Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Flickering Screen

I'm reading Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties by Peter Siskind. (I should warn the reader at the outset that this is one of those posts where I'm not really trying to make any point, just describing some of my own mental quirks for the sake of it-- and always with the hope that others may feel the same).

It's one of those books that analyze movies, and decipher the cultural messages they contain. It's stylishly written, and not noticeably politically correct. Unlike many cultural commentators who simply want to uncover all the racism, sexism, etc. lurking in any given movie, Siskind sees various different philosophies informing fifties movies; conservative, liberal, centrist, and others. He also sees complexity and contradiction, rather than simple messages.

I really love the idea of the cinema as a place where society dreams, where its hopes and fears and contradictions are projected (literally and figuratively!) onto an enormous screen. I've spent a lot of time wondering why this idea appeals to me so much. I think there are several reasons. One is that I find my fellow human beings most endearing when I see them as child-like, and there's something regressive and child-like about a cinema audience. They gasp, they cry, they cheer, and they sit there glued to the screen, lost in the story.

Another reason this idea appeals to me so much is that it lends dignity to every historical moment. I like difference. I like one place to be different from another, and one time to be different from another. I like the fact that eighties action films tell us a lot about that era, while today's zombie films tells us (and posterity) a lot about our era. It's a pleasant thought that the drama on screen is reflected by the psycho-drama in the theatre, and in the wider society. And films reflect social trends in a way that is much more rapid and finely-grained than TV or fiction can; not only the zeitgeist of the decade, but the mood of the summer.

Another reason the idea appeals to me is because it adds to the aura of the movie itself. Imagine if TV really had killed off the cinema, and if movies were all released straight to DVD. Wouldn't they be diminished? They would for me, at any rate. For me, it's part of the appeal of any movie that it was shown in cinemas first-- all those cinema audiences hover over the film forever more, like phantoms. Usually we know something about their response, their interaction with the film, and this is part of the life of the film.

A cinema audience is so much more public, so much more a representation of the demos, than faceless multitudes in their living rooms. The fact that you have to go to a particular place at a particular time, and follow certain expectations of behaviour, and not be in the comfort and anonymity of your home, makes it much more of an event-- as well as the fact that you experience the reactions of the audience, in addition to your own.

The thought that any particular cinema release, and the audience reaction to it, is a reflection of social and cultural trends is very pleasing to me-- even thrilling. From as early as I can remember, I've been enchanted by this idea that society is a battleground of ideas, or perhaps a playground of ideas-- that, at any given moment, social and cultural forces are exerting themselves in every conversation, work of art, ceremony, chance encounter, daydream, speech, joke, and so forth. In this sense, I'm very happy I was born in the twenty-first century and not in the Neolithic era. Aside from everything else, how could you enjoy being a conservative in a society where nothing ever changed?

I love the whole iconography of the cinema-- the projector beam, the spotlights, the curtains, the plush seats, the film reels (an archaism now), the marquee, all that. It's so easily evoked, by a simple piece of clip-art or cartoon.

I love TV shows where the presenter is sitting in an empty cinema. It's a deliciously contemplative atmosphere.

Contemplative is the word I would use to describe movies in general. The movie is timeless in one sense-- if you play it a thousand times, it will always be the same-- but it's also redolent of its era, even if it's a sword-and--sandals epic or a science fiction story. Sometimes I think contemplation could be described as "the distance that gives intimacy". Looking at a photograph that was taken twenty or thirty years ago, in a strange way, opens up an intimacy that would have been lacking if you saw the same face or scene on the street, at the very moment the picture was taken. Seeing the psychological dramas of your own time projected onto a screen somehow makes them closer than when they are in your own head. It certainly seems to make them grander.


  1. I have always loved "Classic Hollywood" from the Silents to the 1970s. Today Hollywood is totally lacking in talent or ideas. Today we base films on video games and comic books or old television shows. Back when there was an "Art" to film making films were based on novels, plays and short stories. They actually wrote a screenplay with dialogue. Today its all about gun violence and car explosions or special effects. Also there were characters in the film that the audience could empathize with so if so misfortune occurred you would feel for the character not today every character is so stupid of so reprehensible that you could care less if they live or die. You really don't care. Today if a film does not open to super box office then its labeled a flop. It seems that today in Hollywood its all about the money nothing else. Also you had so many different genres of films: Westerns, Tear-Jerkers, Melodrama, Comedy, Film Noir, Musicals, War Films, Biographies, Science Fiction and Horror. Usually in film today its all about how to kill another person look at all the Saw movies its what I call torture porn. I mean really how many ways does it take to dismember somebody. Then there is the theater themselves little shoeboxes not like the Movie Palaces when going to see a movie was an event. And the behavior in movie theaters is despicable what with people talking on their cell phones, or just talking out loud and kids running around. Films back then celebrated life and films had a message to be good and do your best that you can be. In fifty years do you think that Spiderman movies will be revered as much as Sunset Boulevard (1950) or The Sound Of Music (1965). I don;t think so they will be put where they ought to be in the dustbin. Sorry, but I'll get off my soapbox. I do enjoy reading you posts.

    1. Thanks Marc Leslie Kagan! I wonder are you being a bit harsh on the modern cinema though? We have to take into account the "railroad effect"...the further away you look at a railroad, the closer the sleepers seem to run until they are indistinguishable. I think we forget how many mediocre films have been made at all times...

      However, I agree with you about Saw and torture porn, I have no time for that kind of thing at all. I saw the first Saw and it was disgusting, I have no temptation to see any other!