Let’s Talk Film: An Informal Guide to Viewing

Philosophy professor Jim Conlon tries to go to the movie theater at least once a week, but not the kind with the tables and waitresses. He expresses clear contempt for the distracting service.

“Sometimes students say, ‘Don’t you ever go to movies just for fun?’” Conlon said. “And I say, nobody has more fun at the movies than I do.”

While there is no proper way to experience a film, there are different ways you could choose to watch it.  Of course,  you could find a theater to watch the film or watch it at home.

Choosing a Film

Conlon, who frequently teaches the Philosophy and Film class, prefers to see a film in theaters unless he’s viewing it for a second or third time. According to Conlon, Milwaukee is a great city for film. The annual film fest brings international attention, the Landmark theaters are great (see below), and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has a great film program that brings in many films to the Union Cinema, open to the public as well. With so many available options, viewers should consider what they would like to get out of their experience.

“I think a lot of people go to the movies for entertainment and that’s fine,” Conlon said. “I don’t. I go to the movies for art… I don’t want (the directors) to be worrying about me. I want them to be telling me something. And that will be my pleasure in a sense.”

Serbata Tarrer, a sophomore studying film at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been experimenting and creating film since he was 10 years old. He also has a specific type of film he favors, called Mumblecore, a subgenre of film that uses naturalistic acting and aims to represent reality and relationships as they are.

“Stories about regular people interest me the most,” Tarrer said. “Stories about stuff that is grounded in real life. I really like films about people that are just talking about average stuff. I like movies where people just hang out and do their day-to-day things. I really just like how natural things are.”

It is good for people to think about what movies they have enjoyed in the past and what elements they have in common in order to seek out other films with similar characteristics.

“If a film has more of a tug on my emotions then I’ll like that film more than one I’ll have to analyze,”  Tarrer said. “I love films that I have to analyze and pick apart and put back together also, but at the same time if it can do that and also make me feel something, that’s great.”

Of course, every person seeks to find something different, including philosophy professor Austin Reece. He is often interested in films that answer some of the big questions and ideas he obsesses over nightly as a devotee to philosophy and thinking. He likes film that subtly reveals new ideas and truths.

“Horace says, ‘A great work of art should both delight and instruct us,’ and I feel like I want both of those things,” Reece said. “I want to be delighted, I want to be entertained, I want it to be fun. But I also want to be challenged, instructed. I want illumination. I want to see something in a new light that I haven’t seen before.”


Outside of purely watching for entertainment, there are other factors including technical, theoretical, cinematographic and directorial aspects to consider while watching a film.

Tarrer would like to focus his studies on director-of-photographer work. The role of the director of photography is to be in charge of the visual look of the film behind the camera, including controlling the use of light and the way the frame looks.

“I pay attention to cinematography and story and how those go together to create a film,” Tarrer said.

Reece takes a more scholarly approach and considers his knowledge of literary criticism and critical thinking skills in order to analyze the film.

“There’s a more general method of critical thinking and then sometimes literally trying to apply these famous critical theories to the viewing,” Reece said. “Sometimes it’s useful and I go ‘ahh that’s interesting’ and sometimes I just go ‘just stop thinking and enjoy the film.’”

Reece does this, not to make the viewing process difficult, but because he ultimately gains more this way.

“Through the critical apparatus, it gives you a few extra tools to think through the complexity of the story, but ultimately I think it should lead to greater access to another person’s experience,” Reece said. “Through that access I feel empathy is at least possible.”

Conlon frequently references the history and past methods in film when talking about what he looks at during a film. For one, he spends time looking at the expression of the actors on their faces and in their body language.

“It’s not by mistake that films began in silence, silent films,” Conlon said. “What is so great about silent performers is it had to be in their features, not in how they were saying it. So it was very visual in terms of looking at their bodies and how expressive are their bodies rather than their words.”

Additionally, the technical aspects of a film can control how the viewer feels while watching.

“In contemporary film, the shot sequence is very quick, so that it’s between 10 and 11 seconds usually when they’re changing the shot,” Conlon said. “A shot is how long the camera is running before you start a new shot. Originally film was just all one shot. They didn’t edit it at all. They just shot it.”

Of course as with any art form, we can argue about what makes a film good.

“A film that I really like I can always take something away from and apply it to my life,” Tarrer said. “If you can create a world within your film where things feels unique, that’s really good.”

Tarrer references director Wes Anderson as someone who is good at creating worlds within his films such as “Moonrise Kingdom” or “The Royal Tenenbaums.” He also notes that if a film is really good, he’ll often have to take a walk after, to think about what he’s just seen.

Conlon, who values the film for the visual experience, added a different perspective.

“A really good film, if you turned off the sound, should still be meaningful to you,” Conlon said.  “A stage drama, if you were blind, would still be powerful because I think it is a lot in the words and the way the words are delivered. A good film is in the eyes, is in what you see.”

Reece describes film as one method to develop empathy, where the film experience allows you to understand a point of view you might not normally encounter. The empathy comes in if you learn to respond appropriately in real life situations.

“We know it’s vicarious,” Reece said. “We know it’s simulated, but we have that momentary suspension of disbelief and we give ourselves to the film as if it were real or as if we were experiencing it ourselves.”

By allowing ourselves to be part of the character’s experience, we identify with what the character is feeling and potentially discover something new about ourselves or others.

“I like the word illumination,” Reece said. “Good art should shed light on something. Or we see something in a new light. I just love that idea that as smart and as bright as we are sitting here, we just don’t know everything.”

Post-Viewing Thoughts

Beyond finding a film that is good and enjoying the viewing experience, there are bigger possible takeaways. As a filmmaker, Tarrer has developed his own purpose in creating his art to share with the world and ultimately leaving the viewer with something as well.

“I really like just making people feel a certain feeling when they watch my movies and using film as a medium to help people discover something about themselves,” Tarrer said. “I really want to motivate people.”

For Reece, he finds joy in analyzing concepts and what the director may be trying to say about them, such as what is the meaning of love and what is the meaning of life. He cues into scenes of monologue for extra clues.

“I’m trying to understand and appreciate diverse points of view and fractured narratives,” Reece said. “Because it just seems like the movies I’m drawn to  – they’re not always linear, they’re not always simple, they’re complicated – but just to be able to experience the world through their experiences. See through their sight.”

As an advocate for post-movie discussion, Conlon points out the way a good film can stimulate good conversation.

“I think movies are more like dreams than other art,” Conlon said. “And in some ways, they haunt us the way dreams haunt us. It’s almost as if they give us the chance to study our dreams. But I also think that because they’re an incredibly popular medium, they’re great points of talking with people about ideas.”

Film is a unique medium of art, in the sense of how it engages its audience.

“There’s something particularly emotionally moving about moving images, so I do think cinema is moving, not just in the fact that it is physically moving but that that works on the emotions very directly for us,” Conlon said.

Independent Milwaukee Theaters
(* Purchase tickets in advance at Fandango.com)

* The Times Cinema
5906 W. Vliet St.

* Marcus Southgate Cinema
3330 S 30th St.

* Landmark Oriental Theatre
2230 N Farwell Ave.

* AMC Mayfair Mall 18
Mayfair, 2500 N Mayfair Rd.

* Avalon Atmospheric Theatre
2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

* Landmark Downer Theatre
2589 N Downer Ave.

* Fox Bay Cinema Grill
Fox Bay Building, 334 E. Silver Spring Dr.

* Rosebud Cinema Drafthouse
6823 W. North Ave.

UW-M Union Cinema
UW-M Student Union, 2200 E. Kenwood Blvd.

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