist as well as for the work.

    Those who disagree are welcome to their opinions, of course, and are also welcome to let their attention wander to other conversations, to use their delete keys on posts, or otherwise avert their tender eyes and ears.

      • OK. A final response from me and then I’m out of this particular discussion, because weirdly I am beginning to feel a little bullied, or maybe just completely misinterpreted here. In any case, I will have had my say and honestly don’t want to analyse this, either. I don’t willingly do analysis. Warning, Mad – this is pretty cranky, but not without cause.

        I don’t understand what in the world a science documentary and a poem by Keats have in common, at least not in the context of this particular discussion. If I’m walking into a science documentary, I know ahead of time that I’m walking into a science documentary. I have therefore CHOSEN to walk into a science lecture, in the full knowledge that I am watching or attending “From Pteradactyl to Gldfinch: Dissecting Birds of Plumage and their Colourful Mates.” I am there for the dissection.

        That is light years and miles away from reading a poem about a skylark and having someone determined to tell me all about how “the underlying metaphor for the skylark is really all about the author’s repressed sexuality, but see, the author wasn’t willing to really explore that and that’s why it didn’t WORK, see”. No thanks. Pass-a-dena. I do not give a plug nickel for why the poem works, and in fact, ruthless analysis of a piece of creativity is, to me, the equivalent of destroying it. I don’t process that way, never have, and really don’t much want to, thanks.

        Nor – and this is for Duncan – am I obliged to.

        Some of us prefer our magic unexplained, specifically in the realm of creative magic. I will sit for hours watching in fascination as someone breaks down the mechanics of a hurricane or a tornado. That is not the same as listening to someone telling me why Othello or Antigone or Catcher in the Rye worked for them. I’m willing to give the analysts all the room they want; I just wish more of them were as considerate as Madeleine, and willing to warn me ahead of time, so that I can leave them to it and preserve my own joy in the subject about to be dissected, before my pleasure in whatever it was is destroyed.

        I found that last post almost unbelievably patronising. “Avert my tender eyes and ears”? No problem. Just warn me first, so that I can avoid your need to be clever and educational. “Let my attention wander to other conversations”? Some of us can’t; we were brought up to pay attention to the person speaking. Manners, and all that. And you know, until that last warning-free post, I actually used to enjoy that Penn and Teller trick. Thank you for being kind enough to explain the “science” behind it. It is now boring chicanery, and I’ll never watch them do it again. Another source of pleasure bites the dust.

        Summation: Just because something works for you, you might try understanding that it won’t necesarily work for the person next to you. And there’s me, having had my say and done with this discussion, over and out.

      • Okay, I think the hyperbole gremlins have gone a little haywire on both sides of the question.

        Deb, now I know you don’t enjoy this sort of discussion, I won’t have one around you. Easy as pie. I understand you taking exception to Duncan’s “tender ears,” but I’m fairly certain he didn’t mean it to be incendiary.

        For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily want to pick the corpse down to the last sinew. It’s more like I want to marvel a little bit at someone else’s skill. I do it my way. You emphatically do it yours. No harm, no foul.

  5. Well, Deborah, even if you’re done posting, I hope you’ll glance at the comments at least once more, in order to read at least the first couple of paragraphs here:

    My apologies if that sounded patronizing (or, as Mad suggests, incendiary), it wasn’t intended to be. Probably I should not have led with your name, which may have made it sound like the whole thing was addressed to you, specifically, in an attempt to change your mind. It wasn’t.

    Nor, I think, did I suggest at any point you were obligated to indulge in any analysis of a work of art, or listen to anyone elses analysis, if you don’t choose to. Your way of relating to any piece of art is your own business.

    If you want to stop there, that’s fine. If you’re interested in a little clarification:

    – I’m stating my opinions. They’re often strongly held. That doesn’t mean I assume they’re Right in some Absolute Cosmic sense. Your mileage may vary. Such statements are (were) framed as “I think..,” “It seems to me…,” “In my opinion..,” and not as “The Real Truth Is,” or “You Have To,” or whatever.

    -My point about the science documentaries was that in my experience (note the qualifying phrase), delving into how and why things work – regardless of whether it’s how a poem or novel is constructed, how a building is designed, the migratory habits of the great blue heron, or the devices behind a magic trick – only increases the magic, the wonder, the amazement. You were, after all, the one who first made the comparison between a work of art and a tropical bird, I was just running with that imagery. No one compared a science documentary to a poem, the comparison was between the poem and the *subject* of the documentary, as two things equally magical and awe-inspiring (and for some of us, worth analyzing).

    – As to spoiling Penn & Teller for you, you say, “I actually used to enjoy that Penn and Teller trick,” but if you have actually seen this act, you’re being disingenuous, because I revealed nothing about it you hadn’t already seen. Revelation of the “trick” is the whole point of the routine. To suggest I “spoiled” that routine for you, or anyone, is like saying I spoiled “Titanic” by mentioning that the ship sinks in the end. (Judge for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2H81A3bU68k ). P&T are famous for this, so if you go to their shows, or watch their videos, you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into several routines like this one, which reveal certain secrets of stage magic (or supposedly reveal them – it’s not always the “real” secret). If that upsets you, why are you watching P&T at all? (That’s not intended as a snark, BTW, but as a serious question).

    Apparently, my closing came across as sarcastic and condescending. Let me try that again, in less potentially loaded language:

    – You don’t want to listen to analysis, that’s your prerogative. You absolutely have the right to absent yourself from any such group discussion, and in a one-on-one conversation, to pre-empt the conversation going there.

    Hope that’s clearer.

  6. I am definitely someone who likes to discuss plot devices, in both movies and in books. (I think that’s why I didn’t enjoy The Night Circus as much as most people did. I just didn’t GET how the plot really made sense.) I think it’s fun to discuss, but there’s a negative side, too- I often just don’t enjoy things as much as other people do!

    I really just wanted to write a note here and say that I am SO EXCITED that there is another book in the Sarah Tolerance series coming out so soon! I don’t know if you remember chatting with me before, but I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I’m very excited that Sarah is making another appearance- I love her 🙂

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