The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interactby Colin McGinn
How is watching a movie similar to dreaming? What goes on in our minds when we become absorbed in a movie? How does looking “into” a movie screen allow us to experience the thoughts and feelings of a movie’s characters? These and related questions are at the heart of The Power of Movies, a thoughtful, invigorating, and remarkably accessible/i>
How is watching a movie similar to dreaming? What goes on in our minds when we become absorbed in a movie? How does looking “into” a movie screen allow us to experience the thoughts and feelings of a movie’s characters? These and related questions are at the heart of The Power of Movies, a thoughtful, invigorating, and remarkably accessible book about a phenomenon seemingly beyond reach of our understanding. Colin McGinn–“an ingenious philosopher who thinks like a laser and writes like a dream,” according to Steven Pinker–enhances our understanding of both movies and ourselves in this book of rare and refreshing insight.
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THE POWER OF FILM
The Mind-Movie Problem
The power of film is indisputable. Since the beginning of movies, a little over a hundred years ago, they have captivated audiences. We want, badly, to watch. And this power seems unique to film. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell remarks, in The World Viewed, “the sheer power of film is unlike the powers of the other arts.”1 There is something about movies specifically—whether they emanate from America or France, Britain or Sweden—which succeeds in connecting to the human psyche in a deep way. Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form—perhaps no other spectacle—can quite match.
Their power is manifested in two ways: demographically and individually. Movies simply have a larger mass appeal than any other artistic medium. Nothing draws crowds in the millions like a new movie—and this was so from the very beginning. (It is this fact that explains the colossal investment of money that goes into the movie business. What would the movie industry be like today if movies had the demographics of, say, opera or stamp collecting?) People read novels and go to the theatre, of course, but it is the cinema that really packs them in. And this mass appeal is remarkably cross-cultural. All across the world people flock to the movies, and it is amazing how easy it is for a movie from one country to cross boundaries into another, perhaps with suitable subtitles or dubbing—I once watched a Clint Eastwood cowboy film in Paris in which the tough gunslinger intoned the words “Fermez la porte” in an impeccable French accent.
There is also, at the individual level, the quality of the attraction—the sheer intensity of the movie-watching experience. From childhood on, we are all familiar with that sense of entrancement that accompanies sitting quietly in the pierced darkness of the movie theatre. The mind seems to step into another sphere of engagement as the images on the screen flood into our receptive consciousness. We are gripped. The quality of this mental engagement, the way the mind is invaded and commandeered, is something that has been evident since the early days of the silent era, when film was at its least technologically sophisticated. The moving image itself seems an object of extraordinary potency. In the movie-watching experience we enter an “altered state of consciousness,” enthralling and irresistible.
What is it about movies that explains their amazing hold over the human mind? Why do we love movies (and we do love them—thrill to their presence, romanticize them, suffer when they let us down)? Clearly, there must be something about those light projections through celluloid, on the one hand, and the nature of the human mind, on the other, that accounts for the seemingly preordained match that exists between them. How do they manage to mesh so naturally, smoothly, and overwhelmingly? I like to call this the “mind-movie problem,” by analogy with the philosophical mind-body problem.2 The mind-body problem is the problem of explaining how conscious experience relates to the physical materials of the body and brain; the mind-movie problem is the problem of explaining how it is that the two-dimensional moving image, as we experience it in a typical feature film, manages to hook our consciousness in the way it does. How do these jumpy splashes of light contrive to strike our mind with such force? Somehow movies and the mind are suited to one another, mutually adapted—and I want to explain what it is about both terms of this nexus that makes it as charged as it is. What is it about the screen image and the mind that views it that makes the marriage between them so successful—so passionate and tempestuous, one might almost say? What is this love affair with the screen?
What accounts for the power of film? An obvious first thought is that movies are uniquely realistic—they recreate or reproduce the very events that they record. The camera, in this view, is a device for making available, for later consumption, the very same worldly events that took place before it at some earlier time. Accordingly, what we see in the movies is indistinguishable from what we would have seen had we been there at the original shooting. Suppose you would like to see what some historical battle actually looked like to a living onlooker; well, movies enable you to have this experience without having to travel back in time and witness the events themselves or have before you armies of real actors. Movies literally recreate worldly events before our very eyes. They duplicate reality. Seeing film is just like seeing the reality filmed. And reality certainly has the power to hold our attention.
This view is inadequate for a couple of reasons. It is simply not true that the movie image literally reproduces real events. We are never fooled by a movie depiction of a battle into thinking that we are really there—or else we might head smartly for the exit. A movie is not some kind of illusion of reality, if that means something that appears just like reality itself but isn’t. We never really mistake a movie image for a real object, as if thinking that Harrison Ford, say, is in the theatre with us, feet away. The power of movies cannot be identical to the power of seeing the real events; the movie’s power must lie in what distinguishes it from seeing real events. The power of seeing a real battle is just a different kind of power from that of seeing a movie of a battle (though that is not to say that the first kind of power is totally irrelevant to the second). Similarly, we can readily distinguish the stage in the performance of a play from the real world, not somehow confusing the events of the play with real events. We can likewise distinguish the screen in a movie theatre from a chunk of real reality (so to speak), not taking the images before us literally to be real objects and situations. The power of cinema does not derive from its giving us the full-blown illusion of reality—as when I might actually hallucinate the presence of a monster and be genuinely afraid, having taken the illusion to be reality. It is not that in a horror film, say, I am under the impression that a living (or unliving) vampire is literally standing not ten feet in front of me, and find myself understandably riveted; I know very well that it’s just a picture of a vampire. And yet I am still riveted (though in a different way).
Nor do we find movies fascinating precisely in proportion to how fascinating we find reality. Reality itself might leave us bored and indifferent, but when it comes to us in the form of a movie image it can take on life and meaning. Watching someone light a cigarette in real life can be pretty dull, but in the context of a story projected onto the movie screen our eyes and mind will be drawn in. The movie adds something to reality, and this is part of its power (later we will explore in detail what exactly it adds). It is the same with painting: the interest of a portrait is very different from the interest we take in its sitter, who may be quite uninteresting to look at. The visual arts are not in general attempts to produce twins of real people. It is not the alleged lifelikeness of cinema that determines its interest for us, since (a) it is not lifelike in any literal sense, and (b) being lifelike is not enough to confer fascination on something. In short, the psychological power of a representation of something is not the same as the psychological power of that thing. Art, in other words, is transformative.
A different suggestion might be that movies engage our mind, not by simulating reality, but by offering us fiction. We love stories in general, and movies tell us stories in visual images instead of words on the page. Does our taste for fictional narratives explain our liking for movie narratives? We are quite aware that it is all just fiction; but fiction is what we crave, not quotidian reality. What moves us at the movie theatre is the power of the imagination.
Now it is certainly true that the fictional content of films must be part of their appeal—we like to get caught up in a good yarn—but this suggestion suffers from not specifying what it is about movies in particular that grips us so. What is it about films, as opposed to novels, that gives rise to our special engagement with them? It isn’t just the story being told—indeed, we might find the story banal if it came to us in merely verbal form—it is the form in which the story comes to us that enthralls us. It is the fact that it is a story on film that creates the special power of cinema, not simply being a story told in some medium or other. If it were just the latter, then we might well prefer to stay home and read a book—which would be easier and cheaper. But what we crave when we itch to see a film is the particular nature of the cinematic experience—which includes, but is not exhausted by, the embedded narrative itself. Clearly, the experience of seeing photographic images on a screen is very different from seeing or hearing words that describe the selfsame events. We need to identify what specific properties of film contribute to the movie-watching experience. Obviously, seeing a film is not the same as hearing someone tell you the story of it!
It might be maintained that it is the ideological content of cinema that explains its sway over the minds of the audience. The movies, it is said, support and reinforce the prevailing ideology of the society within which they are made and viewed, and the population has already been brainwashed by this ideology into being mesmerized by the cinema’s own version of it. The movies thus collude with the prevailing ideology, which has already wormed its way into the deeper layers of the audience’s psyche. For example, a romantic comedy might reinforce sexual stereotypes, connecting with the attitudes already present in the audience. The power of cinema is thus the power of ideology.
Meet the Author
Colin McGinn is a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. He is the author of sixteen previous books, including The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy; Space Trap, a novel; and, most recently, Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning. McGinn’s writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.
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A truly original and imaginative analysis of the power of film.