Books and movies are both legitimate ways to tell stories | Wikimedia
Books and movies are both legit­imate ways to tell stories | Wikimedia

If someone spends his entire day reading, he might be per­ceived as scholarly or cul­tured, but if he spent the last 48 hours binge watching a TV series, he’d probably be viewed as some sort of degen­erate couch potato. 

People buy books just to appear smart, but people aren’t running out to red-box to impress others, are they? Film and tele­vision are con­sidered the lesser sto­ry­telling mediums – low-brow fodder for the masses. This is not a new sentiment.

In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minow  delivered a scathing speech, lam­basting tele­vision, calling it a “vast wasteland,”  com­posed of a “pro­cession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbe­lievable fam­ilies… mayhem, violence…and cartoons.”

While parts of Minow’s quote ring true, certain films and tele­vision series are valuable, not vacuous.

Ter­rence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is a beau­tiful, sprawling mas­ter­piece that explores exis­tence and man’s rela­tionship with God. “House of Cards” is a modern Shake­spearean take on the immorality and cor­ruption in pol­itics.  Wes Anderson’s films have such balance and sym­metry that any still of an Wes Anderson film could be hung in an art museum.

Despite popular opinion,watching a film or tele­vision can be is an intel­lectual pursuit, depending on how one engages with the medium.

Good films and tele­vision shows are more than enter­taining; like any good work of fiction they teach. They reflect reality back onto itself; they high­light the altru­istic and the nefarious aspects of humanity; they are created to be beau­tiful and enriching. 

There is a reason lifetime movies don’t have the same affect on a viewer as “Good Fellas.” There is a reason why shows like “Mad Men” and “House of Cards” are more mem­o­rable than shows like CSI: Miami. Under­standing ele­ments of film and their uses can explain why certain works last, while others fade. “Good” films have a mastery over tech­nical ele­ments of film­making build a more ful­filling and sub­stantive  “worlds” within their films. 

The purpose of a film is to tell a story, but unlike lit­er­ature, film is a visual medium.Directors have a number of ele­ments at their dis­posal to enhance their ability to tell a story, from dialog, editing, sound, score, lighting, color and com­po­sition. Every aspect of a film should enhance the direc­tor’s ability tell a story or deliver a message to the audience. Each choice should be delib­erate. How effective a film is at using these ele­ments to build a cohesive and story deter­mines to a great extent how “good” a film is con­sidered to be.

in film, only a small fraction of the story is apparent to the viewer on screen, the rest must be dis­covered by the viewer. Because film is mostly a visual expe­rience, internal real­ities must be rep­re­sented with external cues or images.An active audience members are aware of these cues. Improving one’s ability to engage with film, enhances one’s ability to under­stand sto­ry­telling and appre­ciate film and tele­vision as an art form.

By training oneself to be an observant audience member, film will become an active expe­rience. Audience members will beyond surface appear­ances and seek out mes­sages and deeper meanings. They move beyond being affixed to your couch and move into engaging in a dialog with the medium they are watching.

Active audi­ences pay attention to what is in a scene, the objects placed within a scene and where they are within a frame. Objects within a scene are usually there for a reason. .Some objects are sym­bolic, others are fore­shad­owing devices — like the sled in Citizen Kane, for example. Without spoiling the film, the sled is not just a toy, it rep­re­sents childhood and inno­cence lost. 

Most impor­tantly, the setting and the objects sur­rounding a par­ticular char­acter can reveal who they are as a human being. Much like how one choses to dec­orate his living space, the spaces created for char­acters and designed to reflect who they are as human beings. A methodical detail ori­ented char­acter may have a spotless house, whereas a down-on-his-luck strug­gling artist may live in a scant apartment that’s lit­tered with paint and cig­a­rette butts.

In the opening scene of “Citizen Kane,”there is a slow, push-in shot leading up the the main char­acters mansion — Xanadu. As the camera con­tinues to push-in towards the estate, more of the setting is revealed. From the large fence sur­rounding the property, to the stone walls of his fortress, to the massive an ornate fire­place seen within the building, audience gets a sense of who Foster Kane is — a wealthy, guarded, and lonely man. 

Colors can give films a cohesive look and can also reflect internal moods or overall themes of the films.  David Fincher mas­ter­fully uses color to enhance his works. The director of “The Social Network,” “Fight Club,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remake, often uses blue tones or green tones to give his works a somber, unset­tling feel. 

“Fight Club” is one of the most yellow and greenish films ever made. While yellow is often viewed as a cheery color, when it is mixed with high con­trast and dark colors, it gives a sickly impression. The presence of yellow fits with the films gritty themes, and it does tie into the films twist ending. 

“Girl with the dragon Tattoo” is filmed almost entirely in a bleak, blue hue, with high con­trast. Not only does this give the film a cold, dark air but it com­pli­ments the winter ele­ments in the film and show­cases the pro­tag­o­nists struggle to connect and relate to those around her. 

For some directors, external colors can reflect internal char­acter changes. Nefarious and evil char­acters are often shown wearing darker colors. The showrunner of “Breaking Bad” made some inter­ested choices in terms of Walter White’s wardrobe color.  As the show pro­gressed, White’s attire become pro­gres­sively darker in the series.

In “American Beauty,” a film which explores and cri­tiques the cliched idea of the American Dream, the shades of red are present in almost every shot. Red, which can sym­bolize passion, lust, and vio­lence, acts as a fore­shad­owing device about what vices my overtake the film’s main pro­tag­onist and unroot his American dream.

Overall, watching a film or tele­vision series is an intel­lectual pursuit, if one watches actively. By observing, eval­u­ating, and cri­tiquing the ele­ments of a film, people expe­rience intel­lectual growth and sim­u­lation. Overtime, by engaging in this process, sto­ry­telling ele­ments become more clear and more is gleaned from the surface of films.

Not only will one’s under­standing of film be enhanced, but the skillset of crit­i­cally engaging with mate­rials is trans­ferable between mediums. Improving one’s ability to observe, appre­ciate, and cri­tique sto­ry­telling methods in film, may improve one’s ability to pick up on cues and deeper themes in literature.