Sunday, June 27, 2010


When was the last time you read a movie? You know, really immersed yourself in its meaning rather than letting it roll passively over you?

When it comes to movies, people have a tendency to say that they go to be entertained and that they'd rather not think too deeply about what's happening on the screen.

While you can find implicit meaning in almost everything, it takes exercising your analytical muscles to truly understand all the communications you encounter on a day-to-day basis. 

Movies can give us endless opportunities to hone our analytical skills and by doing so, those skills acquired through movie analysis can be applied to life and business. And understanding what lies beneath can lead to better choices, better decisions.

I'm not saying that you can't examine a work project without being able to analyze a movie. I'm just saying that because watching movies is a huge pastime in our culture - and a pleasurable one - why not use viewing films as an opportunity to hone your analytical skills?

Who has time to analyze a movie?

This has happened to me when I've found myself in a discussion about a movie and I start to head down that analytical road - somebody will state something like, "You must have a lot of time on your hands to think so much about movies."

The human brain has the capacity to think about multiple things at the same time with amazing analytical powers. But to get better at analysis, you need to exercise this ability - you need to work it - and doing so has nothing to do with time. And, ironically, most people read a film on some level without really knowing it.

Unless you're watching avant garde films (those characterized by the absence of linear narrative, frequently referred to as experimental films), story is the main focal point for most movies - that's why we watch them. We want a good story. But cinematically, the story can't be told without photography, movement, direction, editing, acting, writing, or sound. Without those components there would be no movie.

But since story - according to to Louis Giannetti in his book Understanding Movies - "reigns supreme" in American cinema, it is on this level where most audiences are tuned in. And it is in story where you can practice your analytical skills.

Remember, a story isn't just "one" thing - it is made up of parts. A story has what's known as narrative structure (even a so-called "non-linear" film like Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION has narrative structure. In fact, PULP FICTION is as close to novelistic as movies come) and, according to screenwriting guru Syd Field, most movie plots can be broken down into three acts: 1) the setup; 2) confrontation; and 3) resolution. Within those acts, says Field, a movie can contain up to 20 plot points or important events in the action.

So for the first quarter of the film you'll encounter the setup, which presents the dramatic premise. We're introduced to a main character who will encounter an obstacle and he or she has to figure out how to overcome this obstacle by setting some sort of internal or external goal. By the midpoint of the film confrontation becomes almost insurmountable and presents the character with seeming impossible challenges. The last quarter of the movie leads to resolution, even if things are not necessarily wrapped up easily. Think DIE HARD and you'll quickly understand this three act structure.

For fun, pick out your favorite movie and apply Field's ideas about narrative structure and you'll start to approach story analysis. But keep this in mind: that's only the beginning.

So what was that movie really about?

Well wait a minute, didn't we just talk about breaking down a story into parts? Isn't that analytical enough? What else is there?

Well, there's this thing called subtext, which, defined by Giannetti, "signifies the dramatic implications beneath the language of the movie." In other words, what is the movie really saying under the surface?

Think about this. Is the film TAXI DRIVER really about a psychotic man attempting to assassinate a president-elect? Or is there more to it?

If you've seen the movie, you know there's more too it than meets the eye. In fact, you can see TAXI DRIVER a hundred times and still discover new levels of meaning. But chances are, a second or third viewing will expose the film's subtext. Go back and watch TAXI DRIVER and think about what lies beneath. You'll feel your analytical muscles flexing and after you discover its subtext, you'll be able to present a relatively sophisticated analysis of this important Martin Scorsese film.

Why am I suggesting TAXI DRIVER? Because this film requires breaking through the surface to fully realize its power. It requires exercising the analytical muscle between your ears. And you don't even have to get off the couch to do it!

Let me know what you think TAXI DRIVER is really about. And let me know how you came to your conclusions.