Cinema Journal 41.1 (2001) 127-134
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"It's Just a Movie":
A Teaching Essay for Introductory Media Classes
Greg M. Smith
The question arises almost every semester. My introductory film class and I will be hip deep in analyzing the details of a film and a hand will creep up, usually from the back: "Aren't we reading too much into this? After all, it's just a movie." Taking a deep breath, I launch into a spirited defense of our analytic activity. After five or ten minutes, the student usually has a shell-shocked, what-did-I-do-to-deserve-this look on her face.
I have never been pleased with my spur-of-the-moment justifications of film analysis, which tend to come across as a bit defensive. Worst of all, they do not deal fully with the question, which I believe is very profound. Why are we spending so much time finding new meanings in something as insignificant as a movie? Aren't we just "reading into" the film? The student's question deserves a fuller answer, or, rather, it deserves several answers. As a way of finding those answers, this essay extends the dialogue started by that series of brave, inquiring students in my classes. [End Page 127]
Leaving Nothing to Chance. "All right, do you really think that every little thing in the film is there for a reason?"
Lots of things in our everyday world are there by accident. If I trip over a stone, causing me to bump into someone, the encounter is probably not part of a higher design. Random occurrences happen all the time, with no enormous significance. There is a temptation to treat a film in a similar manner, as if everything occurs by chance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A Hollywood film is one of the most highly scrutinized, carefully constructed, least random works imaginable. Of course, we know this, having seen Entertainment Tonight. We all know that it takes thousands of people to create a blockbuster movie: directors, actors, grips, and gaffers. We know that producing a film is a highly coordinated effort by dedicated professionals, but to most people it is a bit of a mystery what all these people do. When we start watching a film, we are encouraged to forget about all that mysterious collective labor. A Hollywood film usually asks us to get caught up in the story, in the world that has been created, so that we are not aware of the behind-the-scenes effort. We tend to forget the thousands of minute decisions that consciously construct the artificial world that has been created.
When I put on a shirt in the morning, I do so with very little thought (as my students will tell you). By contrast, a movie character's shirt is chosen by a professional whose job it is to think about the shirt this character would wear. Similar decisions are made for props, sound, cuts, and so on. Filmmakers work hard to exclude the random from their fictional worlds. Sets are built so that the filmmaker can have absolute control over the environment. Crews spend a great deal of time and expense between shots adjusting the lighting so that each shot will look as polished as possible. When filmmakers do want something to appear random, they carefully choreograph it. For instance, extras who are merely walking by the main characters are told where to go and what to do to appear "natural."
"But what about directors who do not sanitize the film set, who try to let bits of the real world into their films (from the Italian neorealists to Kevin Smith, director of Clerks )? What about actors like Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams who like to improvise? What about documentary filmmakers who do not script what happens in front of the camera? Don't these directors and actors let a little bit of chance creep into film?" Not really. These strategies may allow some chance occurrences to make it into...