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Why Do We Watch Movies?

Why Do We Watch Movies?

It’s the end of another “awards season.” That time from December until the Academy Awards (airing this Sunday), when studios roll out the prestige pics they hope will become the next Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a good season for film lovers seeking a palette cleanser from the likes of Transformers 2. And it’s a season that gracefully reminds us why we still love watching movies.

We all agree movies allow us to escape—and there’s value in that—but it’s more than simple escapism. Movies take us to places we’ve never been and inside the skin of people quite different from ourselves. They offer us a window onto the wider world, broadening our perspective and opening our eyes to new wonders.

This “window” idea figures into the very form of cinema itself. One of my favorite film theorists, André Bazin, often compared the cinematic “shot” to a framed window that hints at a vast reality just outside of view. While other theorists saw the framed shot as something that restricts or limits what can be seen (i.e., what is inside the shot), Bazin theorized that the film image—through its suggestion of off-screen space—was about being “part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe.” Siegfried Kracauer, another of my favorite film theorists, agreed that the film image was by nature indeterminant, ambiguous and open-ended—a fragment of reality suggesting endlessness.

Art is a window

The idea brings to mind what C.S. Lewis said about art functioning as a “window” onto worlds unseen. As humans, he writes in An Experiment in Criticism, we “seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. … We demand windows.”

But cinema is more than just a window. It’s also a magnifying glass. It focuses our attention on everyday reality in a way that makes us see everyday reality for what it really is: magnificence and curiosity.

Protestant theologian Paul Tillich once said that “in the proximate, the daily, the apparently small, there is hidden in truth the metaphysical; the here-and-now is the place where meaning is disclosed, where our existence must find interpretation, if it can find an interpretation at all.”

This idea—that the everyday, when carefully seen and considered, can provide epiphany—finds its greatest ally in the cinematic form. Bazin believed cinema was “objectivity in time,” presenting a reality of things onscreen even more real than our experience of them in “real life.”

Throwing mud at a wall

In one of my favorite films of the year, Munyurangabo, there is a scene of two boys throwing mud at a wall. They’re just throwing mud at a mud hut for what feels like five minutes. Nothing much happens except mud-slinging (literally). And yet in that moment, I felt the object-ness of mud in a way I hadn’t in a long time, if ever. Another one of my favorite films of the year, Bright Star, opens with a closeup of Abbie Cornish’s hands stitching. I can honestly say I’ve never focused so attentively on the soft, lyrical, industrious beauty of a hand that is stitching. It was the most objective stitching I’d ever been confronted with.

These moments of “objectivity in time” have little to do with things like story, plot or narrative … and yet in them exists the key to why we find cinema so intoxicating. It’s more than just a story—because for that we could read books, see a play or watch an opera.

Movies are different because they can capture, probe, explore the world in ways no other medium can. We feel the texture of a silk dress in a costume drama like Bright Star. We smell the blood spurting off of a smoking bullet in Inglourious Basterds. We languish at the sight of a tormented face in a movie like Precious or The Road—every line and wrinkle of which the camera so painfully exploits. Movies are visceral.

And during awards season, the films that offer the most visceral experiences are often the most rewarded.

In a movie, the raw materiality and physical geography on which the story plays out (i.e., nature, sets, bodies, props) resonates with us as much or more than the story itself. This is reality, shooting out at us in flickering light. Kracauer believed the primary function of cinema was to open up reality and re-focus the spectator on the mundane and everyday elements of life that are typically taken for granted. It is through this encounter with the “texture of everyday life” that cinema serves to reconnect humanity with its estranged material habitat, urging us to look closer and see the world for the concrete thing that it is.

So yes, we love movies because they let us escape. But we are not escaping from reality as much as we are escaping into a clearer, more focused understanding of it. The movies we cherish the most are not those that feel the farthest from our experience. On the contrary, they are the ones that—in the darkness and stillness of a square, box room—reanimate the wonder and mystery of the world we know.

Brett McCracken has an MA in cinema and media studies from UCLA. His first book—on hipster Christianity—is due out in August 2010 and he blogs at The Search.

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