I believe in cinema

I believe in cinema. I believe in the almost infinite potential for cinema to detail, comment upon and engage with the human condition. I believe that cinema at its highest and lowest is perhaps the most revealing cultural artefact of all. I love the fact that, through a nation’s cinematic output at any given period, we may obtain knowledge about the customs, costumes, codes and cultural tensions of that period and place. I believe in viewing cinema not only through the lens of qualitative judgement (good films and bad films), but also through that of cultural revelation.

In those films that deal explicitly with the trials and tribulations of human beings, especially those that do it well, we are afforded the opportunity to identify with and reflect upon the human condition and the situations in which people find themselves. Literature also offers this opportunity, perhaps with more space for narrative and psychological detail, but with less immediacy and emotional impact than cinema. Take The Bicycle Thief (1948), sometimes more appropriately known as Bicycle Thieves, in which Vittorio De Sica places us in the position of a man in post WWII Italy who has had his bike stolen, leaving him with no means of producing an income for his family. We suffer with this man through the duration of the film, hating the human being who took away the bicycle that was his livelihood. Only in the final tragic and ironic conclusion, when this man himself becomes a bicycle thief as his son looks on, do we realise the totality of the situation – that we are all victims and perpetrators and that our conditions are what drive our actions. More than this we also learn about the tragic state of post-WWII Italy, and the very human costs that accompany it. We are reminded that, beyond the textbook manner in which we regularly learn history, these were real circumstances that affected the lives of real people.

Just as interesting are those films that were made as windows into history that have subsequently become windows into their own cultural situation. George Roy Hill’s classic western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1971), may well detail the circumstances the led to the deaths of two infamous bank robbers, but the film also reveals much about the values of the period in which it was made. Its counter cultural anti-heroes, gender politics and deliberately discordant tone are themselves a consequence of the youth movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Or perhaps consider what Sergei Eisenstein’s propaganda masterpiece Battleship Potemkin (1925) reveals about the 1905 mutiny that it examines, versus what it reveals about the Soviet era in which it was produced. It quickly becomes apparent that a film cannot detail a historical moment without filtering that moment through its contemporary ideals.

Alternatively, within those films that appeal to the most base elements of human desire, perhaps even more is revealed than in their more artistically, psychologically and philosophically ambitious counterparts. A few examples:

  • Action films might act as windows into the core fantasies of masculine identity. The Schwarzeneggers, Stallones and Van Dammes of cinema live out the alpha-male longings of the men who view them, revealing the ways in which masculinity expressed (or wished to express) itself at the time of the film’s production.  We can quickly learn about the ways in which masculinity’s representation is consistent across cultures, and the ways in which it varies by comparing the outrageous excesses of the action films of South-Indian superstar Rajnikanth, the equally outrageous but more physically plausible films of China’s Jackie Chan and the far less aerobic brute force of Schwarzenegger (just as you can view the ways in which the respective cinema of these nations influence each other).
  • Pornography demonstrates and is directed towards the satisfaction of humanity’s (or at least men’s) most primal impulses, and also reveals how the objects of these impulses have changed. A simple glance at the pornography of the United States between the 1960s and today reveals much about the increasing emphasis on female physical perfection over time, and a disturbing trend towards the portrayal of increasingly misogynistic sexual practices.
  • Romances and comedies target and satisfy the emotions of the people who watch them. Such films reveal how the emotional demands of various eras express themselves. By looking at the films produced in any given era (and their reception), a huge window is opened up onto the culture of that time and place, and of the people who lived within it. More than this, they reveal much about humanity in general. Take for example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which reveals a wonderful intersection between the comedic form’s relative innocence at the time and a clear awareness amongst Americans of the threat presented by Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
  • Finally, sometimes genre pictures are literally formed out of their cultural circumstances. A perfect example may lie in the science fiction cinema of the United States in the 1950s. The genre was a relatively minor one in the USA up to this point, before a massive output of SF films began in 1950.A simple glance across these films will demonstrate recurring themes of scientific advancement for either good or evil, alien invasion, nuclear war and the very new threat of radiation (usually causing some kind of mutation). Whether or not such representations were deliberate, they do demonstrate that invasion, the threat/potential of scientific advancement and the nuclear threat existed in the public consciousness.  No surprise given the recent tensions with the Soviets, and their attainment of the bomb in 1949.

All I’m saying is, I believe in cinema. I believe in the almost infinite potential for cinema to detail, comment upon and engage with the human condition. I believe that cinema at its highest and lowest is perhaps the most revealing cultural artefact of all.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

108 thoughts on “I believe in cinema

  1. Well written and thoughtful! No question that one learns a lot about culture & society by looking at movies through that lens. I am not a cinephile, being perhaps over-sensitive to the whole experience. Too much is too much, and so I pick and choose carefully (not to mention the cost!). I certainly have been moved by, and have enjoyed, many films, including indies and oddballs. And thanks very much for the follow; I appreciate it.

  2. Thanks for following my blog. Best wishes for continued success with yours. I agree with some of your points, but wish to mention the extraordinary role that cinema can play as a tool of politics and political propaganda. An educated person may see through it, but not necessarily, as the propaganda may meet some need or desire within their own mind and soul. Ultimately, the propaganda, like a spider, can enmesh their prey in a very gentle way. Sorry to be dark, but, I think it is necessary to add – especially in the world’s current political climate.

    • This is absolutely true – all art forms are corruptible. But this in itself provides insight. When we look back at the Nazis, for example, their cinematic propaganda is a window into the period… Eventually all cinema becomes artifact.

  3. Love cinema! Such a great form of escapism at times, and great entertainment! Recently saw the other side as my road trip to Rochester NY was impacted by the filming of Spiderman – interesting to see the behind the scenes….probably would not have gone to see it, but now that I have watched a little of the set up – I am intrigued! It was quite interesting.

  4. Great read. I just finished my second German film course and could not agree more that you can truly understand a period in history in any given place in the world. After studying post-WW2 and East German post-wall Cinema I can’t wait to delve into another course soon!

      • Absolutely! Seeing DEFA Cinema is literally a time capsule- they were so isolated in those early years from anyone but the soviets, and it shows. “Lucky” in a way for us, since the result of East Germany having the infrastructure in place allowed for films like “Rotation” to be made.

  5. Awesome work! I too believe… Let’s not forget about the power of a good drama. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Beauty or Requiem for a Dream – films that cause our eyes to break the flood gates. That’s powerful.

  6. Movies are always framed by the era in which they are made; the ideals, the concepts, the thinking – certainly the styling and the acting.. This last, to me, always ‘dates’ period drama. Griffith’s ‘Intolerance’ is relentlessly an early twentieth century piece, however much parts may have been set in other times. And yet it is this, somehow, that gives them their character. From our modern perspective we can look back on them in two contexts; the film as film – entertainment, message, drama, whatever; and the film as period expression.

  7. am an avid cnema lover. with time, my love for it has only deepened and we have established an unspoken connect where we understand each other’s language and the message it is trying to impart.
    a beautiful insight into the world of cinema and how it depicts time, era, behaviour, need etc.
    and i so know what you mean by ‘ love the fact that, through a nation’s cinematic output at any given period, we may obtain knowledge about the customs, costumes, codes and cultural tensions of that period and place.’ – as i do learn my most from it.
    thanks for sharing, loved it.
    congratulations on being freshly pressed.

  8. I am delighted to hear a positive argument for cinema. As a “fine” artist doing painting, I knew that, although we can learn about the customs and dress and draw understanding about cultural tensions from painting and other 2-d forms, on a long enough time-line, conventional mediums be insufficient to either communicate or catalog culture. My cynical take is that a single sense will no longer suffice. In a population made fickle by overexposure It seemed like that picture had to move, and the eyes needed the aid of the ears. a Real-time narrative with sound…moving pictures. 😉 I dont speak for other traditional artists, but I know when change is in the wind. It’s up to us to appreciate and adapt.

    • Wow – some really good points. Of course, painting as an art form is entirely irreplaceable. Beyond the mere cataloguing of the real, it is a medium of human expression that requires exactitude of skill that is not quite so pivotal in the form of the moving image (although perhaps it should be).

      But yes, there is something tangible, immediate and living in cinema that is entirely unique. It is a form, like many others, susceptible to the contemporary drive to commercialise all things – but this is only because of its direct emotive power.

      • Yes, direct emotive power at a level accessable to young and old, educated or no. I’d like to think movies demand that we stretch ourselves like fine art does. Perhaps some day well be able to measure the proportional impact of each on the viewer.

  9. Thanks for the good read. I love movies. A good addiction to have, right up there with music, books, and chocolate. For the past year I have been making my way through Roger Ebert’s “Great Films” and it’s been an interesting ride. Although I haven’t liked all of them I have enjoyed the education of sorts.

    • No problem – thanks for reading!

      Ebert’s list is certainly a good one to go through – and it wouldn’t be much fun without at least occasionally disagreeing 🙂

  10. Great post. I always thought the humorous nature of The Great Dictator was such a sharp contrast from how something as serious as Nazi Germany is normally taken. It’s strange to see historical figures being made fun of like modern politicians.

  11. I love movies, but I’d argue that modern cinema is the junk food and literature the more nourishing whole food. These days, movies come tidily packaged, tightly produced by hundreds of talented people to a formula that hopes for large-scale success. The meat and vegetables are books still written by one person toiling alone with no promise of wealth and no formula to go by. I love movies, just like I love junk food. I just try to spend a lot of time with whole food, literature, too. The best movies to my mind are those based on books — they have that depth, that achievement and that labor of love at their conception.

    • This might often be the case in contemporary mainstream cinema, but the tendency to create marketable products only makes these films more sociologically significant as an area of study – a breed of cinema seen to tailor itself to meet (and influence) our needs.

      • I don’t disagree that even the pulpiest of movies say something significant about both the culture that produces and then digests them, but they are so similar, how many need to be compared before the subject possibly gets a bit stale? Are movies like ho-hos or twinkies that are food no matter how long on the shelf? Literature offers more depth and breadth to the diet, that’s all I was arguing. I feel honor-bound to defend literature since it has materially enriched my life and perhaps even saved my sanity more than once. Cheers to all levels of literature and cinema, though. I’m happy to partake of both in turn.

        • Agreed – literature is one of humanity’s great forms of expression, and the form in which the most detailed exploration of the human condition is possible and has been achieved. Certainly didn’t mean to indicate that I didn’t love the form.

          But I am a cinephile, and as such, I believe in cinema 🙂

    • I’d also point to similar trends in the popular fiction industry… Which is perhaps a more analogically appropriate equivalent to popular cinema than literature – a term which points to the high end of the written spectrum.

  12. Pingback: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls | totallygeekgirl

  13. It’s alway nice to find a fellow cinephille, particulary one who enjoys the highs and the lows. Its all very well loving the high art of The Bicycle Thief but it takes a real film fanatic to embrace the sweaty muscles of Van Damme (even if you’re not commentationg on the eroticising of the male form). Nothing could ever replacing the knot of excitement in your stomach as a film begins, even if it turns out to be the weirdest thing you have ever seen… Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

  14. I love this article and I could not possibly agree more. Each film, no matter how small, is like a tiny little sociology lesson about what a society holds dear, what it fears, their language and slang, their manner of dress…

  15. James,
    It is so wonderful how the cultural artifacts of cinema not only provide knowledge about technological processes, economy and social makeup, but a host of other subjects as well!.

  16. You really did a good job of bringing out the cognitive potential of movies–that movies have the ability to be contemplated, rather than just watched.

    However, I wonder if pornography is worthy of your “belief in movies.” Part of what makes it so “base” is that it strongly appeals to aspects of our bodily human existence that aren’t known for helping us to think so clearly. Not to mention the potential for the exploitation of those involved in it. Some “learning” isn’t worth the cost.

  17. Cinema is very revealing about our culture and it is more immediate than a literary classic. Cinema is more democratic and more accessible to the public because a movie ticket usually costs less than a book. Anybody can to to a movie; not everybody wants to read Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE.

    Here is my commentary on a favorite film of mine: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER:

    “Clint Eastwood’s film High Plains Drifter (1973)”
    http://tim-shey.blogspot.com/2010/03/clint-eastwoods-high-plains-drifter.html

  18. Lillian Gish said it best (the silent film) is a universal language. Without sound, it can touch and influence he world. And it did. Miss Gsh through her mentor D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford – later Gloria Swanson, were the first ambassadors of the United States. Their faces and gestures were known worldwide. When sound came, at first, more than half the world market was lost. It (silent film) was a marriage of picture and music. Profound, we have taken many steps forward, but in the art of story telling, the truth poetry, perhaps we have gone backwards. I was friends with and worked with Miss Gish for over 30 years. Brian Pinette http://www.rarefilmclassics.blogspot.com

    • A very good and very big question! What’s your take?

      I’ve started to look at that question with a recent post I put together on Rob Zombie. Also, my post entitled “On the Couch” very much targets the relationship between fear and fascination.

      • I think horror films represent our darkest natures and fears brought to life to examine. Those who don’t like horror films hate being confronted with that side of them, at least when presented in that way, while those who love horror films primarily like to examine those darker aspects of ourselves without actually performing them.
        Unfortunately though, there aren’t a lot of great horror films these days. Too much reliance on gore and startling jumps and not enough reliance on suspense or building up the fear in us.

  19. Pingback: The Cinephile | Curnblog

  20. This particular post is probably one of the smartest and most interesting posts I’ve read since I started blogging and checking out the sites of other bloggers. I LOVE this post. I think a lot on the human condition, since I am one…and you really nailed it with this post. I appreciate your tone and thought.

    • Thanks, Tatum. That is a huge compliment and I can only hope to live up to it in future blogs.

      Inversely, there is a crisp, clean, expressive style to your writing that I love. I’ll definitely be back 🙂

  21. I really don’t know how we would have been able to advance as a civilization without cinema. The ability to view ourselves–both good and bad–has I believe been a vital part of our society.

  22. Cool site. We follow each other on twitter. My site http://www.rarefilmclassics.blogspot.com. Film is an art, a collaborative effort – from producer, director to casting. Today, it is a corporation. Computer generated. Stats are sought to see what is trending, what type film to make, how many murders, how much nudity … no thought process to make a good film, to see a vission – from inception to conclusion.

  23. Very interesting and educational article. But, when I see an action film, I only pretend to enjoy a silly and funny pastime, not reflect any fantasies. I don`t interested in have a big body plenty of muscles, or shot a tommy gun over ten thousand ” terrorists”.

  24. I whole-heartedly agree with every word of this post except that literature has less of an emotional impact than cinema. As an unabashed and entirely devoted lover of literature, I cannot concede you this one point.

    That being said, I too believe in cinema. And I applaud your passion.
    ~N.

      • Literature and film rely on different mechanisms to draw out emotion. For example, the ability to watch a talented actor express inner turmoil in a way which mimics reality is unparalleled in literature. But books can paint characters in a level of detail, often taking us into their heads, which makes their plight all the more heartfelt/relatable.

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