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Conversations are the stars of class

By Philip Martin

This article was published February 22, 2013 at 2:24 a.m.


This good-looking bunch is in Philip Martin’s Wednesday mornings LifeQuest of Arkansas movie class.

Philip Martin

Philip Martin addresses his Lifequest class recently at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock. Video shot by student Ann West.
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— The stretch between Christmas and the Oscars telecast is a bleary slog for my ilk. We professional moviegoers see most of the award-seeking stuff in the fall, so we can fill out ballots in December and write our end-of-the year features about what movies we liked (or didn’t).

If you’re a civilian who doesn’t live in New York or Los Angeles, you can’t see a lot of these films until they open in local theaters in January and February, as counter programming to the usual schlocky horror pictures and misbegotten teen comedies the studios burn off in the winter without arranging for critics’ screenings. I saw Amour way back in November - about the only new movie I’ve caught this month has been Steven Soderbergh’s (excellent) Side Effects.

But one of the ways I keep busy during this slow time is spending an hour a week with a few dozen highly motivated moviegoers - or at least “movie watchers,” given the prevalence of home video - in my LifeQuest class located in Little Rock’s Second Presbyterian Church on Pleasant Valley Drive. LifeQuest, as you might know, is a nonprofit organization that provides educational seminars and other services to seasoned grown-ups. It started back in the early ’80s as The Shepherd’s Center, and despite its location at Second Presbyterian, it’s not affiliated with any single church or religion. Most of the people who show up for my Wednesday morning “seminar” are retired, and many of them have been coming for several years.

I use the word “seminar” advisedly, because there are too many of us to fit around a boardroom table. But I don’t really like to say I “teach” a class, because “teaching” implies a different, more didactic environment than what we’ve established. What I like is when there’s a lot of interaction, when their questions and observations drive our discussion. The only advantage I have on these folks is that I see a lot of movies, I’d guess 300 a year or so, and I’m required to think about and/ or record my impressions on a great number of them. I have a lot of ammunition, a reservoir of movie going experience most people who have to work for a living cannot acquire.

But that doesn’t make me smarter or more insightful about any particular movie - in fact, you can argue that anyone who sees as many movies as I am required to is a less than ideal audience for any particular movie. The ideal moviegoer, from a certain kind of filmmaker’s point of view, might be someone who has never seen a movie and has no idea what a movie is - the sort of person who might have hustled toward the exits when the Lumiere brothers showed that train pulling into the station.

Think how easy it might be to delight (or terrify) a completely naive audience.

But the truth is, if you’re an American of anything close to typical circumstances, you are the polar opposite of naive. You are very likely extremely moviewise, in that you’ve unthinkingly incorporated Hollywood convention into the way you perceive life. For example, even if you’ve never even thought about filming a scene, you know how to compose a shot. You’ve internalized the visual grammar of filmmaking because you’ve seen enough movies to understand how shots are traditionally framed and balanced and how different emotions can be triggered by focusing on different parts of the picture. Most of us can parse most movies well enough if we give ourselves permission to think about them.

And that’s what I find most interesting: the active consideration of entertainment products, many of which don’t actively seek to engage us on an intellectual level. Many movies mean to be visceral “escapes” that allow us to turn off our minds and ride the ride, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s also nothing wrong with thinking about why and how we were manipulated, and whether or not we liked it.

There’s nothing hard about my job - it doesn’t require anything more exotic than curiosity and the willingness to suspend prejudice for long enough to allow the movie to work (or not). All a good critic need do is say something accurate and interesting about the work under consideration. And that’s what we try to do in my LifeQuest class, say things that are accurate and interesting about the movies we see and - because not all of us have the luxury of watching movies for a living - don’t see.

That’s what my “class” is about, if it’s really about anything. It’s basically an ongoing conversation. Sometimes I show films (in my summer class, we have more time, enough to watch a Billy Wilder movie, if not a Quentin Tarantino film) or film clips, sometimes I bring a guest who has some filmmaking expertise, but mostly we just talk about movies: what they are, what they mean and how they fit into our lives.

I thoroughly enjoy it. If you’re interested in joining us, you can find more information at .


MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 02/22/2013

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