… should be celebrated and understood.”
– Anthony Minghella
While I believe the above quote is self-explanatory and self-sufficient in most film-related discussions, as a student commonly rebuked for employing “overblown language” of course I had to go and divagate, digress, and indulge in elaborate drivel – before interrupting myself halfway through, thus remaining loyal to my student condition.
The following is a mini-essay, unfinished as promised, the only justification for its publishing being the hope that it conveys something of my passion for film and may entice you to read this blog, and also to bear in mind some of the questions I have left purposefully unanswered.
If you’re not much of a reader, there’s always the trailers in the main section of the blog, and nice little bullet point updates too.
A cliché one commonly encounters in reviews is that of a film, a show, or even a meal in a high-end restaurant delivering “an assault on the senses”. In a certain measure, that’s the very definition of film: a succession of images, sounds, dialogue, flashes of colour, light and shapes, close-ups of facial expressions, music; fast-paced or slow-paced but always deliberately timed to a narrative; things which may be real or unreal, but that we choose to completely immerse ourselves into during the time of one screening in a dark cinema room.
Despite the contemporary availability of films in various formats, a theatre remains the quintessential venue to explore film as it offers a premise which both in its design and concept enhances the experience and draws attention to the depth of any cinematic endeavour.
One becomes strangely aware of one’s body in a cinema. Through the stillness of our being and the absence of any voluntary movement, every subtle change and reaction we go through becomes heightened. A minute drop in body temperature; a rhythmic alteration in our heartbeat; a slight tension in the muscles; a near-imperceptible shiver running on the surface of the skin: all of these sensations alert us to the mind-set we find ourselves in, and during this whole time our brain is unconsciously making the link between identifiable emotions and the physical reactions for which it sent the signals in the first place.
Therefore cinema becomes a physiological experience, one where we exist and understand our state of being through the physical manifestations we endure as well as our usual array of reasoned assessments and interpretations.
One doesn’t passively watch cinema. Our brains are functioning at every level, whether emotional or intellectual, as they do in everyday life when we’re the actors of our own scene. But with the absence of all other distraction allowing for undivided attention, coupled with a stronger sensory input than usual at a faster pace than usual, they’re functioning at a peak level of intensity with a direct effect on the way we respond to the narrative as it unfolds. What may take days or years in our own life may be assimilated in minutes in film, thanks to a scene or even a shot of particular resonance, so that we may find ourselves weeping for a character almost immediately after first encountering them – whereas this would scarcely happen in real life.
And yet lending emotions to a film is a practiced exercise. As a receptive observer with no control over the narrative and as such unequivocally subjected to the sensations and emotions triggered, it can be an almost violent experience we may at first wish to distance ourselves from, by reminding ourselves that the protagonist is a separate entity with whom we bear no connection. In doing this and successfully detaching ourselves from the subject, we may then stop guarding ourselves against certain emotions we wouldn’t usually let overwhelm us. We don’t censor, repress, or steer away from us feelings which we as individuals may not know how to cope with or choose not to expose ourselves to. From the safety of a cinema seat, we abandon ourselves to vicarious living, and gain insight and experience through the portrayal of another character’s life.
It doesn’t take much such practice, though, to realise it is ultimately ourselves that we project onto the screen. This is true of the actor, the script-writer or the director, as much as of the audience. While there may be obvious reasons for the former category’s involvement, the audience’s takes a different form. Irrelevant of how much distance we may choose to keep between ourselves and the events depicted in a film, our two predominant senses — sight and hearing — are stimulated throughout, so that our brain processes and categorises information in its habitual way, anchoring a moment within a precise context and meaning. This allows us to recall a particular scene as a memory lived — effectively appropriating a snippet of somebody else’s history and making it a part of our own.
Much in the same way we gain experience from our own memories, the memory of a powerful scene, because it epitomises a particular condition or embodies a universal theme, can become a strong reference point from which we can draw indirect experience or construct a scenario of expectations and possibilities in a given situation before reacting accordingly. And so cinema becomes an integrant part of, and has a direct influence on, one’s own assessments, perceptions, and the resulting decisions, all of which are core elements of our very identity.
But the most basic principles of philosophy teach us that borrowed memories are not the only means of identifying with the other and by extension ourselves. We learn to know the other better so we may make sense of our own being. And what better premise to engage in such exploration than one where the characters appear to us in all their rawness, both deeply intimate and yet resolutely impenetrable?