Thoughts on Movies, Books and Analysis

Michael and I spent some time tonight talking about movies. I’m not going to go into the discussion itself, but it did get me thinking. Michael sees movies as essentially meaningless entertainment. I see movies as books with moving pictures. His comments made me wonder why I feel this way about movies (and television shows, for that matter).

Why shouldn’t we look at movies the way we look at books? In some ways, it almost seems like we should hold movies more accountable than books for their quality and content. A book has maybe twelve people who really actually do any real work the content and presentation of it (authors, editors, designers, etc.). A movie, however, has closer to a hundred – fifty if you want to really be picky about who makes important input (directors, writers, actors, designers, etc.). Movies have hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on them. It’s not even remotely uncommon these days for a movie to have cost millions of dollars, even before you factor in marketing costs. A book doesn’t cost nearly that much, and the majority of the cost goes into volume rather than actual design and content. So more people’s time and energy and more money went into most movies than most books.

I am absolutely not trying to lessen the importance of books here. There is something wonderfully pure in a single writers ideas being the entire substance of the finished product. But why is a compilation of ideas and talents seen as less? If so many people work on it, aren’t you going to see that many more people’s ideas in the finished product? And shouldn’t you be able to ask a lot in quality when so many people had to be pleased for the product to be completed successfully?

Books and movies have different tools to work with. Movies have real people with real faces for the audience to see, while books can be vague and allow the reader to paint the character any way that speaks to them. Both ways have advantages and disadvantages. Movies have music to guide or follow the action so that the audience is drawn in more, but books can use the music of words in narrative forms movies can’t really use and books can give us the thoughts of a character without the distractions of disembodied voices. Again, both have advantages and disadvantages. Both can help or hinder the telling of a story or conveying of a message. Who is to say one way is a higher or purer art form than the other? Or that one is more worthy of analysis?

I know that many movies (probably most big blockbusters today) are driven primarily by the corporation’s desire to make money, no matter the quality of the product. But seriously, books have that problem too these days. Do you have any idea how many books sell just because they have the name “John Grisham” on them? Or how many books are published so the company can put out more books? That’s pretty much the whole reason big series lines like “Dragonlance” and “Madison Finn” exist! There are some high quality things that come out of that, like Nancy Drew or some of Disney’s really great movies (“Beauty and the Beast” or “The Lion King”). So if great things can come out of it, why should we not examine them as genuine “literature”? Movies have almost become a bigger way of spreading an idea than books have! Just look at something like Michael Moore’s movies. They make huge impacts in the way people think about issues that no book, even bestsellers, can hope to do. How many Michael Moore movies can you name? How many have you seen? Now how many “current issues” books can you name? How many have you read? Even for me those numbers are scarily close (and I think I’ve only seen one Michael Moore movie).

So why shouldn’t we “read” movies as closely as we read books? Why isn’t criticism of movies as ok as criticism of books? Why aren’t the messages, even (or perhaps especially) subliminal messages, in movies worth discussing? Why can’t I complain that the inconsistencies in a movie I just saw bugged me, even if the acting and environment and general world were great? Isn’t a movie just as valid a form of conveying information and ideas and opinions and creative creations as a book is? Sure, a novel or something will take up more of the audience’s time, but so what? It’s just a different way of conveying information.

A movie has to make its message tighter and clearer than a book because it only has it’s audience’s attention for the two hours or so they are in the theatre. It’s just a different way of telling a story. Picture books take less of the audience’s time than movies, but they are valid targets of all kinds of analysis (there were no black people, why? the women were all passive and pathetic, why? the colours were great and really conveyed the feelings of anger in the character, etc.) So why shouldn’t I talk about the colours and language and stereotypes and inconsistencies in details in movies? I just don’t understand.

I don’t really understand how someone can watch a movie and not think about those things, and I think that’s my biggest problem here. I just can’t imagine thinking about it any other way. I can imagine seeing other things and coming to different conclusions, but those still involve thinking analytically about movies. For me, movies and books are just different ways of telling stories. Why should I not read into one just because it isn’t a form of storytelling that has been around for centuries? I honestly can’t see that movies are any more or less corrupt in terms of artistic integrity than books are right now. So why the difference?

I don’t think that Michael is ever really going to see movies the way that I do, but I kind of like that. It means he sees different things that I would have missed if he weren’t there to point them out. That’s part of what I like about seeing movies and reading books that other people have also experienced. Everyone sees something different, and no way is wrong. I love hearing other opinions even if I disagree (as long as they are expressed as opinions and not flat statements – but that’s a whole other discussion). I would be very sad to lose that. Analysis in a bubble doesn’t work, and like it or not we all analyse in our own little bubbles until other people give us input. While that’s not bad, the input from other sources makes the analysis not only more rich, but also perhaps more valid to more people, and thus more interesting.

Or I could be totally on crack here. Who knows.

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