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Commentary: Why Do We Watch Films?11 min read

18 February 2021 8 min read


Commentary: Why Do We Watch Films?11 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Watching movies is one of the rare pastimes that is almost universally enjoyed — so much so that it almost feels unnecessary to ask why. Yet, bring up the question around an office (like we did) and it might reveal a whole slew of answers. 

The reasons for anyone to watching films might differ throughout our lifetime. It could be to escape from the doldrums of everyday life or it could be to better understand foreign cultures. It could be an excuse to spend time with the family or it could be a way to find clarity within life’s big questions. It’s for these reasons and countless more that brings into attention how multi-faceted film can be while highlighting the various strengths of the art form beyond just entertainment.

Two of our writers took a detour from the usual slate of content to contribute their answers. Head on over to our Facebook page and share with us your reasons — we would love to hear from you! 

Matthaeus Choo

My reason for plunging into the world of film is embarrassingly crass. Both for better and for worse, Nick Hornby’s book “High Fidelity” (and the 2000 film adaptation starring John Cusack) shaped much of my attitudes and dispositions as a teenager. My role model was the book’s lead, Rob Fleming, the unabashed prick and music obsessive terminally confused about relationships. 

While trying to figure out why a loser like him is able to score with a famous musician, he suspects that the only reason he has any success with women is due to his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” 

As a teenager with no sense of identity, I took the quote too seriously and without a proper understanding of the book’s underlying message. I spent most of my secondary school and polytechnic days devouring film, literature, television and music. The more obscure and challenging, the better; anything to make me seem like an interesting person to girls.

I’m sure most can relate. It’s the same reason why most boys can play the guitar.

And, frankly, that piece of advice worked! That is until it didn’t. All the pop culture knowledge in the world couldn’t change the maxim that there should be so much more to ourselves than what we consume, adore and showcase. I misunderstood “High Fidelity” similar to how most guys misunderstand 500 Days of Summer. But I will always be glad I did. 

Way before Joseph Gordon-Levitt confused legions of teenagers in ‘500 Days of Summer’, there was John Cusack in 2000’s ‘High Fidelity’  / Image credit: Touchstone Pictures

Nowadays, I watch films because I do think that Rob’s statement is flawed; what we like matters only because it shapes what we are like. With most households having two working parents, the media has taken on the main role of shaping behaviour. If art isn’t seen as an effective mode of influence, there wouldn’t be tight regulations. 

We tend to emulate and replicate what we see on screen. Eat the same crap, talk in the same cadence, wear the same things. I think it cuts deeper too. Someone who enjoys sappy Korean dramas more will have a completely different value system compared to someone who enjoys Nouvelle Vague more — with one not necessarily better than the other.

Yet, to borrow an idiom commonly used by my boss, this is often a chicken and egg situation. Will someone’s social class and family values determine the kind of films or genres they will enjoy? The easy answer seems to be yes. Or can palettes be developed through film immersion programmes, film literacy content or just one gateway film?

Why I watch films (and why I continue to write about them) is because I want to wholeheartedly believe that the latter statement is truer than I think. Art exhibitions and theatre tend to be expensive and inaccessible. Music and literature are innately bound by engaging certain senses. Films are easily accessible, relatively cheaper, and engages most senses. This is not implying that film is the superior art form but it may be the easiest to transcend the easily-imaginable gap between ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture.  

Even while working on the assumption that films will have guaranteed appeals to, for example, different groups of social classes based on certain tropes, genres, or stories, there will always be value to be extracted from all films. 

Films go a long way in shaping behaviour and embracing progressive attitudes, such as through racial, cultural and LGBTQ representation, before eventually shaping culture itself. Yet, these are often hidden behind difficult to digest arthouse films with over-convoluted dialogue and terrible pacing.

A recent film that comes to mind which pulls off the balance between both worlds is local film ‘Number 1’ / Image credit: mm2 Entertainment

Popular films, on the other hand, are often far more effective in understanding a country’s psyche than tomes of sociological studies. More so than their settings and contexts, their domestic popularity opens up questions of what is it about the films’ themes, characters and stories that have connected with so many. Film is an expensive art too and there is much to be learned from how blockbusters become money printing machines.

It’s the films that bring out the best of both worlds that excite me the most; films that recognise their ability to stir up emotions and influence positive change while realising that commercial appeal is necessary. I deeply admire the finesse required to pull this balance off. For what it’s worth, I think it’s what’s necessary to push Singapore cinema forward too — but that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, I say all this when I love watching awful, boorish B movies as well just because. Sometimes there’s not much else to film-watching than to have a great time. And besides, loving Tommy Wiseau and being able to converse in Wes Anderson-talk continues to be fantastic for breaking the ice on dating apps. Now if only I watched Friends and The Office

Yap Shi Quan

I am first and foremost a reader. I live in words and sentences more than I live in images. But time and time again I come back to film because it offers something entirely different to me — a more visceral and immediate sense of enjoyment that unfolds on the screen, that books can’t quite compete. 

This hasn’t always been the case. Pure enjoyment may be the root reason as to why I watch films. But as I grew older, other reasons became clear to me in retrospection. Watching films was — and still is — a way of bonding with my family or friends, be it at home or in theatres. I can safely say that watching films alone is very different from watching them communally. You are not alone in laughing or crying when a comedic or heartbreaking scene comes up, with audiences around you probably reacting the same way.

Besides, I love sitting in the theatre while watching a film. I crave the cold and dark refuge of the theatre, away from the sunny tropical climate that is Singapore. And when I was young, watching films also provided me with a reason to munch on popcorn while I watched a blockbuster movie. I can’t be the only one who loves to eat while watching a film.

Can you remember how filled up The Projector is pre-COVID? Yeah, me neither / Image Credit: The Projector

But when I try to think of a film that I really enjoyed and stayed with me since my childhood, I can’t really think of any. Maybe Kung Fu Hustle, or I Not Stupid at most. But there’s nothing life-changing about these films. 

And it’s not until you watch that film which made you realise that films can really do more than just entertain you or provide a reason for communality. That film differs for everybody. For some, it might be as simple as a Jack Neo film. For some, it might be their first arthouse film. It might even be blockbuster films for some people; I’m sure many people gawked or even teared up a bit when all of the superheroes reemerge in Avengers: Endgame to fight Thanos. 

Anyway, that film for me happened to be Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. This film opened my eyes to how cinema is more than just characters/actors or plot or dialogue. The lighting, shot composition, and soundtrack are all telling stories as well. And all of them come together to form a cinematic masterpiece, layered with meaning and enigma. 

Think, for instance, how bland In the Mood for Love will be if it doesn’t have its forlorn, heart-wrenching soundtrack playing in the background as the main characters walk past each other in the shadowy, narrow staircase. Or think about how much less passionate or sensual the film will be if it doesn’t have Wong’s signature saturated yellow and red hues. Cinema is cinema precisely because it has unparalleled visuals and audio that fully imagines the story right in front of you. It’s as though reality is truly happening right in front of me, albeit a heavily edited one. 

Only Wong Kar-Wai can make something as mundane as eating steak look like high art in ‘In the Mood for Love’ / Image Credit: Jet Tone Production

Isn’t it curious how we know that films are fictional, yet we believe that the characters and the journeys and choices they made are real to the extent where they can provoke a physical and emotional reaction out of us? I crave these reactions every time I watch a film. These reactions lift me out of my mundane reality, transport me into the filmic world and live, however limitedly, in the characters’ shoes.

But surely watching films is more than just escapism. Films can also be a storytelling platform that transcends cultural, social, and/or political differences. If you want to learn how complex the political and religious tensions are between Israel and Palestine while watching an engaging drama, then watch The Insult or Netflix series Fauda. If you want to know more about the workplace discrimination migrant workers face in Singapore, then watch A Land Imagined.

Of course, I’m not going to say that something as noble as how films can eradicate social or political injustice. At least, for me, that’s not why I watch films, or what I believe films are powerful for.

When I walk out of the theatre after watching a good film, I know something inside me has changed. A new awareness of myself and my emotions, perhaps. A new awareness of the complexities of the human condition. Or a new awareness of how there exists another reality besides my own.

‘A Land Imagined’ / Image Credit: Akanga Film Asia

Sometimes, well-told films reveal different sensibilities and facets of reality previously unknown to us. I think about this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a lot, titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story.’ Adichie is renowned for her novels and short stories, but her talk is applicable to all storytelling mediums. Central to her talk is one question: What happens when we consume only one kind of narrative? 

What happens if international audiences only watch Crazy Rich Asians or Singapore Social and believe that every Singaporean is well-off, and there’s no inequality in this country? What happens if we watch Middle East films and think that it is only rife with conflicts, devoid of love or humanity or peace? To quote Adichie: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

And I don’t want that. I don’t believe that my own conception of reality is all-encompassing. I don’t want to believe that my reality is absolutely correct, when it’s actually limited and incomplete. This is why I watch films — not only to feel and empathise, not only to be entertained, but also to re-calibrate and rethink my assumptions of reality. 

Banner image credit: Noom Peerapong via Unsplash

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