Monday, February 23, 2009


At Happy Hour last Friday we had a discussion about watching movies versus reading books.  It made me wonder how other people judge movies and books.  For me, the way I judge movies and books are totally different although I'm not sure, in the end, that I'm harder one or the other.  I just reach my conclusion in different ways.

I have a simple way of judging whether a movie is "good" or not.   For me, a perfect movie is one that I experience totally in the moment.  From the moment the lights go down in the movie theater until the moment the closing credits start to roll I will forget I'm in a movie theater and I will inhabit the world that is created on the screen for me.  I completely suspend disbelief.

Of course no movie is perfect.  There is always a moment in every movie (or two or five or fifty moments) when I am pulled out of the story and I remember I'm in a movie theater watching a man-made creation.  Sometimes it's because a camera shot is TOO good and I'm reminded it is a camera shot.  More often it is because of a lapse in continuity or a problem with characterization or inappropriate soundtrack or some other event that arose out of a choice the filmmakers made.  The moment I start to wonder why the creators made that choice (even if I think it is a brilliant choice) I'm pulled out of the movie and it becomes a little less perfect for me.  For me, the structure of a movie needs to be invisible and I should only notice it after the movie is over and I start to think about why I liked it.

I walk into every movie believing that it could be the perfect movie experience.  For me, movies are like math tests.  Everybody has a perfect score in that single moment before the teacher says, pick up your pencil and turn over your test.  Then ... the points start to come off.  And my red pencil is ruthless. In the end, most movies that I see end up having what would be an average grade if I were grading them.

Novels are different for me.  I assume that every novel I pick up is average.  There isn't anything wrong with average.  You can say nice things about average. So I often say nice things about novels that I don't think are particularly special.  I try to find something good about them, I try not to be too harsh in pointing out the things that I think didn't work. 

But the way I experience a novel is exactly the opposite of how I experience a movie.  I am always aware that a novel is a man-made creation and some of my favorite novels have found me talking to the author (sometimes aloud) as I read.  Complimenting or berating her.

So, if I were grading a novel, I would start with the idea that the novel is average and I would look for ways that it deviates from average in either good or bad ways.  As I read a novel I'm looking  for structural elements that I like, that make me think "ah that's where you are going, very clever to have set it up this way". 

This can work a couple of ways for me.  Sometimes I'm entranced by structural elements as I read.  I'm enjoying the story but at the same time I'm enjoying the structure.  I stop to re-read sentences, I go back to the start of chapters to see how the author has managed to trick me.  That's fun.  In the best novels (at least my definition of the best novels) my reading might evolve this way but I am also aware that I'm going to have to re-read the novel.  That the structure is being revealed to me in such a fashion that the beauty of the whole structure will only be revealed when the novel is finished.  And at that point I'll have to go back and re-read to see how the author did that.

If I don't notice structural elements while I read it's usually a sign that at the end I'm going to classify the novel as just average.  This doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the plot or like the characters, I just don't like them enough to classify the novel as above average.  (I read so many novels that "average" is a pretty wide category, sort of like a Bell curve). 

Let me be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with this.  I don't think "C" is a sign of failure.  It's a sign that a book is just fine, it's not bad, there's nothing particularly wrong with it but it just didn't grab me and make me want to re-read any part of it.  Just as I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with a movie that's average, I just won't want to see it again.

I have no idea if my way of looking at movies and novels is common or uncommon.  It's just the way I do it.