Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Peril of Note-Taking

Oblivion, which is, you know, not bad

Since January, there have been few cases where I’ve just gone to a movie without some kind of ulterior motive--namely, writing about it. Every trip I can think of has seen me with a small notebook and pen to haphazardly jot down notes. I do it for accuracy, but also, depending on how bad the movie, because it gives my mind something to do and keeps it from wandering. There’s absolutely no method to what I do, I just scribble down what comes to me and hope that I can make some sense of it later.

Note-taking really isn't ideal, though, regardless of what you think of the movie. It seems a lot like texting during a date--it puts up a wall between you and the movie you're watching. What you, the note-taker, is really thinking about isn't what you're watching but your own reaction to what you're watching. You, essentially, are the real focus.

I hit on this on a Sunday night several weeks ago when I caught Oblivion with my wife and brother-in-law. Oblivion, of course, is the Tom Cruise vehicle from Tron: Legacy director, Joseph Kosinski. Since I wasn't writing about it for anyone, my pen and notebook were at home, and what a refreshing feeling that was. Leaving aside whatever faults it has, going to see it sans writing objects made it one of my most memorable moviegoing experiences so far this year. It was good, for one moment in the past few months, to not be adsorbed in my own opinion of another man's hard work.

Judgment is, after all, what acting as a critic is about. It doesn't have to be negative, but let's face it, it usually is--this despite the fact that movie critics genuinely love movies. You can chalk that up to a critic's high standards and overactive mind, or to the simple fact that creating really good work in a commercially driven environment is hard. Whatever the case, criticism is about judgement, even if it's in the movie's favor.

For someone acting as just a moviegoer, enjoyment is the primary issue, not judgement. You've paid to see something you honestly think you'll enjoy, so you're less inclined to weigh and analyze. You're there to relax and get caught up, not scrutinize.

What I think this can lead to is a fair amount of dishonesty on the critic's part. I say dishonesty because when you're surrounded by an audience eager to see what you've only been assigned to or have volunteered for, you're clearly not there for the same reason, that being to get swept away. It may happen, but the artist first has to break through the barrier of your skepticism.

The irony is that honesty is what writing about film is all about, and what note-taking can sometimes hamper. Yes, it makes jotting down a quote or a plot point easy, but as I've already said, we also run the risk of putting ourselves before the movie we're watching.

So to bring this whole thing back around to Oblivion, what I found was a fairly good piece of big-budget filmmaking. It has too many undeveloped parts to really soar, but I was moved by, and even haunted by, it's melancholic direction. I also found I was more forgiving of it than I might have been had I had my pen ready. It wasn't amazing, but it transported me, which is what a movie should do when you're open to it.

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