The Intellectual vs The Emotional - How Do You Enjoy Movies?

I write these articles very cautiously, concerned about appearing wishy-washy and non-committal but also very aware that the Internet is fogged by people telling you what you should like and how you should think. Ultimately, when I write I try to capture my thoughts mid-process, a snapshot of my current journey towards a realisation rather than a fully formed absolute. My current train of thought has drifted into how I enjoy my movies and why, approaching 40 years of age, my taste has been calibrated in the way that is has. For some time I thought about how films worked in two ways: emotion and intellect.

Emotional enjoyment is generally how we enjoy things as kids. You like movies because your body reacts in a way that signals you are enjoying it, nothing more. You might recognise familiar elements or re-occurring motifs that spark these emotional reactions, it could determine what genre you gravitate towards, or whether you like a certain performer, but rarely do you consider how this is making you react in a certain way. Although you develop these responses as children they can stay with you well into adulthood and can explain why you might like a movie everyone else tells you is a horrible waste of time. More importantly, no matter how much they explain how horrible the movie is to you it will not change your opinion because the mechanisms that trigger any pleasurable reactions largely bypass the formal cognitive process that is digesting the argument made. You will also take these criticisms personally, because emotional reactions are largely personal and difficult to explain to others.

Intellectual enjoyment generally comes from having studied filmmaking or theory in some form (this can simply be from having watched a shit-ton of movies). This means you can watch a movie and appreciate the technical and creative choices made by all involved. You recognise the film is good and can clearly explain why it is, but that does not mean it will prompt any emotional response. It is entirely possible to recognise a film you don't like as being good.

I remember watching The Reader (which I fully recognised as an excellently made movie with strong performances) and Godzilla vs Megalon (a film where grown men dress in rubber suits and roll around on top of model buildings for forty-five minutes) in a single evening. Despite the clearly identifiable evidence of strong filmmaking in The Reader, I'd largely forgotten about it once it had finished. Godzilla, on the other hand, had me bouncing off the walls all week. The goal, of course, is to find movies that stimulate both the emotions and the brain.

It can be applied/seen in all areas of life. Some people are not a music lovers. That doesn't mean they don't like music, of course they do, but they've never read the NME. They've never really been to live performances and they don't like festivals. They don't know, or care, what bands are cool versus what bands are hacks. They don't hear the overall narratives or thematics at play in an album, but rather a CD with two or three songs on it they like. They enjoy music emotionally. They hear a piece of music or a song and their body tells them whether they like it or not. They don't generally think about how it fits into the wider context, or how it was made. They like it or they don't. Those same people might be great at their jobs. They may have a comprehensive understanding of their role and can appreciate a good management strategy or IT system. But they may not give a shit. They'll just go home, switch off their work brain and throw on some music that emotionally satisfies them.

It is possible, however, to emotionally respond to intellectual processes. The more involved you get with a medium, the more you start to see through the surface details and understand what it is you do and don't like. You then start to appreciate the mechanics and begin to respond to things that others don't see. You start to intellectualise the process, but at the same time gain enjoyment through it.

When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey I was tuned to respond emotionally. My tastes had broadened by that stage but I was expecting something similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Saturn 3. I assumed a group of Astronauts would discover an alien object and some weird shit would go down. What I saw was long, aimless and largely devoid of incident. I didn't know what I was watching and my body rejected it like a foreign organ. Over the years I ended up sitting through it another two or three times and with each viewing my opinion changed. I started to see what Kubrick was intending, started to notice the nuanced strokes and grand gestures, started to consider and discuss it. I wanted to know why I didn't like it.

I went from hating it, to feeling challenged by it, to becoming fascinated by it and as I write this I think of it as one of the greatest movies ever made - a master class in filmmaking. But I don't enjoy it, I study it. At least at the moment, as I fully expect that the next time I watch it the intellectual and emotional will become one and Kubrick's technique will stir emotions in me the way Captain America leaping off an exploding bus does. Being able to see the way I get pleasure from a piece of cinema change over time, to see intellectual and emotional processes get muddled, inseparable, has been exhilarating.

It also fills me with dread. As I have grown older I found my emotional responses fading. I can intellectually process and appreciate more movies but find myself moved by them less and less. This is not just a by-product of intellectualising nor am I movie snob (I DESPISE elitism), it's because my taste is refining. I have so clearly identified the triggers for my emotional responses that I go looking for them rather than waiting for them to be revealed. I know the experience I want and if the film doesn't deliver I don't enjoy it.

As a result of this I have watched so many films that I know I would have loved years ago, but that have left me cold. Films that because of some editing choices, or sound effects that don't quite trigger my desired emotions leave me feeling disappointed. Spectre left me indifferent, and I can explain at length why I think that was, but I look at the people who loved the shit out of it and wish I could turn back the clock and enjoy it for what it is, not what I wanted it to be.

When I do find something that thrills me, like the Marvel movies, I cling onto them, yet so tight do I hold that when it tries something new I resent the change. I loved Captain America: The First Avenger, but my first viewing of Winter Soldier left me feeling less than satisfied. Why? Because it didn't have Alan Silvestri's Captain America March (a theme I adored) playing over the final act. It's fucking ridiculous, but my precise awareness of my preferred emotional triggers has turned into resentment for them not being there. It has began to poison the things I love. This is melodramatic obviously, and on second viewing I got over it quickly, but I worry this might get worse as I get older.

This is the one point in my life where I actually look back at my teens with envy. I remember at that age still having a sense of discovery, still wanting to consume every film I could find. My taste was changing, I still loved Indy and Star Wars but was I was being exposed to Tarantino and Scorcese, discovering Hard Boiled and Akira too. I was transitioning into the intellectual and had, at that time, the best of both worlds. It was my apex of enjoyment.

I don't have a conclusion to this. I don't know whether I'll be able to pump the breaks a little and start going with the flow, or whether I'll accelerate towards the developing of such narrow tastes that only certain films will trigger my responses (the films they made in "my day", no doubt). Ultimately I feel that at this point in my life it's okay to just enjoy things. That if someone loves a movie just because it has explosions, well, that's okay, they just may not have reached a point where they can intellectualise that enjoyment. As much as The Transformers movies make me want to puke my lungs up I don't resent people for liking them. If anything, I slightly envy them.

I don't want to love every movie, that's absurd. But I want to get back to that point in my life where I looked forward to being told a story and the unique way it was told, rather than being disappointed that the storyteller didn't tell it the way I like. I'm not sure I can do that right now, but stepping back and looking at this process from afar might give me a fighting chance of reconnecting with that wide-eyed explorer I used to be.


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