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.