Why do we watch films?

It is more than just a spectacle of moving pictures.

The opening sequence of Mulholland Drive (2001), directed by David Lynch.

I am excited to announce that Cultural Learnings will be on Manila Community Radio this Sunday, 16 August, from 18:00 GMT+8 / 11:00 BST.

Two hours in the wonderful world of film music with moody vocals and instrumentals to pull your heartstrings. I will be playing and discussing 23 tracks from 23 films, including Call Me by Your Name, Uncut Gems, Breaking Bad, and more.

Join me and tune in via www.manilacommunityradio.live.

A photo by my partner Cyrus, who is a talented photographer. This was taken in August 2019, when he took me to see “Do the Right Thing” for the first time.

Here is what watching films look like for me in the year 2020.

At around 5 PM, I clock out of work. Well, more like mentally deciding to detach from my work-from-home setup. (Which, frankly, is not that different from its alternative.) I live in a small studio apartment, so I do this by moving the wooden chair away from my desk and shifting the two-seater sofa towards it. My landlord went for this “global city” showroom look where all the furniture is generically cheap, yet strangely lightweight and only at the verge of discomfort. Anyway, I read somewhere that if you start suffering from cabin fever, moving your furniture around can give a sense of a “different environment.”

I suppose this has worked for me because, so far this August, I am watching at a rate of nearly two films every evening. I am in a Telegram group chat with seven other friends where we either shit talk or send out open invites to host a Netflix Party, an extension on Google Chrome for watching Netflix movies remotely with mates. We even have a Discord server where we have post-viewing discussions while taking turns queueing up music. There, we have a “#concessionstand” channel, which is a glorified loitering spot — a place to lurk and see who is around.

Watching films in 2020 also requires a lot more thought. I often leave this task in the hands of cinemas or Netflix. Alas, cinemas are closed and the selection on Netflix — not only is it repetitive, but it is also, as you might have once heard from a friend, “pretty shit.”

So, I “dig” for good recommendations. These usually come from the armchair Letterboxd critics, whose reviews resemble a hybrid between the stream-of-consciousness behind a tweet and “escalator wit,” the feeling of coming up with a perfect retort just moments too late. My partner lives in London and a large chunk of what we talk about over the phone is movies. “What films have you seen recently?” is our equivalent of “What have you eaten?” (Although, we ask that too) and we can go for hours just talking about the Satanic dog in The Omen and how overrated The Lobster is.

A recent photo of the Barbican Centre in London before a performance. Taken by Cyrus Mahboubian.

So, why do we watch films? After all, no matter how bad your day was, and even after bad politics exhausted your last hope for humanity, films were always there to fall back on. Aside from revealing “uncomfortable but essential conversations,” a phrase that Richard Brody from The New Yorker called an “echo-chamber mode of criticism,” films capture the imagination in two ways.

Firstly, like books, films are texts and thus we derive multiple readings from them. The word “text” comes from the Latin verb texte, meaning to weave. While books use words to allude to our senses, films wave a wand of trickery, using optical and auditory illusions to instil a sequence of emotions. Mark Kermode described in his podcast how film celluloid possesses this “alchemical magic” close to ghostly apparitions: light passes through a strip before spilling onto the screen, making the image feel so alive it led the early spectators of cinema to wonder whether the medium can bring the dead back to life. We watch films because it gives us a glimpse of an interior life — whether that is of the director, the actors, or the world in which it inhabits. If you are like me, living alone and quintessentially quarantined, films bring me to that “different environment” I so often seek.

Lastly, we watch films because of its mythology. Talking about them is basically sixty-nine hours of you and your friend saying, “Have you seen …?” over and over again. Some film we watch once, and many we re-watch a-thousand times over. Others live a life of its own for generations: like the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the golden suitcase in Pulp Fiction. In fact, Garry Gillard defined “cult films” as being so popular over time, people want to see it repeatedly and where distributors might be prepared to “take the considerable risk of spending large amounts of money on prints and advertising to put a film back into cinemas …”

The lore behind films is also very much part of the story portrayed on screen. Some that come to mind include Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in I’m Still Here, a mockumentary where he convinces people he is retiring from acting to become a hip-hop artist; or how Isabelle Adjani attempted to kill herself after the production of Andrzej Żuławski’s horror mindfuck, Possession. We watch films because it lights a spark in us that can only be lit by, well, films. That spark has the “glitz and glam,” but also the wonder that comes with looking back at your pivotal life moments, plastered on a big screen, for you to take or leave.

Being able to watch good films is an incredible privilege. I only hope that once “this” is all over, we can continue to support all those who make it happen — from the film crews to the theatres — never taking them for granted again.

My top 5 films from the Great Quarantine of 2020

In 2050, mangled after surviving the fifth alien invasion, Gen ABC will ask me: "What films did you watch during the Great Quarantine?"

Here are my top five picks of films watched for the first time since 12 March 2020 — the day my city, Manila, Philippines, first announced lockdown. You can see the complete list on my Letterboxd, which I am continually updating until there is a vaccine for COVID-19.

5. La Haine (1995)

The French equivalent of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, La Haine portrays a day-in-the-life of three boys — one is Black, another is Jewish, the other is Arab — as they hop from one jungle gym swing to another in their riot-ridden city, following news that a friend was seriously hurt by police. This track from the film, performed by French rapper Cut Killer, has a nice slap to it.

4. Capote (2005)

Arguably Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most immersive performance, he internalises Truman Capote — a staff writer for The New Yorker in the ‘60s and author of the best-selling book, In Cold Blood — with a powerful force and tenderness. In this interview, Hoffman discussed the difficulties of developing the character, saying he would not take on a role like that again. RIP 🐐.

3. In The Mood for Love (2000)

Described once to a friend as the best heterosexual romance film, In the Mood for Love is a seminal work by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai and should really be renamed “Sexual Tension: The Movie.” This episode of Sounds on Screen by Florence Scott-Anderson for NTS Radio perfectly depicts that “mood” which cuts across all his films.

2. Magnolia (1999)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson when he was just 28 years old, Magnolia belongs to a canon of films that pushed the medium to its limits. This is not only evident in the actors’ performances; but also in the masterful weaving of four interrelated stories, reflecting on regret in family relationships. If you brave Magnolia in all its three-hour glory, it will make you jump from your seat, shouting: “THIS IS CINEMA!”

1. Possession (1981)

I went mad the night I watched Possession, trying to piece together “what it all means.” A story of a married couple as they come to grips with a painful divorce, the film is a landmark, yet sorely underrated, work of horror cinema, combining all its dizzying sub-genres: there is body modification, monsters, psychological turmoil, and it walks the tightrope between spiritualism and naturalism. After its initial release in 1981, Possession was dubbed a “video nasty” and the film would not be available for public consumption until 2000 when it was released on VHS and DVD.

This comes up at the top of my list because it does something films rarely do, snugly making space in the corners of your mind and refusing to ever leave.

Join me this Sunday, 16 August, as I bring you two hours of film music, playing and discussing 24 tracks from 24 films. Tune in via www.manilacommunityradio.live from 18:00 GMT+8 / 11:00 BST.

Corrections: The phrase “shot by police” was edited to “seriously hurt by police.”

Cultural Learnings is a newsletter written by Sai Villafuerte. You can support it by subscribing, sharing this post, emailing your thoughts, or answering this survey.