Ways of Watching: Taming the World Through Cinema

ways of watchingWatching films is about more than pleasure. It can be educational and thought provoking, but it also scratches a more primeval itch, one born from our desire to make a safe, controlled space to live in.

Cinema helps us to own and to tame our world.

Ownership through oils

In his book and television series Ways of Seeing (both 1972) John Berger explored how we relate to art. Berger argued that art, especially the oil painting tradition that emerged from the European Renaissance, was in part about asserting ownership over the wider world. Patrons of the arts commissioned paintings of their possessions to show off their power and wealth. Think of all those paintings of country estates and great houses, of beautifully presented children, of lords and ladies in their swankiest outfits. Then think of the grand public artworks showing aspects of overseas empires. These are paintings that scream ‘look what I’ve got!’

This fashion for showing off your possessions went so far that Teniers painted an archduke with his painting collection. Remember folks, meta-cultural references weren’t invented by post-modernists and the internet.

But this assertion of ownership through art went beyond mere possessions. Take a walk around the Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire and you’ll see a vast monument to the 18th century Duke of Marlborough’s ego. There are paintings and tapestries everywhere of the Duke’s battles. It was a way of showing off his achievements and of asserting ownership over those experiences. A way of saying ‘I own warfare.’

ways of watchingSure, not everybody built their own castle or led a grand army through the Netherlands. But by commissioning and purchasing art of grand things people gained some slither of that feeling, got to make them part of their lives. Through this sort of secondary ownership they got to say ‘hey, I’m a great estates kind of guy too!’

Taming through frames

Our relationship with our culture is a little more subtle these days, but some of the same psychological instinct is still there. We want to bring the world under our control, to tame it for our purposes. Cinema plays a huge part in that taming.

The obvious place to look is documentaries. It’s not just those films of wild and exotic locations, with deserts and jungles brought safely into our living rooms. It’s also the displays of other cultures, understanding them on our terms, making them a little less alien, a little more part of our world, and by implication within our control.

How about films depicting dramatic and dangerous situations, war films like The Hurt Locker (2008) or Jarhead (2005)? Again, these films tame what is for many of us a wild and unknowable situation. By making it comprehensible, explaining it in terms we’ve experienced, they give us some ownership over that experience, an experience we might have no more claim to than a Florentine merchant did the distant cities painted on his walls.

Even films about serious social issues do this. Philadelphia (1993) and La Haine (1995) both helped raise awareness of important issues – AIDS and urban deprivation respectively. But both did this partly by taming them. They gave their audiences a challenging but bearable version of those experiences, placed them within their control.

ways of watchingThe world on your shelf

The clearest expression of this taming and ownership through cinema is the DVD rack. It’s where we show our tastes and knowledge, where we control the aspects of cinema we have instant access to. In the age of the internet you could hire the same films at the click of a button and have them delivered the next day if not that very minute. On a purely logical level that would save space in your house, mean less stuff to dust, and save money on nearly every disk.

But that’s not what we want. We want control. We want ownership. We want to tame the chaos of a wild, pluralistic cultural mass by trimming it down to a shelf full of boxes that we own. Just as much as Mr and Mrs Andrews, painted against a background of their grand estates by Gainsborough, we are asserting control and claiming ownership.

Films are empowering for creators through the way that they let them express themselves. But they are empowering for audiences too, giving us the opportunity through our viewing choices and experiences to tame our unruly world.


Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He’s had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthologies. He blogs about books, film, TV and writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com.

7 thoughts on “Ways of Watching: Taming the World Through Cinema

  1. many people define themselves by their dvd, cd, and book collections. i think it may be a good thing that the age of collecting is passing, and people may again find their identity in what they do, not through what they consume.

  2. Pingback: Ways of Watching, Ways of Reading | Andrew Knighton writes

  3. Sharp observations here, Andrew. I wonder if, to a certain extent, the types of films people like are also a way of displaying our knowledge about the medium. Certainly they can present themselves in conversation. I think we have a symbiotic relationship to art: We keep it going because it flatters us … and you’re right — part of that is its ability to give us ownership of locales, ideas. I’d like to add that I think it also gives us a desire to be part of the action, to participate — at least, great art does — so we’re not only taming the subjects, but we’re also seeking to immerse ourselves in them. Good piece.

    • I agree about both the knowledge display element and the immersion. I find the knowledge display particularly fascinating. That’s where, just like Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, we’re asserting our identity while also asserting control, the two processes supporting each other.

  4. I think you have nailed the idea of expression through films on a DVD shelf Andrew. Not that I have any on display any more, but I once had two bookcases full of them. I suppose that I was declaring my preferences for foreign films, world cinema, and independent art films, as well as my knowledge of the subject by displaying films from the silent era too.

    It was mostly before the days of streaming, or easy availability. I had to buy them physically, in actual shops. I later resorted to Amazon and others, to save money, but I would be loathe to part with the ‘collection’ that still says so much about me.

    Shame I can’t afford a few Dutch masters too though.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • I’m the same with my books. It’s taken me a long time to acknowledge that there’s really no point in me keeping most things that I don’t intend to read any time in the next year or two – they just take up space. But they’re a way of controlling my access to that knowledge, and as cinematoonist81 pointed out of showing my knowledge and identity.

      • Don’t get me started on books! I have boxes and boxes of them, still stacked in the garage, two years after moving. I am steeling myself to give them away. (One day…) Have to keep the films though, at least for a while.

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