• James Stranahan

It’s All About the Faces

A few months back, I went over to a friend’s house for his six-year-old daughter’s birthday party. As you would expect, there was cake, ice cream, balloons - everything a kid could want to celebrate turning the big six. After gorging on chocolate and watching the ribbons and paper fly as presents were unwrapped, I hung around for the showing of a true classic: the original Toy Story with Tom Hanks.

Mind you, I’ve seen this movie more than once and admire the technology that Pixar used to bring Woody and the gang to life. I also like the references to toys from the 80s, all lost on my friend’s daughter, of course. Mostly, I just like movies that make me laugh, and this is one of them.

As I sat back to watch, however, I found myself not watching the movie so much this time - instead, I kept glancing over at the kids. Toy Story, as you might know already, is “old” in the eyes of today’s generation, as it was made back in 1995, so 26 years ago. Old, indeed!

Even though the movie was ancient, the kids were entranced by it. I surreptitiously watched their faces as the movie progressed. When Buzz Lightyear “flew” around the room for the first time, their eyes tracked his flight just as much as the toys did. When the mutant toys rolled out from under Sid’s bed, there was a hush in the room. When Woody was almost flattened by a semi truck at the gas station, the girl next to me jumped.

This, then, is movie making: creating a story on film that is able to reach out and grab the imaginations of the viewers.

Over Halloween, I had a similar experience when I watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with a couple of friends. Everyone knows the story of the small family who spends a winter taking care of the Overlook Hotel, which is closed for the season. The hotel is haunted, of course, and the father slowly goes insane and terrorizes his wife and son. It wasn’t the first time any of us had seen it, yet we were all still jumping in our seats when the murdered girls appeared and when Jack finally entered room 237. At one point, one guy knocked his popcorn into my lap, making everyone laugh. Even though my friends knew it was “just a movie” and had seen it a million times, I could still see on their faces that the film had hooked them and would hold them to its finale.

This, too, is movie making: being able to snag your viewers right from the start and keep them in the grips of a plot that refuses to let you look away.

I’ve thought a lot about those two experiences since then. I make movies for a living, as you know, so I already know what’s really behind that scene when Jack chops through the bathroom door. I know how an animated scene is created, and I understand how cars are made to explode and people fall off a cliff into a bottomless pit.

What I think I need to do more often, though, is remember to look at the faces of people who are in the audience. That’s where you really see the impact of the film. It’s not in the box office numbers or the reviews - it’s in the expressions of people as they’re compelled to be part of a wonderful story, be it scary or lighthearted.

When I am fortunate enough to glimpse that, to see the audience’s reaction to a movie, even one that I didn’t make, I tip my hat to the director and producer. I applaud them for their skill and ability to get their audience to suspend their disbelief. Toys, so far as I know, can’t really talk, and I’ve never personally been inside a haunted hotel. The beauty of movies is that for a few hours, we believe it’s all real and become emotionally invested in the characters. I’ll never get tired of seeing the pleasure on people’s faces as they watch what in the end is simply a really good movie.

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