Reading in the new century


richter reading
Gerhard Richter,
Reading (1994).

In the new issue of Ruminator interview, Fran Lebowitz takes issue with, well, basically everything in modern American life. She’s been doing so, hilariously, for a couple of decades now, and it’s nice to know she’s as funny and acerbic in conversation as she is in print. One thing she said, however, has been stuck to the roof of my mouth for a few days now:

Movies that are polemic are at a disadvantage when compared to books—they’re ephemeral. Your experience with them is over the second you leave, and then you start reinventing the thing in your mind. Whereas a book you can have with you. A book can be re-consulted in a way movies are not going to be, and a book is less dependent on exciting you, in the way that a movie must. Electronic forms of entertainment are in opposition to the idea of thought. It doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy them, that they’re not fun, that they can’t be good or even great. But … thought is quiet. It’s actually silent. And so is reading.

Fran’s full of it here. Watching movies, and writing about them, has honed my thought as much, if differently, than reading literature. Literature and comics have encouraged quietude in my life, and reinforced the idea of contemplation and the slow percolation of ideas. But movies have encouraged memory retention for me and the ability to make connections between themes more quickly.

Let me explain. Lebowitz is correct that the nature of movies is ephemeral—what you’re watching changes 32 times a second, after all—but that effect, that lack of ability to go back and revisit immediately, is precisely what challenges your thought. Last month, I wrote that Out of Sight is the sort of artwork that rewards close attention. Significant things happen so quickly that you have to be alert to catch it all. With a great movie, you can’t be lazy as you watch it. As countless late nights of reading bad essays in college—and then re-reading passages, with the same level of incomprehension—has proven, you can indeed be lazy while reading. After all, the text is right there for re-consultation; why be careful the first time through?

Thought often is quiet, of course. But we clarify and revise our ideas best when we talk about them with others, when we bounce mediocre ideas of friends who then gleefully inform us of how full of shit we are. For full intellectual growth, we need both the silence and the clamor.

Besides, most of us start thinking about a good (or, at least, interesting) movie as soon as the credits roll. At our best, we’re thinking and processing as we watch—we’re rarely just passive observers of what we see.

But something is happening to our experience of movie watching that’s changing all this. I’m not at all sure the change is for the better.

Four years ago, I bought a used DVD player. Almost immediately, my viewing habits changed. The first DVD I rented was David Kane’s Born Romantic, a lovely, small comedy that weaves together several romantic stories. It is, however, a British movie, and the accents are often thick. I had trouble making out several passages of dialogue. Thirty minutes into the movie, I realized I could cure this problem. I pushed a button on the remote, and suddenly there were unobtrusive subtitles at the bottom of the screen.

Subtitles became a standard part of my viewing, even when I could understand every word. This is helpful when watching a Robert Altman flick, in which there’s lots of overlapping dialogue, or a screwball comedy, in which great lines tend to zip by like teenage drivers on the Autobahn.

I began to take advantage of the DVD player in other ways. Every time I watch Besieged, I want to pause at every close-up of Thandie Newton—she’s so beautiful that I want to hang every still frame of her like a picture on my wall. I could never freeze-frame so well on a VCR; those white static lines slice through the frame, and the picture quivers slightly, even when paused. When watching the first season of Arrested Development, my eye would stray to a tiny, seemingly extraneous detail. Watching it on DVD, I could pause and zoom in on a visual that turned out to be a great little joke. Except for the true technophiles out there who owned laserdisc players, all of these gimcracks were unimaginable a decade ago.

In short, watching a movie has become more like reading a book. We can focus on a particular passage, re-read, hone in on details, in ways that are just like reading. Hell, DVDs even have chapters. I find myself watching a single movie over the course of several days now, seeing it in bite-size chunks and returning to it later, exactly where I had left off.

DVDs even have the equivalent of footnotes—deleted scenes, director’s commentaries, actor biographies, interviews, and other goodies. Besieged, which is based on a short story, even includes the story itself on the DVD, read by the author, so that you can hear the story as you watch it unfold cinematically. You can even translate the movie to the language of your choice; click the audio button, and suddenly the movie’s dubbed into bad French.

I think I’m supposed to say that all of this is wonderful—huzzah for new technology! Except that it’s not, exactly. Cinema, at its best, is a pop art form. I don’t mean any of this pejoratively. Movies can certainly contain the intellectual depth, moral rigor, and emotional weight of great literature. The difference between high art and pop art is not the depth so much as it the immediacy. Reading is supposed to be a tranquil, solitary experience, even when we’re reading potboilers and smut. High art leads the viewer into her interior state, into herself. Although we can appreciate high art with others, it’s best experienced in solitude, in quietude, in a spirit of contemplation. We read slowly, and our response to a great book is one that percolates and steeps over time.

Movies are immediate; watching a movie, we’re always in the moment. This doesn’t mean that we’re not thinking as we watch, but our mode of thinking tends to be different. Few filmmakers approach routinely the sort of intimacy and one-on-one contact that a great writer aspires toward, and with good reason. But, in capturing the continual onrush of life, and the sense of multiple trains of thought vying simultaneously for one’s attention, movies are better than books. The nature of reading one line at a time, in sequence, means that it’s tough to convey the layers and overlaps of existence in writing. Movies can cut, superimpose image onto image, and integrate sound into the image in a way that can’t be done as effectively in literature.

Cinema is also a common art form, by which I mean it’s a communal art. It’s best to see a movie in a group. By necessity, you can’t catch everything in one viewing, unless it’s a bad movie. Talking with someone outside the theater, we’re reminded of items of interest that we may have missed; we clarify what we missed while we were focused on something else. We connect to other people through movies in ways that we rarely do with books or music.

More than that, movies are intended to be larger than life, even at their most intimate. We project them onto huge screens. They overwhelm us. We’re supposed to laugh out loud at them, to cringe in horror at them, to respond viscerally to a scene in a way that we never would while reading. Movies are outsized. That, in fact, is their power—the sheer size forces us to expand our field of vision, to move outside of ourselves. Books draw us inward; movies draw us out into the light.

Our experience with movies, however, is becoming more introverted. Journalists and Hollywood execs worry about the ever-dwindling attendance at movie theaters, the rate of which has fallen every year for the last decade. We’re staying inside more. There are lots of reasons for this, but I can’t help but think that the rise of the DVD plays a huge role. Just as importantly, movies themselves are getting smaller and more intimate in scale. Filmmakers are aping TV conventions more and more, so that we’re seeing more close-ups and more tight shots in features than ever before. Most young directors have more training with music videos—MTV is almost film school at this point—than with full-scale productions, and so design their movies for the small screen rather than the large one.

It’s vitally important that we know how to think in stillness. But we also need to know how to think in motion. Both kinds of thinking—reading—are necessary, and both impulses are embedded into us. This is why high art and pop art will always co-exist.

But one of the most effective and popular purveyors of pop art is beginning to navel-gaze, to consciously appropriate the aims of reading. Almost no one I know actually talks about the movies they see with others. We’re gradually losing the shared experience of movie-watching. Perhaps we’re becoming more intelligent, informed moviegoers but, given the movies that tend to be the highest DVD sellers, I doubt it. But we’re certainly becoming more private ones. I think we’re become more passive viewers as well, more willing to accept summer-blockbuster swill than ever before. Movies, at their best, encourage active engagement, and quick mental reflexes. More and more, we’re accustomed to letting it all wash over us, but are full of insider knowledge. We’re more likely to know a movie’s box office grosses, and about how it was made, than we do about its aesthetics. And that’s why I’m not as enthusiastic about the idea of movie-watching as another form of book-reading as I could be.

I’m not alone. David Lynch refuses to allow his movies to be chopped up into chapter breaks, nor has he ever recorded an audio commentary for any of his films. I’m sure part of this is Lynch’s customary orneriness, but part of it is an understanding of what movie viewed is supposed to be, and why we need to differentiate it from reading. He wants us to watch Mulholland Drive all the way through, in one uninterrupted sitting, in an unfragmented rush. He sees that this form of viewing, separate from textual reading, is essential. And he’s right.

Of course, I still get pissed that I can’t rewind The Straight Story at will, and that Blue Velvet has no explanation other than what my shoddy mind will allow. But perhaps the trade-off is worth it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Reading in the new century

  1. Michael says:

    A very thoughtful post, QB. Whenever movies get compared to literature (especially when writers or book lovers are doing the comparing), movies often get denigrated, for some of the same reasons Lebowitz mentions. But I’m with you on this one: I don’t think Lebowitz really knows what she’s talking about here. The great film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once defended the director Michelangelo Antonioni against certain critics because Rosenbaum felt they didn’t understand the way in which one is supposed to think about a film. Ideally, you watch a film and then you live with the experience of it for a while before you sit down and critique it; this was Rosenbaum’s view, and he believed that great films deserved this sort of patient thinking. Doing so doesn’t mean that we reinvent the thing in our minds; in fact, we use our minds to an even greater capacity because we don’t have the object in front of us to revisit over and over again, the way we would with a book (although, as you mention, this has changed with the advent of DVD).
    The real problem is that Lebowitz underestimates the sheer power of images. Yes, film is ephemeral, but I don’t know why that means it can’t be as polemical as a book; I mean, are polemics only effective if they are offered in a medium that one can visit over and over? If so, she should also write off speeches, music, and other media. Most of all, I think now of films like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, which begins with images of the effects of the nuclear devastation in Hiroshima. I don’t believe that Resnais really intended the images as a polemical argument, but viewing them I realize that there is no greater argument against man-made destruction than this film — no book can wield that kind of immediate, direct power. Film isn’t opposed to thought; it’s the embodiment of it and, most of all, of feeling, which to me is far more important.

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