In my time as a Cinema student at the prestigious University of Canterbury, I’ve learned that my job prospects are as sparse as the hairs on my chest. On the other hand, films that I struggle to entirely understand despite my education are more akin to the dense forest of hairs on my derrière.

Yes, friends, life – like puberty – is cruel and unfair, which is exactly why it can be intimidating watching a feature length film that you’re scared you won’t understand.

According to a very academic Google search I just conducted, the average person only lives 683,806 hours, so let’s make sure the the hours you spend staring at screens in the dark aren’t entirely wasted.

This handy-dandy guide is my mental bible for watching films of the artier variety. So sit back, disciples, while I slap you square in the face with my commandments.


The importance of opening scenes

So you’ve managed to find a Blockbuster that isn’t closed yet. You peruse the aisles until you happen upon what appears to be a war movie. The Thin Red Line, the title reads. By goodness, it has a 7.6 on IMDb and was nominated for seven Oscars! You’ve seen Saving Private Ryan and you thought it was great. Fantastic, we’ll hypothetically take this one home then.

An orchestral swell booms through the room after you press play, before the black screen gives way to a shot of an alligator.
The Thin Red LineWhat?


The first lines come by way of narration, as we see rays of sunlight piercing through the trees: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”

Alarm bells should be ringing at this point in time.

Opening scenes in films usually contain the film’s mission statement(s). It’s at this point in time in watching The Thin Red Line that you should realise and accept that you are not about to experience Saving Private Ryan 2.0. The Thin Red Line is a slow burning, meditative, philosophical, beautiful film that questions the nature of humans, war, life and death, and nature itself.

The lesson here is an easy one; pay close attention to the opening scene and what it is trying to convey, and adjust your expectations and focus for the film accordingly.


The imminent confusion

Most blockbusters like to make it abundantly clear which characters are good or bad, smart or stupid, and other such opposites. What drives a character is clear and they are usually working towards a concrete goal that we can easily follow.

On the flip side of this, characters in art-films are often psychologically complex. You know, like the people that you know in that thing called ‘real life’. Their goals are more difficult and abstract than your usual “get to x and then solve y by applying z.”

It's not your faultThis means that a character’s actions can seem completely inexplicable every now and then. Sometimes it can even feel like what you’re being shown is irrelevant. This is nothing short of confusing. Questions like “what did that mean?” and “why did they do that?” start racing through your mind.

The solution here is that most sacred of virtues, patience. If you don’t understand, keep your question resting somewhere in the back of your mind for the rest of the film, and even give it a second thought while you’re brushing your teeth or evacuating your bowels after the film has ended.

It may seem a stressful experience to have to decode a character’s actions in such a fashion, but characterisation in this manner can be essential to making a character more complex and human. The point is that you’re supposed to think about it, rather than clap when the stupid bad guy gets killed by the smart good guy and then forget about it as soon as you leave the cinema.


The introspective (self-indulgent) director

“The art-cinema motivates its narratives by two principles; realism and authorial expressivity.” So sayeth David Bordwell. Or someone else. Regardless, it was said and it’s important.

Directors are quite widely regarded as the “authors” of films, although this can be quite an inaccurate assumption to make given how many factors and people are involved in the making of a film. Anyhow, directors in art-cinema generally fit this bill, and are often also involved in important authorial roles such as the writing process.

The_Master_11This is a key thing to keep in mind. One person’s artistic vision drives most of what you are seeing and hearing.

This can be the curse of a bad art-film. If a director can’t effectively convey everything they are trying to convey, art-films can be meandering, monotonous ordeals filled with half-baked ideas trying to convince you that they are profound.

When done correctly, a director’s focussed vision of what they are trying to convey is apparent in so many different forms. Application and manipulation of soundtrack, sound effects, set-design, props, acting, framing, lighting, or even a complete absence of one of these or many other factors can carry so much meaning that can be easy to overlook. Remember that accidents are rarities when it comes to staged entertainment. Every little detail matters.


The reality: you probably won’t understand everything
under-the-skin-bild-04It takes a knowledge of art-films to completely understand art-films. It follows that a fair amount of your first forays may be largely unsuccessful. Even if you’ve got a few notches on your belt, you can stumble across something so unfamiliar and challenging that you can barely make heads or tails of it.

Really though, how much of a surprise is that? It’s all part and parcel of watching challenging films; you will be challenged. That’s half the fun.