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Adapting Movies to Fit the Way We Watch Them

By Christopher Campbell | Spout February 3, 2011 at 6:31AM

Following a screening of "Sound of My Voice" at Sundance, filmmaker Zal Batmanglij was asked about his reasoning for breaking the film up into chapters. The expected explanation had to be that since "Sound" was conceived as a web series (by he and Brit Marling), those chapter breaks were originally to be episode breaks. But that's not what the director said. He talked about how he used to read books a chapter a night and now he basically does that with movies thanks to Netflix Watch Instantly. While admitting that he does not recommend watching all films this way -- he said it doesn't work too well with Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" -- he implied that "Sound" is suited to this new type of viewing films.
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Following a screening of "Sound of My Voice" at Sundance, filmmaker Zal Batmanglij was asked about his reasoning for breaking the film up into chapters. The expected explanation had to be that since "Sound" was conceived as a web series (by he and Brit Marling), those chapter breaks were originally to be episode breaks. But that's not what the director said. He talked about how he used to read books a chapter a night and now he basically does that with movies thanks to Netflix Watch Instantly. While admitting that he does not recommend watching all films this way -- he said it doesn't work too well with Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" -- he implied that "Sound" is suited to this new type of viewing films.

I appreciated this claim because, well, I too have watched many a film broken up into parts, not all at once, via Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, etc. I don't necessarily think it's good for most movies, either, but it's the best option I have during certain busy times in my life. "Sound" isn't the first movie to be broken up into chapters that way, and certainly not after Internet streaming and mobile viewing came about. It's been a practice used to imitate literature throughout much of cinema history. Yet it has seemed more prevalent ever since the invention of the Laserdisc, which segmented films even before DVD, often putting chapter names where none existed before, dividing movies up as if anticipating and encouraging the day when many of us would watch them in part over time.

Now Batmanglij is but one of a bunch of filmmakers of the video disc generation that implement chapter breaks. Not all would fit or admit to the reasoning of Batmanglij, In a Guardian piece from last year, Anne Bilson accused "Inglourious Basterds" of potentially employing breaks as a cheat, "just a way for Tarantino to paper over the fact that what he'd written wasn't so much a flowing narrative as a series of tenuously connected sketches strung together." Meanwhile, Wes Anderson just seems to be into chapters because he's obviously into literature.

I thought of the "Sound" Q&A today while reading some thoughts on modern cinephile viewing habits. Here is an excerpt from the start of the discussion, from Girish Shambu at De Filmkrant:

What results, with these new terms of viewing, is a weakening of the likelihood that a film will be watched with full attention from beginning to end without a break — in other words, that a film will be engaged in a full and sustained manner. When technology allows us to watch Antonioni's RED DESERT, Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME or Chantal Akerman's JEANNE DIELMAN on a laptop, in bits and pieces, while we eat, drink, take breaks and try to accommodate the film to our convenience, aren't we fatally compromising our ability to do it full justice as cinephiles or critics?

Responding to Shambu, Chuck Tryon at The Chutry Experiment leads us in a different direction from viewing habits to film discussion habits:

Facebook and Twitter comments typically echo the rhythms of conversation itself: here, look at this video I found; the ending of True Grit was perplexing; what’s going on today? These tools deepen our ambient intimacy, allowing us to connect, to share, and (hopefully) to listen. These conversations took place long before Twitter, but Twitter makes them visible, while also deepening the pool of potential participants and dispersing them geographically. They also, despite the ephemerality of the messages themselves, provide some of the means by which ideas are preserved. Although an individual tweet may disappear into the cloud, I discover much of what I read through social media, and I’m guessing others have a similar experience. I can then bookmark or blog those ideas and return to them at my convenience and, in the best cases, use that as a launching point for reading and writing scholarship.

I will say that Twitter has made me less interested in writing lengthy pieces. Everything just seems to be easily recommended or rejected in 140 characters. And if it's not, then we live-Tweet the film as we're watching it. Actually, I don't do that anymore and am annoyed when people I follow do it. Especially if I haven't seen the film. But otherwise, I get into more conversations, even if short ones, on Twitter and Facebook than in even blog comments these days. I would love to have more in person, even with my lack of social grace in talking about film, but everyone's too busy on their gadgets to pay attention to any real talk. So there are pros and cons.

Another point I want to address with the idea of filmmakers adapting to new viewing and critical habits is that it's not much different from the way close-ups became such a norm once more and more people were seeing movies on TVs, especially when the VHS and cable booms hit. Nobody complains about that anymore. Even the best directors shoot too much in close-up, but it is commonplace and so it is barely thought of anymore. So what else will continue to arise to meet our habits and ultimately become the next norm?

I have been vocal lately about how filmmakers need to now, more than ever, really hook us in within the first few minutes. I may be more ADD than some, leading to my post late last year about "giving up" on certain films that couldn't hold my attention (I just did it again with "Dogtooth"), but I can't be in the minority with this expectation and prediction. With VOD platforms that allow unlimited titles for a low subscription fee prevailing, many of us are trying out more films -- particularly documentaries, thankfully -- but we also have the greater ease of stopping those films if we're not into them right away. I guess it only matters, though, if services like Netflix penalize films that don't get watched all the way through. Anyone know?

What else is likely to change about movies the more we watch them segmented, small, etc.?


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