If I like a film enough after the first watch, I think about it nonstop for weeks on end. During this time, I don’t replay the entire film in my head; instead, I ponder the moments that made me shudder and gasp—moments that provoked my genuine, visceral reaction. Not many films achieve this feat, but the rare ones that do become some of my favorites. In fact, the joy of watching a favorite film for the first time, e.g, Taxi Driver (1976), Amadeus (1984), or Good Time (2017), ranks higher than the joy of every prom, snow day, and award combined.
Last month, I saw Bong Joon-ho’s genre-bender and masterpiece Parasite (2019) at IFC Center. Stepping onto Sixth Avenue after the showing, every ounce of me felt fresh. I began the trek back to my dorm with a newfound purpose—to rave about my fiery love for Parasite to my roommates. Usually, to love a film, I either watch it twice or let it grow on me. But I recognized my love for Parasite twenty minutes in, when a darkly-comedic montage of a lower-class family strategically infiltrating an upper-class household gave me a swelling feeling ripe with frissons. This montage propels the narrative forward with stylistic precision, no structural fat, and a staccato orchestral score that rivals Vivaldi’s sharpest compositions. All the cinematic elements align in this scene, forming an emotional harmony that resonates with my core. Without emotion, Parasite might just be clever, but Joon-ho injects it with enough feeling to make it truly captivate and provoke. Hence, emotion elevates cinema, so what we feel during a film affects us the most and stays with us the longest in our heads and hearts.
When we think of a film that we’ve watched, images or dialogue may first come to mind, but these things only resonate with us in the first place due to our emotional response to them. Rather than love one of a thousand close-ups of DeNiro’s cheek mole in Goodfellas (1990), people love the sweeping dive into the benefits of mafia life through the Copacabana Steadicam take and the opposing paranoia of getting whacked through the diner dolly-zoom, shots that elicit feelings of excitement and claustrophobia, respectively. So films like Goodfellas don’t just stand out for their aesthetics, but for their emotional value. Consider your own response to a film. Yes, the dynamism, intense orange-blue hues, and glossy VFX of Michael Bay films are sensational, but do they make you gobble your nails and fall out of your seat? Giant robots should have earth-shattering gravitas, but they don’t connect to viewers the same way that the mimetic horror of a shoestring-budget film like The Blair Witch Project (1999) does. Like an umbilical cord, emotions connect us to films, and most folks don’t realize this connection makes a film memorable until they understand how the opposite can make a film forgettable.
Emotional disconnection distances us from films and stems from our inability to believe, relate to, or appreciate what we see on-screen. Often, disconnection stems from poor decisions made by a film’s chief figures—producers, directors, writers—which then impact lower-ranking figures in the production—designers, gaffers, and composers—whose efforts are then screwed. This is a trickle-down effect, wherein bad top decisions poison the whole production, for those at the top have creative control over lower areas of production. Not every aspect of a bad movie may be bad, per se, but shoddy writing will stunt the value of what may be fine performances. Thus, bad films lack a successful cohesion of their elements, which explains how the painful editing of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) can easily eclipse its stunning cinematography.
However, not all “bad” films lack any emotional appeal. Even in the lesser films of 2019 such as Glass or Zombieland 2, we might find compelling or heartfelt moments. But if a work does not cohere to these emotional moments, then said moments stand alone and cannot define the film as a whole. Good scenes have a pro tanto relationship to bad films—in other words, they only affect the final product to an extent, and otherwise remain moments whose encompassing product cannot achieve the same level of artistic merit. The acid-trip sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), despite their sublime technical elements and kooky performances from Depp and del Toro, cannot hide the fact that the film meanders more than Hunter S. Thompson himself would at the stand for a possession charge.
In this sense, the emotional impact of good films shrinks without proper cohesion of their cinematic elements. Consider the famous close-up on Meryl Streep bawling her eyes out as Nazis tear away her child in Sophie’s Choice (1982). Chaotic sound design envelops her and desaturated colors wash out her face as she shrieks with utter misery—but what if the lighting were flat? What if the score consisted of loud synth jabs? What if Pakula chose to film Streep from a canted angle, emotionally distancing viewers from her distress? These are the inherent dangers of losing cohesion, which filmmakers must nurture in order for their work to flourish. Watches don’t tick if all their gears don’t grind, and films don’t function emotionally if all their elements don’t align.
Not only do viewers derive satisfaction from cohesion, but from the implicit promise of cohesive fulfillment. If a film starts strong in the first act, we expect the same from the second act and onward. This structure of expectations works on every story level, down from the film as a whole to acts, scenes, shots, and beats. Still, no film is flawless. Even perfectionist filmmakers like Kubrick and Fincher can try as much as they want, but they can never perfect every level of a story. Even the Bible has boring parts. Filmmakers cannot perfect each story level, for in spite of all efforts, some moments will stand out over others, and absorption in one scene may lessen in the next. So how does one achieve cohesive fulfillment? By assigning purpose to each structural element. Content that fails to advance plot, arc, or pace hurts the encompassing work. These pitfalls can exist in the form of tonal imbalance (Okja, 2017), inappropriate insertions of humor (The Last Jedi, 2017), or drawn-out scenes that hurt the established pacing of prior scenes (War for the Planet of the Apes, 2017). Ignoring or breaking consistency can impair our enjoyment, for our lost sense of fulfillment often correlates to a lost sense of purpose. Consider the difference between the focal shifts of From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Psycho (1960)—while the former breaks consistency just for the fun of it, the latter raises the stakes of the storyworld and gives viewers a glimpse into the origins of the slasher-horror subgenre.
Different elements should also strive for different execution in order to vary the emotions and insert freshness, perhaps even vivacity, into the work. Redundancy endangers all artwork, for it lessens the impact of individual elements. Two scenes with the same climax or goal decelerate a narrative and kill our focus. Stuff like this tends to hit cutting-room floors before release, but we cannot say the same for stylistic redundancy. Not all filmmakers capitalize on the medium; some choose to shoot or direct in bland ways that entrap themselves in stylistic limbo. Thankfully, auteurism opposes stylistic redundancy and cues films by Truffaut or Ozu to stand out more than those by McG or Renny Harlin in the annals of cinematic history.
When cinematic elements cohere, especially in scenic units, we can trace the efficacy of their execution to poetic techniques. Consider rhyme, which supplies readers with a hope for lines to follow a set pattern. When a rhyme scheme adheres to its ABAB or ABACBC structure, we appreciate the expected occurring as expected. Scenes can actually fulfill viewer desires in a satisfactory manner that mimics rhyme. In Midnight Express (1978), Billy Hayes fulfills our utter rage towards the rat-like Rifki for turning over Max to Turkish prison guards by pummeling him into a pulp. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey fulfills our sympathy for him by recognizing his self-worth, returning to reality, and gathering his town around the Christmas tree to sing “Auld Lang Syne”—perhaps the most sentimental movie ending of all time. Other conjunctive poetic techniques such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, or parataxis correlate to film units that connect to form montages, which involve scenes or beats that build on each other to depict the passage of time or character. Examples include Dirk Diggler’s rise to porno stardom in Boogie Nights (1997), Ben Braddock’s surreal descent into adultery in The Graduate (1967), and a rousing yet devastating daydream at the climax of Mommy. In this sense, filmmakers can approach their craft as though they are translating poetry to the screen, both regarding their stylistic execution and their exploitation of emotionally-inducing narrative techniques.
Of course, it is equally possible to enjoy bad films. Some films garner fame (or notoriety) for their shoddiness. Such films, like those of Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau, attract people to watch them as somewhat of a challenge. These filmmakers produce work that is shoddy in all respects. But we don’t reach a sardonic high based solely on poor quality; we delight in how unaware the filmmakers are of poor quality in the aims of creating good work. Take how Wiseau’s The Room (2003) tries to be a romantic drama, and Breen’s Fateful Findings (2013) tries to be a sci-fi thriller. Neither film seems aware of its one-note storyline and terrible acting, or amateur cinematography, score, and set design. People love these films because they’re “so bad, they’re good,” an emotional reaction that combines disbelief, shock, confusion, and above all, condescension. When viewers watch bad films for pleasure, they elevate themselves above the film to debase the creators and their work. This dynamic reverses when we react to good films, for we instead allot a certain amount of respect to filmmakers for their ability to absorb us in their work.
Still, viewers don’t have to enjoy content generally seen as good. Critical standards are not the determining factor in deciding if we will enjoy a film, but just reasons for why we might. Universal praise may not affect some viewers if something deeper in their cognitive state halts them from connecting to a film. Viewers can respect how filmmakers execute narrative cohesion, cohesive fulfillment, and filmic-poetic techniques, but not necessarily connect to the execution in a way that exemplifies their passion and feelings for the artwork.
Two Godfather films got Best Picture. I never got why. Those films touched others in a different way than they touched me. This is hard territory to navigate, for those films are objectively good. But there are bound to be thousands of objectively good films that don’t resonate with us in this lifetime. That’s part of what makes finding those that do so special.
Just as this world has many folks for us to love and hate, cinema has many films for us to admire and admonish. Cinema can transcend twenty-four frames per second and encompass a plethora of stories with rich themes, characters, worlds, and sensory elements. For me, these stories range from high-concept dramas like The Truman Show (1998), which ruminates on self-denial and human artifice, to Rohmer’s foreign philosophies in his Six Moral Tales, which contemplate fidelity and sexual relationships. My favorites don’t sit criss-cross applesauce on a fine line between the stark black-and-white of 1950s Manhattan in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and the liquid neon of an oversaturated modern-day Los Angeles in Drive (2011). Favorite films don’t appeal to us via set standards. Instead, each favorite touches our hearts a different way. The true love of Fallen Angels (1995) isn’t the true love of Diva (1981); blades of Sanjuro (1962) don’t slice the same as the infamous knife in Psycho; and the rock bottom Scottie hits in Vertigo (1958) stands apart from Redmond Barry’s in Barry Lyndon (1975).
Thinking back to Parasite—and all my favorite films, for that matter—I’ve never felt the same feeling watching any two of them. I never knew when I started each one that it’d creep into my list of favorites, or inspire me, or change my view entirely on how to make films. But as my feelings have amplified over time, thinking about the list now makes me shiver. Sometimes I shake my head when I think about Travis Bickle—even as I start to fall asleep.
My dreams run parallel to cinema. Like their own films, dreams encapsulate themselves in preexistent material and recycle conscious thought into whimsical experiences. Furthermore, on an emotional level, dreams can hold a mirror to cinema, striking us as funny, or amazing, or even scary as hell. Better yet, some dreams can touch us to our very core. And like films, when the right ones find us, they inspire us.