A common question that comes up in the English-language classroom is, what’s the difference between seeing and looking? And sometimes watching is thrown in there for good measure.
Explaining them is pretty straightforward. Seeing is passive, and looking is active: you’re deliberately paying attention to something you’re looking at. Watching is similar to looking, only it’s usually done for a longer period, involving something in progress or changing.
Of course though, there are always exceptions. One that I usually mention when this comes up is how we say I saw a film, usually referring to seeing it at the cinema, when we usually use the more logical to watch when referring to films. It’s always bothered me a little. Sure, I’m used to there being exceptions to every rule in English, but this one’s always frustrated me because I couldn’t see the logic behind it.
After thinking about it quite a bit recently though, I think I might have figured it out.
In the earlier days of cinema, going to see a film was quite a different experience from now. For many years, one would not go to see just one film, but a longer programme usually involving a cartoon, a newsreel, a short, cheaply-made film, and the main feature.
And, films were not scheduled to start at specific, advertised times. Rather, the programme would be repeated on a loop throughout the day. People would enter the screen at any time they pleased. If they arrived in the middle of the main feature, for example, they’d still sit down and watch, and wait for the programme to come back round to the point when they arrived.
It’s difficult to imagine such a way of watching films, now that we’re used not only to films scheduled to start at a particular time, but also to being watch whatever we want, when we want, via streaming. Particularly for me, as someone who hates missing even a few moments from the start of a film.
And we’re now so conscious of spoilers that it seems bizarre to have a film “spoiled” by watching the surprises of its climax before the rest of the film.
But in fact it’s precisely spoilers, or at least two specific spoilers, that were largely responsible for bringing about modern cinema screenings at advertised times.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was concerned that people arriving in the middle of Psycho wouldn’t fully appreciate the film if they entered after one of its two main surprises had taken place (which I won’t mention here, in case you somehow haven’t seen it). He therefore insisted that cinemas not allow patrons to enter the screen after the film had started, so that they could enjoy it “properly” from start to finish.
Theatre owners were initally resistant to this, fearing it would put people off seeing the film. But the film proved hugely popular, and soon scheduled screenings became the norm.
So, what does all this have to do with seeing a film?
I think that before Psycho, going to the cinema must have felt like a more passive experience. You didn’t get to choose which specific screening to go to, and didn’t have the power to see a film from its start.
Instead, you just accepted that you’d watch the programme from whichever point you entered at. The cinema had all the power, choosing when to start and end the screening, and you had no real say in the situation.
Plus, sitting in the dark, looking up at a huge screen, would only have added to that sense of passivity.
Therefore even if cinemagoing is now quite different, we still say I saw a film at the cinema as a hangover of this earlier era.
It’s also interesting to contrast how we’re much more likely to say we watched something on Netflix or another streaming service, as in that case we’re so much more in control of what we’re watching.