How to Attend a Film Showing: Q&A with Professor Bob Hurst, Film and Media Studies
Q: What should students plan to encounter at a film showing? Is there any special etiquette?
A: Etiquette-wise, not really. I mean, you’re going to sit and view, and you’re quiet and respectful of your other audience members, and you’re there to sort of take in the performance. So, what one should expect to encounter I guess is what you’ve been accustomed to expect.
There may be a Q&A with the film director, producer, or scholar afterwards. Those are actually better events to attend, because then you get a perspective that you typically don’t otherwise. The types of events that we host in the film department are screening series and one-off exhibitions that usually are curated in some way for you. You don’t just walk into the room, and there’ll be a film on, and then you leave. It’s typically hosted by the department or other departments on campus. It would be contextualized somehow - it would be introduced and then there would be a Q&A afterwards, whether it would be the filmmaker or someone else to lead the discussion.
Q: So how is this different from just going to a movie?
A: Well, it’s different because you’ll be seeing films you usually won’t see anywhere else. You’ll be potentially actually meeting the filmmakers involved in the process. And it’s different also for the reason I just said, and that is that it will be contextualized somehow. There’s a reason that this film is screening. It’s not because it just opened across the country. It’s related to a course or part of an ongoing series.
Q: Okay. So, I think most people think about there being a popular movies/film dichotomy. Could you outline some important things for students to look for as they’re watching a screening, so that they can get more out of it?
A: Right, the default position for a movie, in the U.S. especially, is that they’re there for pleasure and entertainment. But there’s another dimension to art, and that is that there’s something deeper to it. It’s not just something you’re supposed to enjoy passively; you’re supposed to think about it a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with a movie being difficult and engaging you intellectually and forcing you to think and not just being a pleasurable experience. So it's good to be prepared to think about the film in that way. I mean, when someone is struggling through Dostoyevsky, they don’t say, “Oh, he’s a terrible writer.” They realize that there’s a purpose to the struggle. And you get something out of that, and you have to think about it. So it might not be something that happens right away. If you’re just engaging with a non-multiplex film for the first time, it can be off-putting because you don’t have all the answers right away. This is why a lot of people hate going to museums, because they think they have to know something about the work of art immediately. Well, it doesn’t work that way. You go, it makes an impression on you, and two months later you have a thought about it. It’s just about immersing yourself in the world and experiencing it, not reaching a concrete conclusion or judgment. Part of it is about having the experience. And you know, for film, it’s about having the non-Hollywood experience. These films look and feel distinct are tell different kinds of stories.
Reflecting on the Experience
Q: Would you recommend that students take notes? If so, how should they take those?
A: Sure. I think they should write down just a phrase or a word or a description of a shot just to remind them to go back in their memory to that moment. They don’t have to write a running narrative; it’s really just about writing down little pieces of things. If they’re looking for visuals, for instance, they could write down “a shot with a blue ball in the corner of the room, why is it there?” And they don’t have to have the answer. You’re not interpreting, you’re really just describing, and then you go back and do interpretation. The reflection is sort of about interpretation. But the writing part is more about just reacting to the piece; it’s stream-of- consciousness. It’s just making notes on what you see and hear, and then reactions, and that helps link you back to the story later on.
Q: Is there any specialized lingo that students need to know before they attend a screening?
A: Most of us are familiar, I think, with a certain amount of filmmaking lingo - terms such as framing, composition, for instance. These terms can help in describing a shot or a series of shots, which then can assist in interpreting the role of a film’s visual style as it relates to the story. For instance, in the television show Breaking Bad, in season four, Hank’s (the DEA agent) wife Marie decorates the house in purple tones obsessively. Why? What does it say about her character?
In film studies, the term mis-en-scene is a catch-all for the terms that describe a film’s style, and includes elements like costuming, lighting, and color, as well as more general aspects of a film, like performance, space, camera position, and framing. Reading up a little bit about mise en scene could give students nice general categories in which to think about describing a film.
Q: I think that would be very helpful. It would be good to know ways to talk about it more intelligently than, “I liked that” or “They had nice costumes.”
A: Yeah, and the next question is why. Well, you like the costuming because it was imaginative, but you feel like it also works for the character. Costuming is interesting because it needs to work for the character and for the tone of the film. The character Marie in Breaking Bad also wears purple costumes repeatedly in season four. If costuming is all about character, and who the character is, what does this say about her? Is it working, is it not working?
Q: Are there any things that you would recommend students to look for specifically?
A: I would look for subject matter. How is the subject matter different than a standard Hollywood film? How is the style different, in terms of lighting, color, performance, etc.? How are representations of people different? What did the people literally look like? If it’s a fiction film, for instance, there can be a difference between casting for Hollywood films and casting for independent films.
Be thinking about what the film was about, and how the film’s ideas are expressed not just in terms of what happens, but what the film looks like and what the film sounds like. So if the film is about loss, for instance – if in the plot, a loved one dies - how, visually is that expressed? And why is it expressed like that? And sound is the same way: sound-wise, how is it expressed? Is there music, or is there silence? Story-wise, how is the film different from what you would expect in a standard Hollywood film? For example, one answer might be, “There was no happy ending.” The perception of Hollywood films is that they have got to have happy endings because audiences need to walk out of there satisfied. And that’s the rule of thumb, I guess. And of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re comparing it to a Hollywood film, can you imagine seeing this kind of story at a multi-plex? Or if you are watching a documentary, I would ask, “How does the filmmaker tell the story, and how do they try to engage the audience?” Do they try to be like Supersize Me, where there’s a personality like Morgan Spurlock leading us through? Or is it the type of a documentary where it’s more about the people and events on screen? Do the filmmakers present a particular point of view? Style is every bit as important in documentary as it is in fiction films.