The phrase “want-see” started being used in Hollywood in the early 1980s. Other industries closely guard their trade secrets but the US movie studios discovered in the 1970s, with films like Jaws, The Exorcist and Star Wars, that they could create force fields of anticipation around their movies and, in their plain spoken way, they named those force fields “want-see.” There, in the breakfast meeting jargon, is the deep connection between wanting and seeing.
Sigmund Freud, Hollywood’s unacknowledged patron saint, had the more elaborate word “scopophilia,” and in his day what people wanted to see was somewhat different. But, though the man himself was indifferent to movies, apart from the odd western, he would easily recognise what it is in modern cinema that compels people to look at man-eating sharks (Spielberg), the inside of spaceships (Spielberg), the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Spielberg), Omaha Beach (Spielberg) or the destruction of New York.
Nothing has sent the “want-see” pulse racing like the collapse of the World Trade Centre, and people have used Newtonian words to describe it. The television coverage has had a “magnetic” effect. One columnist said that there has been a “gravitational pull” towards the images. Even the more humble “glued to the screen” implies a chemical bond.
Those who argue that our scopophilic epidemic is ignoble can be dismissed. We of course achieve nothing by watching again and again, but indifference would be a much more disturbing reaction. More interestingly, perhaps, two other human compulsions have been at play. Both are part of the Hollywood-Hong Kong action movie formula, but neither is exclusively cinematic.
The first is the attraction of “the broken.” This is the child’s urge to smash up a teetering Lego skyscraper. By chance, as I write this in an internet cafe, three young men on screens to my right are looking at appalling images of severed hands and a mutilated baby, a distasteful outcrop of the desire to slow down when passing a car accident. It is this terrible attraction of “the broken” that explains everything from the 1990s cycle of Manhattan destruction movies back to neo-classicism and Piranesi’s fascination with the fallen stones of the Roman Forum.
A key icon of “the broken” in the last century was the Zapruder footage of John Kennedy being shot. It is another decapitation like the pictures on the screen to my right and the fate of the…