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Watching Movies Is Good for You

By David O’Grady

A few years ago I traded in a 15-year career in journalism and public relations for the opportunity to work toward a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. Part of my current occupation includes teaching undergraduates how to watch film and other visual media through the lenses of history, theory, and criticism. Though the environments couldn’t be more different, I’ve found some surprising parallels between my former corporate career and the good viewing habits I pass along to students. A few examples from my American Film History class:

Pay attention to first and last shots. It’s easy to forget the opening shot or frames by the end of a movie, but beginnings set expectations for the rest of the story. Endings, in turn, show how those expectations have been fulfilled, changed, or surpassed. When meeting with colleagues, clients, and customers, we should be equally clear in setting expectations, and farewells are the perfect time to confirm mutual understandings.

Turn down the sound and concentrate on the images. We are socialized to tune into what people say—but observations of body language and surrounding environment can tell us a lot about context and unspoken meanings. “Listen” with your eyes as well as your ears.

Take notes, do research. We should form our own opinions, but they are sharpened by the wisdom of others. By writing out our thoughts and bolstering them with research, we often learn what we really think—and can act on those ideas with confidence.

All films are in conversation with other films. Everything is connected, and not just in the Kevin Bacon way. All communities of people and products run deep, so it’s good to look around and see who or what lives in the same neighborhood. It’s also a great source of inspiration and motivation.

Once is not enough. Students sometimes think watching a film once means they understand how it ticks. But we only get beneath the surface of things through repeated, sustained effort. Persistence yields insight.

These “lessons” remind me that a liberal education prepares students to succeed in unforeseen—even surprising—ways beyond the classroom. But the opportunity to learn and grow within a career—or, as in my case, to embark on a new one—is always available to us. And that’s not just a lot of popcorn.

David O’Grady is completing a PhD in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. He has written for a variety of popular and academic publications, from Nylon to the New Review of Film and Television Studies. Previously, he advised senior executives on corporate communication strategy and media relations, as well as led a compliance communications team addressing privacy and security issues in health care.

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