Understanding Vs. Enjoyment

Does greater understanding mean getting less joy out of things? Steven Den Beste wonders how many literature professors are blind to the simple joys of reading, and Matt Howell contends that greater understanding leads to greater appreciation.

Den Beste points to Mark Twain, who laments that he lost something when he gained a mastery of steamboat piloting (and thus a great understanding of the "language of water"):
... the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.
Howell disagrees, and points to his studies of theater. To him, a "critical analytical mindset does nothing to sap the joy from the experience of watching a play."

In part, they are both right, because the examples are very different. Twain learned a trade, and in so doing, he lost something. He saw the river in terms of piloting a steamboat. Howell, on the other hand, learned more about theater so that he could gain a greater appreciation of theater. Twain didn't learn the language of water to gain a greater appreciation of nature, but, rather, to avoid crashing his steamboat. Obviously their education in their corresponding subject affected them in different ways, and rightly so.

However, while I admit that I agree with Howell that a greater understanding of a subject can lead to a greater appreciation of that subject, I've noticed that it is very easy to over-analyze. I'm not familiar with theater, so I'll need to fall back on film. When taking in a good horror flick, for instance, a critical analysis of the mise en scène can completely ruin the film. When I look at the screen, and I see a skewed camera angle, cool colors giving way to hot colors, and I hear the music shift, I think to myself the director is manipulating the elements of the film to imply dread; something's going to happen. Its the difference between being told to feel horror and actually feeling horror. To someone who is passively viewing the film, the feeling of apprehension is palpable precisely because they don't know what the filmmaker is doing to them. If they did, they'd feel manipulated and cheated, and that's not why you go to see a horror film.

The best films, the ones that affect us the most, are the ones which transport and immerse you in another world, another time... but if you're busy nitpicking about the lighting or the editing, then you're still sitting in the theater, and you're certainly not enjoying the film.

Of course, this isn't true all of the time. Sometimes a filmmaker will actually want you to think about why a shot was from that angle or why one color or another dominates the screen at various times (and sometimes bad films will do this unintentionally, giving you that feeling of manipulation I discussed earlier). There's no way to objectively quantify how you should watch a film, but every way has its advantages or disadvantages. Analysis of a film while you're watching it can be rewarding and fun, but its possible to overdo it, as I think I've shown. Its sometimes nice to let the filmmaker's vision sweep over you and save the analysis for later.

Its similar to the notion that you have to sometimes have to suspend your disbelief while watching a movie. When a film has too many unrealistic elements, you can no longer relate, and you're no longer immersed in the film's world. But the occasional fudging of reality is acceptable, as long as it doesn't remove you from the film's grip for too long. Sure, its fun to MST3K a movie, but proclaiming He just shot 8 bullets out of a revolver without reloading and other similar complaints is an awful way to watch a movie, just as an over-analysis of a film can significantly blunt the impact of that film. Then again, I guess this is where the difference between film and theater come in. I can watch and rewatch the same exact film, taking care the second time around to figure out why I felt a certain way during a scene, thus enhancing my enjoyment of the film...

Update 6.23.03 - Porphyrogenitus has two posts discussing how the game of Quidditch ruined the first Harry Potter film for him. He refers to the film as losing his goodwill with a few annoying details (such as the way Quidditch was handled), which is a great way of putting one of the things I was trying to get at above...