The Cinema – More Than a Social Phenomenon. Film History Essay
Going to cinema is more than a social phenomenon; a simple technology has been able to culminate art forms culturally shaping society. The cinema experience draws upon such a wide intersection of factors it has become a complex subject of extensive and varying fascinations. Personal idiosyncrasies, preferences and appreciations
form differing types of allure of the silver screen as discussed in 5 insights into cinema going.
Frank O’Hara’s poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis” , is an ode to not only film, but O’Hara’s love of film. Illustriously and affectionately, O’Hara emphasises particular aspects he loves about cinema, while employing near sarcastic tones to convey a simultaneous sense of ambivalence. In the first stanza of the poem, he establishes a hierarchy of his love for other art forms, “Not you…nor you experimental theatre…nor you promenading Grand Opera, obvious as an ear (though you are close to my heart), but you, Motion Picture Industry, it’s you I love” . Interestingly, he ironically shows that despite an appreciation for the ‘high arts’ of theatre and opera, it is the cinema that he ultimately appreciates. The ironic use of the capitalised words of ‘Motion Picture Industry’ is a recognition of it as the antithesis of ‘high arts’ of opera and theatre.
This follows and builds up to the second stanza, as he recollects a flurry of classic and favourite film moments and actors, almost like the canon of the cinephile. The style and flow of the poem resembles ranting as O’Hara’s memory unfolds with a flow of cinema knowledge. This is perhaps an insight into the minds of cinephiles in a sense of overcome by moments which are recalled almost as though they were personal experiences. The poem ties up with a mildly sarcastic tone in the ode to the actors “Long may you illumine space with your marvellous appearances, delays and enunciations, and may the money of the world glitteringly cover you as you rest after a long day under the klieg lights” . With this poem, we gain a sense of the overwhelming sense of pleasure derived from the culture of obsession with the cinema, actors and actresses. It is perhaps so overwhelming that any doubts about its commercialism or authenticity have been accepted, as seen through O’Hara’s sarcastic tone.
Richard Hugo’s “The Real West Marginal Way” in a chapter titled the White Line, Hugo recollects childhood memories of 1930s of visiting the George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre. Hugo nostalgically describes his theatre, or “paradise”, in vivid detail where he recalls the beginnings of his fondness for the cinema. There was a white line in the cinema where he and other children were not allowed to cross as not to disturb the adults watching the film. Hugo draws an analogy to his favourite film of all time “Man On A Tightrope” directed by Elia Kazan, which tells the simple story of a circus led by Cernik to escape their government and cross the border. The border and white line serve as a parallel metaphor as the division between the “world of imagination” from the “world of serious organisational adult responsibility” . He applies Cernik’s journey to that of his own circumstance, “For poets the film should be special. Like Cernik, poets cross that border, often at some risk, to reach the land where usual moral judgements are suspended”. The suspension of judgement is an important freedom on Hugo’s side of the white line where the children are ignored by an overpowering loudspeaker and simply allowed to the freedom to talk.
Hugo’s love for this film becomes apparent in his own idiosyncrasies. He describes how people’s reaction to “Man on A Tightrope” become a factor in his judgement of people’s characters, “If you don’t like it, chances are I wouldn’t like you” . This makes the suggestion that art, or in this case cinema, is inextricably linked to character and individuals. For one who loves and knows “Man on A Tightrope”, Hugo describes the strange feeling of still being mystified by how the film unravels despite knowing and being able to recall entire scenes. The strongest and most lasting impression of Hugo’s article is the realisation of how he longs for the feeling of being completely submerged in a film that he once felt as a child behind the white line. It is a feeling he can only appreciate in retrospect as he deals with the growing responsibility of age.
In the introduction of Jean-Claude Carriere’s “The Secret Language of Film” , translated by Jeremy Leggatt, Carriere draws an analogy between modern cinema going and that of the first uses of the technology in Africa by the French colonial administrators. In the early 1920s, film shows were held the purpose of was not only to entertain, but also to “demonstrate to and subject African populations the unassailable supremacy of the white nations” . Invited to these shows were African notables and religious leaders, who, in despite of their religious beliefs which forbade them to depict the human face and form, attended entire shows with their eyes shut. Carriere draws his crucial parallel, “Sometimes I think we ourselves are not very different from those African Muslims when we go to see a film…Unlike them, we keep our eyes open in the dark, or we think we do” .
Carriere is referring to our own set of habits and behaviours which ‘blinds’ us from being fully aware of what we are exposed to. “We refuse to see, or else we see something else. There is in every film a region of shadow, a stockpile of the not seen.”
It is our habitual reception of film that contorts our reception, or perhaps even composition, of films. What is interesting about this is that, unlike other art forms, we are forced to see the same images at the same speed; “We are travelling on the same train” , so to speak. There is an element that forms appreciation of film in such a wide range of aspects despite being part of the audience entity . Due to the nature of cinema, we have a certain freedom to receive only the aspects of a film that we want, however it is this freedom that allows us to blind ourselves.
The Rustle of Language by Roland Barthes , translated by Richard Howard, is an insightful article into the behavioural patterns of the act of ‘cinema going’. Barthes likens the “cinema situation” to a process of a hypnotic state, as he describes why being at the cinema is by its own character, special. He describes this due to our fascination with cinema in two distinct ways. We experience this hypnotic states through both a narcissistic body, which “gazes, lost” at the cinema images, and a “perverse body” , which fascinates itself with the act of going, sitting in, and leaving the cinema. Barthes primarily concerns himself with the latter.
Barthes suggests that the conditions of hypnosis, “vacancy, want of occupation, lethargy” resemble that of the reasons we often go to the cinema “idleness, leisure, free time”. The cinema situation is “pre-hypnotic” . The darkness of the cinema acts as a “twilight reverie” , in which we explore our body’s anonymous freedom in an “urban dark”. Our state of hypnosis continues as we resonate with the ‘vibrations’ of the projector light’s ‘dancing cone’, which exists both ‘motionless and dancing’. However, the most interesting feature of Barthe’s analogy is his fascination with leaving the cinema. The pleasures of the perverse body as distanced with that of the narcissistic body is what most draws Barthes to the cinema. This “bliss of discretion” he describes can be interpreted as the surreal feeling of leaving the cinema as if being woken up, due to the change in physical, environmental and emotional changes.
Barthe’s concept ‘blissful discretion’ as we re-enter our own lives, often leaves us wanting for more. In “The Manchurian Candidate” by Greil Marcus , a book dedicated to the analysis of the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate” directed by John Frankenheimer, it explores how the film is immersed in American culture. Marcus delves into the intricacies of the film with an obvious passion, as he anecdotally and nostalgically gives his impressions of his first viewings of the film. This notion of first impression, or rather an impression sufficing the statement “Greatest movie I ever saw”, for Marcus, is an “overwhelming” sensation in which “The momentum of the film” will leave you ignorant of its flaws until viewed in retrospect.
The difference between “Then and now”, particularly because his analytical inquisition into the film, becomes apparent in his opening description of “this 1962 black and white film made up of…Hitchcock…Welles…Body Snatchers” , quite contrary to the “gift of art” felt during his first impressions. Seeing the film for the second time with his friend, Marcus anecdotally describes the immediate but brief discussion of their impressions of the film “ ‘Greatest Movie I ever saw’ he said flatly, as if he didn’t want to talk about it, and he didn’t. He said what he said stunned with bitterness, as if he shouldn’t have had to see this thing, …as if the whole experience had been, somehow, a gift, the gift of art, and also unfair” .
This sense of unfairness upon being presented with “the gift of art”, and just quickly taken away, is a familiar emotion in movie going which Marcus suggests is more than withdrawal symptom. The complex and conflicting feelings of “stunned with bitterness”, “both true and false” is a reflection into the meanings of art. As described earlier this first impression is an overwhelming sense of flawlessness, which is an interpretation as to the meaning of art; a certain flawlessness due to its truth to its own existence. This therefore allows for the coexistence of conflict. Perhaps this unfairness derives from the sense that our lives are filled with conflict although hardly resembling the flawlessness of art. The piece is written criticising the film in light of retrospect as seen in the first paragraph. This unfairness, perhaps is the idea that the first impression, or impressions, allows us to view and appreciate films in a way which cannot be recreated upon subsequent cinema experiences.
The fascination with film going is often extended far beyond the moving pictures shown in a dark room. It can also be the dark room. It can be the void we feel when we are removed from our state of fascination. Our cinema habits, possibly depending on how, and how much we love cinema, can overflow into our lives. In its own sense, it is an experience almost as wholly as being, which is why it the feeling still astounds us.