Cultural assimilation has always been a term that I had trouble understanding. Is our experience with media just a series of interconnected vignettes, or does a cohesive whole stick in our minds? As the Internet becomes an easier way to share and discuss our opinions of films, we tend to forget that not everybody is meticulously watching every major blockbuster that comes out. But even as someone who doesn’t see every film that gets nominated for an Oscar or mentioned in a TV commercial, I feel like I’ve “consumed” more films than I’ve seen.
One of the most recent instances of this effect was 2012’s The Hunger Games. I didn’t get around to seeing it until just a few months ago, and it wasn’t exactly what I expected. Until sitting down to actually watch it, I only knew that it was about a bunch of kids fighting to the death for their country, Jennifer Lawrence was the protagonist, and she had some love interests or something. All of that information came from various sources; SNL parodies, social media, and general film discussion with other people. It wasn’t until I actually watched the film that I realized that it was about not only survival and kids killing each other, but also responsibility in the face of a massive entity, defending one’s family, and all sorts of fairly deep, mature themes that completely go over your head until you actually watch the film. Granted, the film does not tackle these themes as well as the original novels apparently do, but they’re almost all there on the screen.
Another good example of this is The Godfather films. Coincidentally, they were also adaptations of novels, but they came at it from a different perspective. Where The Hunger Games is a Hollywood-ized version of a young adult series of novels, The Godfather is a re-imagining of a popular crime novel. Its general premise has cemented itself as one of pop culture’s most enduring stories, but hardly anyone mentions that it’s not just a crime film. It’s about family, marriage, patriarchy, and coming to the realization that an old method of doing business is coming to an end. Essentially, it’s like putting the skeleton of a film in the public domain, but missing the fleshy pink center that is the plot beats, character development, and the overall production.
Our opinion of movies also determines how we describe them to others. I’d describe The Hunger Games to someone as “that arrow-shootin’ teen’s movie”, but that’s because I found it dull and wasteful of its interesting side characters. However, if you asked me to describe one of my favorite films, Almost Famous, I would go on an extended rant about how it deconstructs 1970s counter-culture while also telling the relatable story of a sheltered child being exposed to the most fascinating era in music, trying to be a part of it, and realizing that he belongs on the outside looking in. I also happen to really enjoy Almost Famous, so describing it like that is just a joy for me. The only time I would distill great works of art to a single sentence or two is to enhance the point that some films just need to be seen all the way through. Spring Breakers can be summarized in a sentence or two for plot, but that wouldn’t come anywhere close to the deeply intimate, intoxicating experience that is watching it.
On the other hand, some films benefit from a truncated explanation, because the execution doesn’t live up to the premise. I could pick pretty much any M. Night Shyamalan film from the early 2000s to illustrate this. Lady in the Water, The Sixth Sense, or even The Happening. The problem with these films is that there is little left to enjoy beyond the twists and turns that they take in the final act. This doesn’t mean that every Shyamalan “twist film” is inherently bad; Signs is bolstered by good acting and music, and Unbreakable is a legitimately great film from beginning to end.
As we go deeper into this new year, consider how you recommend films to other people. Are you giving them just the base amount of knowledge, letting the film speak for itself in its minute details? Or are you disregarding those details in favor of a quick, easily-explained synopsis of the film’s twists and symbols? The more a film resonates with the viewer, the less likely they are to explain its details, choosing to just say “You should watch it.” That, to me, is the sign of a film worth watching.