In Defense of Intentional Media: A World Inspired by Film

The final installment in a three part essay entitled In Defense of Intentional Media: On Consciousness, Entertainment, and the Detriments of Streaming. 

“A World Inspired by Film” serves as a reminder of the power of pure cinematic experience through the deconstruction of the present state of viewing habits, as well as waning methods of cultivating personal interests. Parts one and two of the essay can be accessed here and here.

Last time on Intentional Media:

“Whether it’s the clarity of Blu-Ray or the convenience of Netflix, it’s the interference of the interface that prohibits the intimacy required to fully connect with a film, as each medium is attached to a certain ethos which, perpetuated by its marketing efforts, distorts the viewing experience. With the novelty of a relatively new medium comes the inevitable distraction of its performance in relation to what we’re used to, and though it may be beneficial to watch films released during the age of 4,000 pixels on the clearest format available it’s easy to forget why we’re watching these films in the first place.”

Thus far, the term “intentional media” has been defined loosely to identify which storytelling formats require the most audience engagement and, further, which methods of injection yield the most meaningful results. But more broadly the term refers to a mindset we arrive at before embarking on a media-induced journey. Whether we’re admiring the latest Kindle incarnation’s increasingly-astonishing resemblance to an actual book rather than the text it displays, or marveling over the new possibilities Apple Music presents for listening to the same hundred or so album’s we’ve been listening to our whole lives, the level of apathy towards content is a strong selling point, while detachment from the content’s original, relatively pure form becomes increasingly inane (“Why do we call our music files ‘albums’?” our children will wonder, as their children ask “what are those manila rectangles on music ‘file’ icons supposed to be?”)

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“It’s just…for reading.” – a “Real Person”

Meanwhile, as slouching into yet another might-as-well-watch-one-more-episode evening courtesy of Netflix assimilates us to screen media as just another thing that we allow to happen to us, our attention to intention is crucial in reviving the lethargic relationship our aimlessness has generated with our once-meaningful stories. As you probably learned in your high school English classes, a story provides vastly different interpretations to each of its readers – but with the rising influence of unintentional viewing standards we’re more likely to share a unified, one-dimensional reading based upon our dependence on imminent, unambiguous answers and an uninterrupted video stream. “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books,” Andrei Tarkovsky once said, and rest assured that the most intentional readers of that book were given the most enlightening copies.

I still hear my fifth grade basketball couch barking “go to the ball!” every time I witness a turnover-on-pass in an NBA game, recalling the dozens of laps we had to run after each game due to the recipient of a pass standing still rather than actively receiving the ball. Similar thoughts run through my head when I read negative movie reviews on Netflix. While Netflix, streaming video, television, and any other predominantly unintentional visual mediums aren’t altogether evil, the number of artist-to-audience turnovers recorded seemingly heightens exponentially with every technological development attributed to our viewing habits.

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“Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information.” – Abbas Kiarostami

Taking the initiative is only one way of reinventing your media consumption as “intentional” – repeated experience, overnight digestion, and, most importantly, appropriating context for the media’s contents are also important in fostering a meaningful relationship with the multitude of media we consume.

As mentioned in Part 2, another form of interception that occurs with film consumption is the misinformation provided by companies like Netflix. For example, Irreversible is still Irreversible regardless of how easy it was for you to watch it (procedurally, that is). One could queue it up on Netflix and immediately forget about the sloppy, indirect summary and unfavorable reviews until the credits roll in that microscopic box that’s dwarfed by the “More Like This” recommendations, which cling a little too hard to its undeserved “steamy” tag. While the content’s the same regardless of viewing platform, Netflix not only strips its library of proper context, but replaces it within improper context. Similarly, the minimum information they provide is not only becoming a popular substitute for any potential film education, but it’s undoing any progress one makes at experimenting outside of the mainstream: any film with graphic nudity is porn, the streaming platform implies, personifying itself as omnipotent eleven-year-old in its immaturity, as well as its inability to provide its viewers with a muscular chest-pass.

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Netflix, basically.

To offer a metaphor for the difference between viewing a film on Netflix or Amazon Prime versus a more audience-conscious service, like Fandor or MUBI, imagine receiving two identical packages for your birthday. You open the first twelve-by-twelve box to find the Criterion Collection’s LaserDisc copy of Dead Ringers, along with a note from your friend explaining how he remembered you mentioning the film as one of your favorites years ago, and set off rummaging through thrift stores until he found it on your favorite format, complete with Criterion’s signature supplements. Afterwards, you unwrap the second package to find the very same film on the very same format, sans the meaningful note and attractive packaging, from another friend. You later ask this friend how he knew exactly what you wanted, only to learn he forgot it was your birthday and, at the last minute, ventured into his parents’ basement and stumbled upon something that looked vaguely movie-related, stripped it of its “creepy” cover, and sent it to you because he vaguely knew you had an interest in film.

While this analogy most efficiently corresponds to the Netflix/Fandor comparison in regards to the surprising amount of overlap between the two platforms’ streaming libraries (though, unsurprisingly, the latter appears to be much more Caraxwary), it extends to other formats of distribution, such as Blu-Ray and DVD, as well as theatrical releases. In the U.S., labels like Criterion, Kino Lorber, Zeitgeist, and Facets supplement their releases with a context for the film, whether it’s a background of the director, actors, or location/time period the film was shot, or a specific movement it began or benefitted from. Plus, the mere fact that a certain title becomes available on one of these labels feels like a stamp of approval and glowing recommendation from a film-savvy friend. Both examples aid the intentional viewer in achieving a much more meaningful cinematic experience.

The extensive, unique, and thematically serial films of David Cronenberg, for example, require context in order to view them as both intelligent and comprehensible rather than merely, well, disgusting. A basic understanding of classic literature, horror conventions, Freud, technology, existentialism, metaphysics, lepidoptery, Kristeva, biochemistry, and, perhaps most importantly, a foreknowledge of  the previously-filmed goings-on of Cronenberg’s grotesque universe are all crucial to best understanding the auteur’s allegorical oeuvre. The first time I saw The Fly (my first Cronenberg experience) I saw nothing more than a dated attempt at gross-out sci-fi one Jeff Goldblum advantageous of a quintessentially campy Re-Animator affair. Fast forward three years and a few dozen Cronenberg screenings and the very same film mutates into a heartbreaking domestic tearjerker.

Whether you’re the type of person who clears out an entire room of people at the first mention of “auteurs” and “cinema” during an innocent conversation about “directors” and “movies” or the type of person who saw Blades of Glory in theaters three times, it’s likely that you’re drawn to certain names attached to the movies you watch. While someone like Michelangelo Antonioni attracts a devout fan base of film enthusiasts who can’t get enough of spelunking their inner nothingness, Will Ferrell rarely lets down an audience that finds humor in oversized children using their outside voice indoors.

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Ferrell’s surprising cameo in L’eclisse.

Even filmmakers with a portfolio as eccentric and diverse as that of Michel Gondry possess a certain ability to construct a universe capable of housing both Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Green Hornet, as a close study of each feature film and foreshadowing music video reveals a specific case of arrested development, crippling nostalgia, and unparalleled creativity likely to appeal to his specific audience. Whether you call this “auteur theory,” “phenomenology,” “favorite actor,” or “celebrity crush,” it’s a repetition of familiar traits that keeps an audience returning to a writer, director, or actor’s work through animated conversations with verbose linguists and Seth Rogen-penned screenplays alike. Each subsequent episode in their career builds upon our previous knowledge of their real-life character, contributing unintentional parallels throughout their filmography.

While the film-as-food metaphor works on a number of levels in regards to one’s height of consciousness in choosing what film to watch and, more importantly, how we view it, the analogy of film-as-friend more effectively demonstrates how we should see movies, or any other medium, on a relational level – how did this friend know about the empty slot between Crimes and Misdemeanors and Do The Right Thing on my LaserDisc shelf? Or more deeply, how did Cronenberg know about the ineffable psychic (though thankfully not psychotic) connection I share with my brother? There’s a certain risk involved in this concept that poses a unique difficulty, a vulnerability with being completely open with the film – or in reality, with ourselves – that can’t be extracted on a superficial level.

Much like a good friend, a good film will spark meaningful dialogue long after the credits roll – a conversation, perhaps, between what you’ve just seen and the book you’re currently reading, or among numerous personal observations that harmonize – or clash – with those of the film’s. Like a good friend, the conversation will be enriched with each subsequent interaction as you dig deeper into the meaning of things, tangling and untangling your reality from that of the film’s.

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LaserDisk: the XFL of movie distribution (like short-lived DVDs, only much more so)

Yet an increasing amount of the mainstream media we’re subjected to encourages a one-night stand despite the fact that these interactions have no mental permanence after we share the experience with our high-fiving buddies the next morning (that is, unless our brain gets caught in philosophical crossfire). As stumble-upon, wondering-centric media overruns our theaters and dominates our Netflix recommendations, it reiterates the false notion that screen media is exclusively a textual conquest – as opposed to perpetual, analytical mystification – whose only future with us is the occasional awkward run-in on network television or streaming services. While Hollywood itself was born from this need for temporary escapism, the wonder once inherent in experiencing moving images has since been long forgotten.

With so many apps for an easy hook-up it becomes more uncommon to honor a film with multiple viewings. Because there is so much available to us instantly, such films as Taxi Driver and 2001: A Space Odyssey could be forgotten due to their inaccessibility upon first (and perhaps second and third) viewing, while multiple-views-necessitating staples of world cinema such as the works of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard could be further repressed due to the unlikeliness of their availability on popular streaming services. Sadly, gone are the days of intimacy with arbitrary films like Cool Hand Luke and October Sky, the first two films your family owned on DVD back when they were an investment, now that we can watch almost anything at any time from almost anywhere.

As the movie date shifted from public theater to home theater with the widespread distribution of VCRs in the ‘80s, so too did our interaction with film shift from publicly-acceptable behavior to the anything-goes viewing standards we hold ourselves to in the comfort of our living rooms. No longer a guest in the House of Cinema, the pressure of being “on” lessened for in-home screenings, only to devolve further in the present age of “Netflix and chill” – literally a code term for hooking up while a movie goes unwatched in the background, offering yet another footnote to choose from when adding movies to our once-unambiguous “seen” list. Outside of its Urban Dictionary definition, “Netflix and chill” is an apt term for the inattention to details the platform encourages, as it connotes multi-tasking – no matter how low-key it is.

It should be noted that Netflix is clearly better designed for a single night of passion with Will Ferrell, while Fandor is marketed towards lifelong matrimony with Antonioni-induced voids. Yet this doesn’t change the fact that Netflix, the clear forerunner in the streaming polls, advocates a model of ignorance to its catalogue, detachment from its audience, and irresponsibility in leading the streaming revolution that could likely prove detrimental to the future of cinema, regardless of one’s puritanical agenda towards meaningful content. As the platform continues to usurp and televisionize filmic conventions (see: Beasts of No Nation, Netflix’s first made-for-streaming movie released fifty-one years after cinema’s debut foray into television), the meaningful connections with new filmic friends you make – no matter how intellectually stimulating – will continue to diminish.

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A collage of slow and/or ambiguous movies reviled by Netflix nomads.

While Netflix strips its films of context, and Fandor provides just enough, there’s something to be said for the films that exist to you solely in a private context. To me, Cool Hand Luke became a representation of sick days well spent with the guy from my salad dressing bottles before it was Stuart Rosenberg’s proper debut based on Donn Pearce’s novel; 2001 an extension to the vast intrigue of nature amidst an RV trip through the Rockies before it was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece based on the writings of Arthur C. Clarke.

Though an outside education is certainly crucial to connecting with such deep-rooted films about the human condition, the main catalyst for positive or negative reaction to a film is an accumulation of personal experience and an ability to focus on the film through the lens of your consequently unique perspective. This mindset offers a drastically different viewing experience than the predominant submission to Netflix’s encouraged titles, cluttering your mind with the probable scenario of the film you’d originally planned on watching, which is likely much better and only a click away.

In order to populate the vacant rooms of the subconscious, one must be a fully present participant in life, as well as in the movie theater. Viewers of The Fly are likely to be segregated between those who have experienced firsthand the pain of living out a relationship in which one party changes beyond recognition and the other remains herself and those who have a clean dating record, while viewers of Dead Ringers may be divided between those who share an eerie mental synchronicity with their twin brother and an only child (keeping in mind the fact that Cronenberg’s twisted psychosexual universe truly exists only in his own perception of reality).

Among other things, Marshall McLuhan’s discourse on media was intended to be a warning against the sheer power of media, which, for better or worse, acts as a source of self-identification upon its impressionable audience. While this idea mostly comes to public attention in a negative light, the dialogue we engage in with the films we consume undoubtedly has an effect on our concept of ourselves, internally and externally. The question of what films we accept and what films we reject – and on what grounds – determines the difference between media critics and cold-blooded murderers in the case of Natural Born Killers, as a conscious viewing of the film, whether we realize it or not, becomes a significant part of our genetic composition. While the dialogue of the viewer-murderer is composed of previous mental instability and the film’s relatably alienated characters’ way of dealing with their issues, the critic-viewer’s awareness of media’s potential negative influence and Oliver Stone’s unsubtle satirization of the subject gives the film a completely different meaning.

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David Lynch: cranky grandfather of the lucid nightmare.

When we refer to a “world inspired by film,” we’re referring to a portion of this transaction that doesn’t quite speak to the full power of film’s influence (perhaps more apt, “A World Inspired by Film Inspired by a World Inspired by Film” is certainly less catchy). One of the reasons why repeated viewings of a movie open mental-doors previously left untouched (moreover, unnoticed) is the growth undergone by the viewer between viewings, likely due in part to the way the film has changed their outlook. In a way, re-watching a film is like resyncing yourself to a certain mindset instigated by the filmmakers, but inspired wholly by your own reality.

It’s become a common joke to ask someone who’s rewatching a movie if the good guys still come out on top in the end, or if the protagonist still gets the girl, but a defining characteristic of a great film is that this isn’t necessarily the case. Subjective, of course, to your increased awareness of the ambiguities in the plotline, a movie shouldn’t be a repeated experience, but a necessary clarification of old ideas. One explanation for the dismissal of all slow or ambiguous cinema on Netflix is the disappointment felt by viewers when their expectations aren’t met, along with a subsequent lack of interest in revisiting due to the belief that it will merely be a repetition of the same mind-numbing experience. On the contrary, the vaguely optimistic ending of Taxi Driver, for me, was finally outweighed by the overwhelming bleakness of the rest of the film on my fourth or fifth time watching it, reshaping it from the meaningless and overhyped snoozefest it was upon first viewing. Rewatching a movie offers the viewer another chance to find something somewhere inside of themselves for the film to latch onto.

Thus is the potential power of a good movie recommendation: we’re not so much offering a strategy for effectively (and easily) passing ninety minutes as we are sharing an intimate slice of our private lives with close friends and family. Carefully selecting a title based on its heavy influence on your own life and consequently forwarding it to someone close to you can be the catalyst to a similar change in their own way of seeing, drawing them closer to you (and it’s also likely to stimulate a more in-depth discussion than the common dead-end “that-was-crazy-right!?” discussions of unintentional media).

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“We are all identityless and panicked, but we have long since ceased thinking that the situation that rendered us so is fixable or even understandable, and in our scattered and overstimulated numbness our identityless panic is as shallow as our excitement or pleasure, so instead of despairing we might as well just go to a movie.” – William Beard, bleakly, on the state of media in Videodrome (The Artist as Monster, p. 125).

What Scorsese, Godard, and other enthusiasts of the medium refer to as the “magic” of cinema is the way it’s so overtly mutable to our individual existences, solidifying as completely unique experiences in our brains. As in the case of a meaningful movie recommendation, the act of watching movies so often resembles that of watching clouds, observing shapes that can be commented upon and shared with surrounding skygazers. There’s something romantic about this notion of cinema-as-shared-moment-of-transcending-reality when you consider how many other people are potentially observing the same dog-shaped figure drifting overhead.

Yet on a deeper level still, the intimacy of a cinematic experience can often be greater than that of human interaction. Rather than a massive drifting cloud, cinema has the capability of taking the form of a microscopic carpet pattern one observes while zoned out, face to the floor, that undoubtedly resembles the rigid facial structure of that grouchy fifth-grade basketball coach – but if you so much as blink, this image will be lost forever in the complex stitching. Sharing this moment, of course, is out of the question since a second viewer would have to have their face in the exact same position as yours with their eyes locked on the same fraction of an inch of carpeting (not to mention they’d have to have some idea of what your basketball coach looks like).

As Tarkovsky noted, everyone’s experience with a novel is entirely unique. Even though film is a multi-sensory medium which (usually) offers audio and visuals to its audience – sucking a significant amount of the creativity involved in reading out of the activity – that shouldn’t affect our inclination to gaze at the screen in wonder. It’ll be interesting to see how the cinema-as-magical-childhood-experience genre (e.g. Cinema Paradiso, The Long Day Closes, Hugo) progresses as contemporary writer/directors grow up on overstimulating and under-imaginative pictures like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the fart-joke portfolio of Dreamworks.

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Iconic cinematic moments in cinema. Also, Shia LaBeouf. (Photoset courtesy of theofmoviestills.tumblr.com)

While certain aspects of this sorcery are exclusive to film, the microscopic carpet images can certainly be found in the fabric of any medium when enough attention is being paid. But as French writers such as André Bazin and Jean Cocteau pointed out when film was still in its infancy, the dreamlike quality of the medium – along with its brief history in relation to other storytelling mediums – poses film as a giant collective dream to be experienced by anyone dedicated enough to watch its paint dry into a breathtaking and incomparable portrait of humanity. The feeling of utter confusion when an abrupt ending transitions to a black screen so closely resembles the feeling of waking up from a strange dream in the dark of one’s bedroom that it’s hard not to acknowledge the similarities in wonder and curiosity in the two not-so-separate experiences.

Remaining mostly silent throughout his early non-fiction picture Land of Silence and Darkness, we can sense the presence of its filmmaker, Werner Herzog, more acutely through the enthusiastic movement of his camera than his infrequent narration and fielding of questions to his subjects. The film documents the tragic neglect for the blind and deaf in 1970s Germany, which Herzog documents with such rapt curiosity that in the final scene his camera appears to stare blankly at his subjects as they slowly wander out of frame rather than immediately cutting, ultimately panning around for a few moments as if searching for something else interesting to film before finally fading to black. In that moment where we observe Herzog’s introspection, we realize that by making a film about people who are infinitely curious about the world the filmmaker himself become infinitely curious, therefore making his audience equally curious. With filmmakers like Herzog in mind, our worlds become most inspired by films that are so purely inspired by the world.

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Werner Herzog: The Most Interested Man in the World

Perhaps it’s this interest that’s sorely lacking in the present state of media distribution, as streaming, free downloads, and cloud computing remove the pursuit of our individual passions from the media we consume. As Herzog swings his camera around searching for more human nature to explore in incredible detail, these contemporary factors encourage us to leave the camera mounted while we wait for our subjects to return (“I’ll just wait for it go up on Netflix,” we say of films also available to stream instantly for the extremely low price of a few dollars on multiple alternative platforms – or possibly for free with our library card). In fact, Herzog makes a great role model for the intentional media consumer, as the majority of his contribution to the German New Wave came from explorations of South America and Africa rather than close-to-home fascist city centers or claustrophobic apartment units.

Because art has the power to change us, it’s important to remember that it’s up to us to decide which kinds of art we allow to do so. By seeking out certain titles, artists, genres, or subjects we are easily able to differentiate our field of knowledge and discovery from what’s been placed in front of us by inaccurate algorithms and a voting public clearly biased towards plot-driven narratives and easy answers. The “slow food” approach to media is key to combating the Netflix mindset, which pits its heavily-promoted self-sufficient content against the potential for growth in its audience. Meanwhile, a similar approach to life in general is required to begin to identify this potential for growth, which is becoming more and more inhibited by our self-inflicted land of silence and darkness radiating from the distractions of panoramic screen technology.

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“It appears that art influences the public not by contagion, that’s wrong, but through a kind of ethical enlightenment, through one’s encounter with the world of artists. This has such an impact on the human soul that it changes, and one who’s seen or read a work of art can no longer remain the same as before.” – Tarkovsky

Now that cinema has reached a point where it’s viewed less as a privilege than a daily task, it’s time to reevaluate the role all media plays in our culture. Having completely demystified the latest medium to expand the art of storytelling, what is it we look for in a story if not mystery, inspiration, or an alternative reality that exists just out of reach from our own?  Further, what is any extracurricular activity if not a means of acting upon interest? The key detrimental implication of the term “televisionization” being the loss of autonomy in the process of consuming media, the intention involved in cultivating individual interests, exploring their boundaries, and challenging their conventions are all important in remaining inspired by media in a streaming-centric culture. While the present state of media is often personified as two phone-wielding friends sharing a table at McDonald’s, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a heart-to-heart with an old friend at your own dining room table. Just remember to meet them halfway when they pass the salt.


Author: Mike LeSuer is a freelance writer with a focus on film, music, and media studies. His work has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Flyway Journal of Writing and Environment, and he held the position of Editorial & Media Archivist Assistant Intern at Facets last summer.

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