They are art, big business and soft power—but movies are a lot more than just that. On a six-hour flight, I worked out exactly what it is about cinema that makes it matter to meby Mark Cousins / June 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
Discuss this article at First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
My partner is a therapist. She treats people who have suffered sexual assault, torture and other major traumas. I am a movie guy. When we go somewhere, therefore, I am the light relief. She gives me gravitas; I give her a hint of showbiz, a bit of bling. We’re a bit like the Sarkozys in reverse.
I’m used to being the bauble. Look at a typical issue of this magazine. My film column, “Widescreen,” nestles beside articles on business, politics, medicine, foreign policy and the environment. How can I not feel a bit frou frou against all that?? Science, economics, education, religion, transport, agriculture and philosophy shape how we think and live. (I might not be here if doctors had not treated the jaundice I caught as a child.) In comparison, cinema is a tiddler. It’s just 113 years old. It is small, young and disposable. It can’t extend our lives or treat pain or build bridges or grow cabbages.
But cinema, at its best, is an art, and art matters. It is also a multibillion dollar business, and money certainly matters. In a fuzzier sense, movies seem to shape aspiration and desire. Some would say that they were 20th-century America’s most striking export, an exertion of its soft power. Certainly they seem responsive to national psychology. Movies tell us what we are scared of. I have argued before that they function like Freudian parapraxes.
This all makes me feel less shallow. If what I write about is both an art form and a big business, if it influences how people think and plays a role in the zeitgeist, then it matters. But I’m bored by talking about cinema in these vague terms: as art, as zeitgeist, as aspiration. I’m writing this on a flight from Beijing to Dubai. In the six hours to go, I’m going to try to think a bit more about whether movies matter. I’ll start by training a magnifying glass on the role cinema has played in the life of an individual. For convenience’s sake, that life will be my own.
I was a nervy little boy. Growing up in Belfast in the 1970s made me more so. The world felt scary—both in general and because of the Troubles. When I went to the movies, just sitting in the auditorium, before the lights went down, I…