The Ideal Viewer

Two weeks ago, when I wrote about The Seventh Seal, I had one kind of response to it. Kyle Smith (and his commenters) at National Review had a very different response. Over the past year, people have had strikingly opposite reviews of movies like Joker, The Irishman, A Hidden Life, and Parasite. No doubt preference and taste account for some of those differences. Probably the egalitarian and democratic nature of the internet accounts for a few more (as “reviewing” movies is not limited to experts). When it comes to classic movies—cult or otherwise—some of it is inevitably nostalgia. But in terms of my own feelings about movies, I am more and more convinced that current circumstances play a determinative role in the experience of watching something.

In other words, there is a kind of “ideal viewer” for a movie, in terms of both expectation and perspective. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t objective criteria for what makes a movie good or bad. Acting, narrative construction, editing, and camera operation come to mind. For me, I don’t want to notice any of those things on first view, because if I notice them, that means that there’s something taking me out of the experience of watching. Probably there are exceptions, in cases of originality or uniqueness (I’m thinking of the way that The Lighthouse was filmed). And if a movie stands the test of time, it has to be reckoned with in one way or another, even if watching it today is not the same as watching it when it first appeared.

But even if something is well-made, what does that mean to different people? Polished? Shiny studio material? Big-budget? A unique or original take on the subject matter? A relatable character study? An excellent story? In the end, I find the instructive question to be, what did you like about it? What was it that made this movie affective or effective for you? And since no one watches anything in a vacuum, all of that depends very heavily on the physical and emotional environment surrounding the viewer, as well as that person’s experiences and understanding of various things. Something that moves one person might not touch another person at all.

Who is the ideal viewer? Is that determined by the filmmaker’s intent, or the viewer’s interpretation? Those sorts of hermeneutical questions probably all come out somewhere in between. When it comes to the Scriptures, for example, I would suggest that the ideal reader is the one at whom the evangelists are aiming (cf. John 20:31)—though it’s clear that no one has control over who’s going to interpret the Scriptures and how.

From a human point of view, the Scriptures are no different from any other piece of art. The reception of a film, or a piece of music, or a painting is always caught between the maker and the one who looks at it, reads it, or listens to it. Once something is produced, it’s out of the hands of the artist or maker, and the interpretation is no longer controlled. A filmmaker might have one intention, determined by his or her own experience and situation, while an audience—made up of different people with different experiences and situations—has alternate or even contradictory responses to the original intention. That sort of interplay is what makes the discussion fun, and everyone has to make the case for a particular interpretation.

The answer to the question of who is the ideal viewer of a film has probably as many answers as there are films. But in my own watching, expanded by watching films I know nothing about, as well as those recommended by people I trust, or whose taste seems to align with my own, nothing seems to determine my experience as much as the state of mind I’m in when I watch it. That is, I suppose, a persuasive argument for watching movies more than once, but it’s also an argument for talking about movies with people whose experiences (of the film, or of life) do not match. Convince me to take a second look at a movie that I didn’t like at first, or that a movie I liked may not be as powerful as I originally thought. Either way, I find that each of those discussions—besides making me want to watch more movies—veers and winds through ideas and topics and interests far beyond entertainment. And that, in itself, is sufficient evidence for the worth of both the film and the discussion that the film creates.