Sunday, May 30, 2010
Watching and seeing
I was planning to take the long weekend off from blogging, but the problem with a long weekend is that it usually means I see a lot of movies. And the more movies I see, the more ideas I get for blog posts. It's a curse, I tell you.
I found myself with a full cup of coffee and a writing itch this morning, so here it is, another of Vancetastic's Lessons in Semantics.
My wife and I watched Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking last night, which I'd already seen -- I thought twice, but my records indicated that it had only been once. (I remembered it pretty well for only one viewing, especially since not a whole lot happens in this movie.) We recently saw Please Give, at which point we determined that my wife had never seen Holofcener's first movie. She promptly added it to her Netflix queue.
This post is not so much about that movie as it's about something the movie made me think about. Namely, there's a scene near the end when Amelia (Catherine Keener) rents a couple porn movies for Andrew (Liev Schreiber). When she hands him the video cassettes (a sign of the age of the movie, along with the terrible jean shorts Keener wears), he says, "I've already seen these."
It struck me as strange, because people never use the word "see" when talking about porn movies. You'd be much more likely to say you had already "watched" a porn movie.
Which naturally got me thinking about the different ways we use the words "watch" and "see" when it comes to talking about film. In this context, to "see" means to view a movie from beginning to end, with the intent of following the plot and appreciating the technique (such as it is). To "watch" would be to view it in short segments as the "need" arose, without caring or possibly even knowing what the plot was -- which is the way most people consume pornography, rather than from start to finish. And it's certainly how admitted porn addict Andrew is viewing these movies, which is why the line stuck out.
But let's take it out of the realm of pornography and talk about how we use these terms with regular movies. Watching and seeing have subtly different meanings here as well, don't they? If I said "Do you want to watch a movie?", you'd assume I was suggesting that we rent something or view something from one of our collections, at either your house or mine. However, if I said "Do you want to see a movie?", it would be immediately evident I was talking about going to the theater, even if I didn't add the word "go" ("do you want to go see a movie") in there. Why is that? I have no idea, but it's an informal rule we've all come to accept.
Okay, maybe I have some idea -- "seeing" is something you do in the theater, "watching" is something you do on a television. The difference becomes more clear when you look at television shows specifically. You don't say "Do you see Breaking Bad?" -- that sounds ridiculous. You say "Do you watch Breaking Bad?" "Watching" here implies some kind of ongoing commitment to a serial entity that can't be consumed in one sitting. It even holds up when you rephrase it so the semantics aren't off. If I said "Have you ever seen Breaking Bad?", you would assume I was talking about a movie, wouldn't you? Especially if you didn't already know that Breaking Bad was a TV show. And if you did know it was a show, you'd feel weirded out by my subtle failure to observe the normal rules of verb use.
But then there are also other subtle differences that tip a person off. If said to you "I saw Walking and Talking last night," that too would seem weird, wouldn't it? You'd wonder if an obscure 14-year-old independent film had made a return appearance in theaters. If I instead said "I watched Walking and Talking last night," that would make more sense to you, and you'd know I was talking about a home viewing on my TV.
But then the word "seeing" actually can refer to home viewings as well, once it's clear you are talking in the abstract about a movie, without regard for where the movie was originally seen. If I ask you "Have you ever seen Walking and Talking?," it means I only want to know if a viewing has ever occurred, either on a television or in the theater. If I said "Have you ever watched Walking and Talking?", now you'd think I was talking about a television show.
Unless Walking and Talking were a porn movie, in which case, the title would probably consist of two very different gerunds.