So you saw Citizen Kane, read about the “Male Gaze,” and brushed up on your German Expressionism – now what? You can see every GREAT work – film, painting, sculpture, any art – that others tell you is important, and still have… well, not a lot to say.
Art is only as important as it is relevant to your life.
Seeing something a textbook once told you is the most important whatever of a generation or a century is unlikely to place it within a context suited to your emotions. And art, if nothing else, is meant to stir the emotions. So, what’s an aspiring arts-lover to do if the greats just don’t seem to be doing it for you?
Don’t dismiss them yet.
(And also, don’t forget any unlikely “art” that you already love – there is a place for The Super Mario Brothers Movie in even the most distinguished, critical, film buff’s heart. It’s simply your job to get others to notice.)
Instead, the discerning critic tries to look at them another way and actively engage with the images set before her. In other words, we make it relevant to us.
Visual Literacy is
(at its Wikipedia-simplest)
“the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image.”
Despite its existence on the web-encyclopedia to end all encyclopedias and a campaign by the Toledo Museum of Art, I wouldn’t say that I find Visual Literacy to be at the forefront of education – certainly not anywhere near the level of an initiative like STEM.
And it’s definitely not on the forefront of people’s minds when they go to watch the latest Hunger Games installment. Yet, the most heart wrenching criticism thrown at me across the last ten years of writing literary, film, and art theory is all about it:
You’re a bull-shitter. “Making meaning” is just bull-shitting.
Touché. Because the most important component of being a good critic is that you are as creative as those making the art you are critiquing. So, yes, there is an element of the imagined, the made-up, the bull-shit, inherent in what we as critics must do. However, perpetuating the myth that criticism is in effect, a made-up, pretender’s game meant to antagonize and waste the time of artists doing real work is UNTRUE and DEMORALIZING to those doing the great and necessary work of arts critics.
Critics are here to offer perspective to those that might not have one of their own. They are here to make sense of images and hopefully decode the purpose of their maker; if their maker has none, perhaps they can uncover the unintended meaning. Critics are as important as the artists themselves.
Don’t believe me yet?
Think of making meaning like making a sentence.
A sentence is, at its core, a list of words on a page. Just a bunch of nonsense, right?
jumps, fox, quick, the, brown, the, over, dog, lazy
Each word has its individual definition, and nothing more; that is, until we apply a logic to them and create a sentence.
A sentence gives meaning beyond definition: through its construction, words take on a role as subject, predicate, verb, or adjective – and those roles create meaning where it did not exist before. Giving each word a purpose in a larger scheme, we can evolve from a jumbled list of words separated by commas, to this favorite quip of handwriting teachers everywhere:
The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Now I’m making some sense. If you speak English, fox is no longer just a word, but the fox – a character in a story, with an action, a direction, and a purpose.
Are sentences bullshit?
No (not most of them, anyway). What I’m trying to get at here is this:
Language is not only a means of communication, but an inherently creative one.
After all, we’re making meaning out of a fox, a dog, some black lines and a few strokes; Why shouldn’t we afford the same power of interpretation to art?
The fact is, most people don’t look at art seriously. We see it at best as fun and playful, and at its worst childish and ineffective. In reality, art is no different from language – just another creative tool we use to speak. And it is just as important.
When you look at an image and put that same sentence-logic into play (or a totally wacky one of your own design), you make meaning, too. Whether it’s bull-shit or not is entirely dependent on the quality and intention of the sentence you construct.
In Part I of this quick and dirty introduction to Visual Literacy, I want to ask you to put that logic to work when you’re watching a film.
Yes, movies are for entertainment. You most likely go to the theater to forget about your week, relax with a gallon or two of popcorn, and escape into another place. But, once in a while, you might be inclined to do as the critics do, and engage with the world on-screen. In fact, you might be surprised at how many of these “critical” things you’re already doing every time you turn on Netflix.
8 Ways to Actively Watch a Film:
I’ll always suggest this first, because it is the easiest and fastest way to create immediate engagement with anything. Remember when your high school teacher insisted that you write down every note on the chalkboard? Writing things down not only gives you something to look back on later, but creates an active association between your brain and the content. It doesn’t have to be a whole page or even complete thoughts. Write down clues that may help you understand the film later, be they short descriptions or single words.
Let realistic expectations go.
Yes, there is a time and a place for critiquing the reality of a film’s plot, characters, or logic. Your first watch, however, is no place for judgment. Try to suspend your disbelief long enough to get a sense of the film as an individual. What is this thing you’re watching? What is it trying to say? You’ll be surprised how much you can enjoy an outlandish, unbelievable art-film when you start from a place of limited expectations.
Close your eyes and listen.
Be that loony in the theater that looks like they’ve fallen asleep (been there, done that), but really, you’re getting a feel for one of the most important and neglected parts of film – the sound. We are talking visual literacy, but sound design, music, and dialogue are as crucial to the understanding of a film as its images. Especially for films that aren’t outwardly loud or musical, closing your eyes and focusing on what is said, and how it is said, can be extremely helpful in revealing intentions, tone, and symbolism. Beyond dialogue, pay special attention to the musical score and sound effects.
See the light.
Open your eyes and focus them on the source of film, itself: light. Although the ease of a digital camera (or your damn iPhone) would have you forget, the amount of light exposed on screen is actually what makes a film. Focus your attention on where the light in a shot is coming from, whether it is soft or hard, and how it can change your mind about a character, or set the mood for a scene.
Count the seconds between shots.
Editing style can tell you a lot about a film’s intentions. Is it Michael Bay-fast? Or Orson Welles-slow? You’d be a pathological sort to count the length of every shot, but counting a few can train you to notice the pacing of an edit. Notice when a series of shots seems to be cutting particularly fast, or the director is purposely lingering on a long shot. Think about what that choice says in context with those that come before or after it. Editing style may be hidden, but each offers its own personality.
Identify a visual style and era.
(i.e. Art Deco, Expressionist, Romantic, etc.) This was and still is one of my favorite and most romanticized elements of a film. Production design is the most tangibly visual element of an already visual medium, and the carefully crafted sets, costumes, and props are what draw many into the designed world of movies. Although a film might be set in the present day, its set dressings may suggest a past era. Similarly, a film set in 1950 may be wrapped up in mod, space-age stylings that wish to be somewhere more futuristic. Design can express the deepest wants and aspirations, or illustrate our darkest fears.
Look at who else is watching with you.
If you’re in a theater, this is brilliant. Start with what the studios ask themselves: What’s the demographic? Who is the film supposed to appeal to? Who’s actually here watching it? Things can get interesting when an audience laughs at the most serious drama. Vice versa when a comedy results in no laughs at all. Does this mean there’s a problem with the film? No matter: Audience reactions say something not just about the film, but about the audience itself.
Make a list of every film you watch, starting TODAY.
It can be a fancy journal with stickers and ticket stubs and the leftover crumbs of your greasy popcorn, or simply a note on your computer calendar. I write what I’ve watched each day in my planner. Pinterest boards are an incredibly easy and visual way to keep track of what you’ve seen – just pin the movie’s poster from a Google image search or IMDB. There’s even space for your notes. But a list will certainly cut it – nothing like a bit of measurable data to make you feel a little more accomplished, and a lot more like a critic.
Some of you are still griping over the suggestion that you take notes at a movie. If you’re like me, and in the privacy of your own home, feel free to shout your thoughts and opinions directly into your iPhone’s recorder (or into the ear of whomever is unfortunate enough to be sitting next to you).
Just take a moment to jot down, in one way or another, what’s running through your head when you watch a film. It will make you a more active viewer, a better audience member, and nevermore just that asshole with an opinion.
Be a critic. Be creative; They’re one in the same.
Now prepare yourselves for…
Part 2 of the Visual Literacy Primer
We’ll talk shots (not those shots) and all that goes into them; composition, color palette, lighting, etc.
Do you have questions about how to watch or analyze a film? What can I teach you or help you to better understand when it comes to film viewing? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to address everyone individually, and your input will help me write the upcoming posts in this series.