Paying To See Dreams
This was Cinerama, UK-style – in what is now the Prince Edward Theatre, Old Compton Street, Soho. A triple-screen-wide experience served by mostly lousy films, it was a fad that didn’t last as long as the current one for 3D. With the cover of my ‘Film Freak’ book heading for press and plans for the April release of the book gathering pace, I thought I’d explain my thinking behind it.
In 1916, US cinemas received instruction on the purpose of film: ‘I stir the blood, I quicken the pulse, I encourage the imagination, I stimulate the young, I comfort and I solace the old and sorrowing…I am the motion picture.’ At this fundamental level, I suppose even ‘Lego 3D’ (sadly a real Hollywood movie on the slate for next year) fulfils part of that brief, but how and why movies affect audiences, and what they tell us about the times in which they’re made is rarely discussed outside of academia. It’s surprising how few good books there are about the relationship between watchers and the watched.
Of course we’re most susceptible between say, 7 and 12 years old, when the need for artifice and the desire to emulate continually cross each other. When the movies aren’t scanning the real world for copycat behavior, the exact opposite is happening.
If ‘Spellbound’ reflected an increased interest in the subconscious and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ unveiled our fear of losing our identity, are films really just ‘the dreams we dream of having’? Do directors knowingly provoke their audiences, or do we believe ‘Bodysnatchers’ director Don Siegel when he shakes off any suggestion that his movie was intended as an allegory? There were questions I’d always been interested in.
With the sixties came empowerment via the freewheeling youthful energy of films like ‘Bande à Part’, but the disillusioned seventies are represented by ‘Carrie’ and ‘Annie Hall’, not just ‘The Parallax View’ or ‘Three Days Of The Condor’. My entire class watched ‘Easy Rider’ repeatedly and obsessively, allowing it to shape their worldview. Film studies let you to build an intelligent argument for virtually any film to represent its era, but at some point personal taste kicks in with the recognition that the most unlikely films may have gained access to your heart.
Across the decades, cinema’s practitioners have manipulated us with ever-changing agendas, and even now Hollywood still affects huge parts of the world (not so much France, though, where local hits are still big.) Apparently Kabul marriage celebrations chose the ‘Titanic’ ship to grace wedding cakes, and now China has forced its domestic film quota upwards, telling filmmakers to copy and compete with Hollywood-style action flicks.
Globalization has required film to broaden its horizons as well as seeking to constantly update technical processes, but even though 3D developers are still unable to replicate the way in which depth perception works, film continues to explore how the unconscious operates, so that even a terrible movie may accidentally enlighten us.
None of which explains why I sat through quite so many terrible movies as a child.
Did they seem terrible then? Not at all – although I could sense the ones that were made by out-of-date directors. As a boy I would visit places I had seen on the screen, so long as they were reachable by bus. All films are partly about recognition, so it matters where they are set. Being able to identify a local area when it appears on the big screen adds resonance to a story, and all films have an element of geography.
Before the invention of computer-generated backgrounds, American movies often had a wonderful sense of location. Theirs was a lateral society, an open, sprawling, outdoor canvas upon which to paint colourful visuals. English films, by comparison, reflected an indoor sensibility. Where Americans rode and drove and waved and shouted and fired guns at the sky, we sat and discussed and declaimed and apologised and cupped our cigarettes inside our hands so as not to annoy the person next to us. This private indoor distinction, our careful attention to space and dialogue, was one of the most noticeable traits in our films.
So another reason for writing the book, was to try and explain the way in which film – like books – could make you feel as if you belonged somewhere. ‘Film Freak’ is also packed with jokes, of course, but there’s a serious point behind it. I still get very wound up about films (hence my furious review of ‘The Master’), but that’s what films are for – to inflame the senses.