Critique of a critic

“So what did you think?” asked my friend Deborah as we made our way from the butter-scented cinema to the steel-framed parking garage.

I didn’t answer right away. I was thinking so many things–about the film, the story line, the sheer gift of find seating in a sold out showing–I didn’t know how to summarize.

“I never would have seen that movie the same way a year ago,” I reflected, pulling out my keys and looking for my car. “I could have seen it. I could have appreciated it. But not the way I did today.”

My answer begged for an explanation, and my redheaded friend was more than happy to hear me wax poetic on the ways that I’m learning to appreciate movies. I will probably never be a fair judge of cinematography or acting. I can tell you when it’s bad, really bad, but if I happen to like the setting or find a meaningful connection with a character, I’m willing to overlook an awful lot.

Though it was an excellent film in and of itself, what really struck me most during my first viewing of Dawn of Planet of the Apes wasn’t the film itself, but the questions that ran through my mind as I watched the story unfold. Not questions about the plot line per se, but about the movie–the way it was made and the incredible amount of work that went into it. It was like meeting a new person and wondering about the composition of their skeleton.

I was intrigued by the setting of the film–a recreated San Francisco, the city that I have come to call home. There were scenes set in the forests of Marin County and near a dam where a friend and I went hiking last winter. The Civic Center BART served as a central hub of action, the Golden Gate Bridge as the gateway between humans and apes. I was not looking to make a critique of the movie, but rather of myself, of how much I have come to associate myself with this city and how quickly I attach to its familiar features.

I noted the bookmarking of the opening and closing shots, the way that they securely anchor either side of the story line. I began musing over the opening scene, wondering what sort of precedent it would set and what meaning would come from the initial conflict, knowing that any good story should “start in scene,” as I’ve learned in my writing classes, classes that have changed the way I view story telling of all shapes and sizes.

At the sight of dozens of apes swooping through the redwoods of the North Bay, the first question that crossed my mind was, “Who wrote the code for that sequence and what sort of work goes into that animation?” This, my friends, is an unprecedented thought. Now, it is possible that no one wrote the code. That code was not even needed for that scene, but my acknowledging that it might be and that someone at some point needed to put a whole lot of effort into make computer-generated apes look that lifelike is like realizing for the first time that all of the vegetables in your ratatouille originally came from a field. It was a sign that something had changed.

There is a key scene in the film during which music begins to play from a long-forgotten gas station. Someone selected that music. Someone chose exactly what song would be playing and the way in which each character would react to it. There may have been dozens of suggestions, myriad arguments for each of them. But only one could be chosen. Thousands of decisions like that were made for each scene. Thousands of plot lines were rejected. Metaphoric reams of dialog were thrown out and re-written. This may seem obvious to some, but it was epiphanal for me, for someone who has deemed herself “a writer” for so long, but is only just starting to understand what it means to tell (much less to live) a good story.

I watched Dawn of Planet of the Apes in a way I couldn’t have a year ago, because I am a significantly different person than I was a year ago. Because I have read and listened and lived and experienced. Because I have openly dropped myself into new and diverse communities, each of which views the world with its own set of perceptions. There is a story behind every story, and the making of a movie is no exception.

More than once I have reasoned that time is limited and the number stories out there is infinite. I have argued that it is a “waste of time” to re-read a book, re-watch a movie, or even re-visit a location when I might otherwise invest in a new kind of experience. And perhaps that would be true if re-visiting the old meant replicating an experience. But it doesn’t. Ever. Because we are never the same people we were when we did anything for the first time. Nor will we be.

I am not the same person I was when I first read Little Women, watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or visited Paris. I am older, possibly wiser, and certainly different. And though I carry with me the memory of that “first time” experience, I also hold so much more. I see so much.

And so do each of us, though we don’t always realize it. Re-read a story, re-watch a movie, re-visit a place you haven’t seen, maybe for years. Bring all of yourself with you and notice what you see. What you didn’t see before. What you might never see again.

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