Jun 14 2012

Something that confuses me about other people's viewing habits

Imagine that during the course of a conversation I ask you what your favorite song is, and suppose that you answer "Stairway to Heaven". Suppose that I am unfamiliar with that, and so I ask you who the artist is, and you answer that "I think John Paul Jones is playing bass on it." That answer is technically partly correct but also quite odd; surely I'm asking for the artist principally responsible for the work, and that would either be Led Zeppelin or Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. You would have characterized your favorite work in terms of a supporting character rather than the person most responsible for said work. That's a funny thing to do, right? Even funnier would be if the person could tell you nothing at all about who made the song.

Despite this, basically the same answers are given with some frequency when it comes to movies. Someone is apt to give you the name of an actor in the movie. But the actor isn't really responsible for very much (excepting some occasions such as Training Day where there isn't much going on other than the acting). The principal artist on a film is the director. He (or, sadly much more rarely, she) is responsible for everything, from the initial conception to scripting, casting, image composition, lens choice, lighting, visual effects, and editing. He determines the tone of the film, the look, the plot (where there is one), pacing, and the point of view (the entire mise en scene, as they say).

Of course, there are movies that don't fit the above description very well. Take the film Cowboys and Aliens, a pre-packaged and cynically made film with 6 credited writers, 5 producers, and workaday director Jon Favreau and you aren't exactly talking about a movie that is the brainchild of an auteur. This is a mere product, as distinct from fine cinema as a Thomas Kinkade vintage is from Ludwig Meidner. Similarly, we have the idea of corporate music, wares with singers like Ashlee Simpson written by a team of musicians, engineered by technical wizards, and produced by entrepreneurial geniuses whose sole mission is to make money.

But no serious person claims that those are his favorite things. How many people would expect to be taken seriously if they were in earnest recommending Robert Wyland as their favorite painter, or Final Destination 3 as their favorite film? That being the case, one reasonably expects that people talk up works that represent a given artistic vision. If that's so, how come so many people seem unaware of who the artist actually is?

Most people are entirely cognizant of who they like when it comes to music. If you ask somebody what music they like to listen to, they will probably name some artists and even a major artistic movement within the medium. It puzzles me that when you ask them about film, they don't seem to do the same. People are seemingly unaware of major movements within film, though many can tell you about modern western music's progression through ragtime, jazz, british invasion, punk, new wave, etc. Ironically, though, most people I know watch movies much more than they listen to music, leading one to believe they would be more invested in it. This would apparently be wrong.

I suppose that because of its nature, film is advertised in a way that abstracts away the director (except during Oscar season). Books and music don't do this. However, I hardly think that people choose their favorite works because of advertisements, as that would be a very dim indicator for the intellect of the average American. Believing that, then, I'm sincerely puzzled why the medium seems so fundamentally different to people than the others do.

1 comment

  1. Jason Flatley

    It's not surprising to me that people don't identify movies by directors. If you showed 100 people 5 movies each (from the same genre), of which two were by a single director, and the other three were by other different directors, how many people could correctly identify the two, and tell you why? Not many, I reckon. The point here is that the director's influence on a film is extremely subtle to everyone except film buffs. With actors, or musicians, as you note in your post, it's much easier to identify their influence.

    If you don't agree, let's try this: pick your favorite director I've never heard of, and try to formulate a really precise set of criteria that distinguishes his or her work. Then pick 5 movies and give me the 2/5 test above. Do you really think I will pass?

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