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A Personal Rambling on Why I Watch Film

21 Aug

In 1895, workers were filmed leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon – for all of 46 seconds – by Louis Lumière himself. Now, one hundred and twenty years later, the films of the Lumière Brothers have been restored in 4K, presented in Cannes, and will soon be released in a Blu-Ray collection. Has there been another physical product in the intervening years that’s mere existence poses as many questions about cinema?

To attempt to review the included films would be a pointless exercise akin to critiquing the strokes of a Palaeolithic cave painting. Having not been around for even twenty of those 120 years, I’m unable to transport my mind back in time and experience them like the audience seated in the Salon Indien du Grand Café did in Paris on that December evening.

Instead, my first memory of the cinema involves a shipwreck, talking gorillas and Phil Collins. Yes, I’m speaking of Disney’s Tarzan, which seems on the surface to be worlds away from those black and white shorts that were filmed and projected by the Lumière Brothers. But like that first public presentation in Paris, my viewing of Tarzan had animals, plants, comedy, the sea, a baby, people. With less than 50 seconds per film to work with, the Lumière Brothers nevertheless managed to capture key elements of a film that I would see over a century later. Indeed, almost certainly their biggest error was (allegedly) calling cinema “an invention without any future”.[1] (Perhaps they would have seen things differently if Phil Collins were around back then to soundtrack their works?)

If you were to run La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon and Disney’s Tarzan side by side (has that ever been done? Probably not), you would probably instantly notice three things that differ between the two – colour, sound and animation. I’d suppose that most children are introduced to the cinema through animation, with most films produced in that medium – in the West at least – being aimed at younger audiences. ‘Cartoons are for kids’ is not an uncommon assertion to hear, but it was the medium of animation that introduced me to the wider world of cinema and its bottomless well of treasures and riches both well-known and forgotten.

Though this didn’t happen in the cinema, but in my living room. I can’t remember when I first caught an airing of Dragon Ball Z, the anime adaptation of Akira Toriyama’s manga series, but I can still remember excitedly watching it on Toonami after school. Even in what was almost certainly a censored form for UK TV, it was an eye opener – there was violence, there was death, there were energy beams getting shot out of the characters’ hands. What it lacked, as I noticed when I recently revisited it, was much (if any) sense, but my prepubescent attention span didn’t concern itself with such matter. Other anime series followed Dragon Ball Z in my TV diet, most notably Naruto – adapted from the Masashi Kishimoto manga series that only (finally) ended last November (the anime series is still ongoing).
But it wouldn’t be long before I encountered not TV series but films and, in hindsight, it’s unsurprising that these would be the films of Studio Ghibli. I can’t remember when exactly I first saw the likes of Spirited Away or  but I would guess that almost a full decade has passed and yet my sense of admiration and bewitchment, wonder and awe, delight and intoxication that I get every time I see them remains undimmed.

The films of Studio Ghibli were a stepping stone to an exploration of the wider world and the wider history of cinema in general, which ultimately leads me back to the Brothers Lumière. For me, watching the films of the Lumière Brothers doesn’t make me think as much about what they actually put on the screen but rather, or perhaps inevitably, the invention and medium as a whole. What am I seeing? What is a film? Why am I watching it?

In a recent interview with Little White Lies, Greta Gerwig was asked what she loves about movies to which she responded that they “takes the physical and makes it spirit.”[2] I thought that this was a brilliant response, at once managing to communicate why it is so many of us love cinema and, yet, also conveying how difficult it is to do so.

Everyone who watches film has a different relationship with it; each of us having our own film DNA with a catalogue of every film we’ve seen woven into our individual, cinematic genetic code and each of us has our own reason for watching them. Viewing the film is also an individual experience, as each set of eyes views it having each already catalogued a different set of life events. Some will watch Casablanca having already loved and lost, others will watch it having never loved at all.

Studies have shown that we most closely associate the eyes with our sense of self – with what makes us human. Or, in a manner of speaking, that we see the eye as the window to the soul. Some populations have been noted as having been fearful of being photographed, of being on film, afraid it would do them harm; in the language of the Kayapo tribe of the Amazonian rainforest, “akaron kaba” means not only “to take a photo” but also “to steal a soul.”[3] While this, on the face of it, sounds a bit bonkers, it may not be going too far to say that the relationship we have with film is similar to a Faustian pact. We may not be making a deal with the devil, but we are offering our soul on a platter and inviting the film – daring it – to change something about us.

The great Cesare Zavattini certainly believed it could, saying that it is “the art that best permits me to know and thus to love my neighbour. But what is my neighbour, if not first what is closest to me?”[4] How does it do this? I come to the words of theorist Henri Agel, who wrote that “the camera is at once a microscope and a magical mirror; not only does cinema recreate a face, but it extracts everything that was virtual, it brings into the world that which was obscure or hidden.”[5] Simply put, cinema extracts the hidden truth – truth 24 times a second, as Jean-Luc Godard may put it – from the world and amplifies it, projecting it on a screen. I come back to lumière – the surname of the brothers but, also, almost too fittingly, the French word for light. As Agel says, cinema both shines a light on places that may be hidden to our own sight and recaptures it – presenting it in a packaged, digestible form; it allows us to learn about the world and see it through the eyes of others, enabling us to appreciate themes and events from different points of view.

Of course, it would be doing cinema a disservice to portray it as a mere educational experience and it is certainly not treated as being so by the moviegoing public at large. That is, in many cases, a side effect. Cinema can be a means of escape, of entertainment, and here I will again quote from Agel:

Some will say that this is true of all the other arts and in particular of the dramatic art. But there is something the cinema adds to the theatre, which gives a particular importance to the relationship between the original work and its film interpretation. This is the role played by the pictures themselves. Their intensity, intimacy, diversity and-to get to the core of things – their power of enchantment recreate in a way the universe of daily life. With all this, the cinema can be the best and worst of things. From a sublime source it can derive a ridiculous vision and, with the same power, it can produce a fascinating vision from something that has no true value at all. It can lift a character who is rather wretched in himself to the highest degree of ideal and mythical existence, transfigure him and make him a hero. By brutally projecting on the screen a crude and heavy image of an authentic hero, it can depoetize him and even abolish him as a hero.[4]

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is ultimately the relationship between what is on screen and the reality that we bring to it that gives the medium its power and thereby “[allowing] us to extend our knowledge of life and our ability to express the world.”[6] And, I would add, enhancing our enjoyment of it. That is the best answer I can give for why I watch film.

[1] Hill, K. (2013) International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum: Auguste Lumiere & Louis Lumiere. Available at: http://www.iphf.org/hall-of-fame/auguste-lumiere-louis-lumiere/ (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[2] Monks, S.K. (2015) Interviews: Greta Gerwig. Available at: http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/features/interviews/greta-gerwig-31350  (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[3] Moraes, R. (2011) Capturing Souls. Available at: http://blogs.reuters.com/photographers-blog/2011/05/12/capturing-souls/  (Accessed: 20 August 2015).

[4] Agel, H., Giraud, R. Celluloid and the Soul. Yale French Studies. 1956. No. 17, Art of the Cinema. pp. 67-74

[5] Agel, H. Le Cinéma a-t-il une âme? Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1952. (pg. 6)

[6] Quicke, A. Phenomenology and Film: An Examination of a Religious Approach to Film Theory by Henri Agel and Amedee Ayfre. Journal of Media and Religion. 2005. 4:4, pg. 242

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