Our Experiment in Criticism
A good watcher is someone who enters the movie theater (or fires up her Netflix queue) with expectation and excitement. The good watcher loves movies because she loves creativity, and good stories, and the sorts of beauty and wonder that she experiences through the moving images, the sounds, the lights, the characters. She approaches a movie hoping to enter into its world and become part of it for a while, and to end with her mindset and worldview challenged and expanded. She is disappointed if what she finds is merely a chance to escape the real world for a while. Or, worse, if she finds something that refuses to challenge the status quo, whether that's her ideas about the world or her perception of beauty or her sense of wonder. And she is heartbroken when the movie denigrates human dignity.
But this doesn't happen when we walk in with an agenda or a preconceived notion of what we're about to experience. And a good watcher isn't a "film snob." She knows that even a plain old superhero movie or romantic comedy might turn out to submit to a good "reading"—might help her see the world, or herself, or her neighbor in a new way.
Lewis is firm and direct on this point. He says we must learn to surrender to the art: "Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way."
To surrender is a dangerous act; to relinquish control of our experience opens us to new experiences. As Lewis says,
The primary impulse of each is to maintain and aggrandize himself. The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness. In love, in virtue, in the pursuit of knowledge, and in the reception of the arts, we are doing this. Obviously the process can be described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self. But that is an old paradox; "he that loseth his life shall save it."
I use An Experiment in Criticism as the backbone of an undergraduate course I teach on writing cultural criticism. At this point in the class discussion, someone always asks, "So how can I become a good reader or watcher?"
Readers or watchers who want to become "good"—especially if they want to become critics—have to start developing the muscles that help them watch and read reflectively. I've found that a few deceptively simple things help.
Learn about the history of the art form. What I know about film history I learned from reading books about film history. It's helped me start to see how important films have been in and to our collective history. (If you want to know more about how film history and Christianity have worked together in the last hundred years, I highly recommend Bill Romanowski's excellent, readable book Reforming Hollywood, which I reviewed last year for Christianity Today.)
Learn something about craft. I lucked out; I married someone who went to film school, and who would explain in detail to me—sometimes more than I wanted!—what was significant about that incredible tracking shot in Children of Men, or why lighting matters. It could be great to take a class, but you don't have to go to film school or marry a filmmaker to get a sense of what separates production design from art direction: again, just pick up a book.
Begin to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. There's only one way to do this: watch a lot of good movies. Every movie critic (myself included) can tell stories about a movie she once praised as the pinnacle of cinematic achievement—only to realize a few years down the road that it was her lack of experience talking, and that it was actually a shadowy imitation of something truly great. That's not something to be embarrassed about; the only way to get from milk to meat (to poorly borrow a biblical illustration) is by watching the movies that are great, just as the best way to learn what makes a good book is to read good books. And that doesn't mean just old movies, either.