The Responsibilities of Cinema

Within that aura which unites masterpieces and audience, the best sides of our souls are made known, and we long for them to be freed. In those moments we recognise and discover ourselves, the unfathomable depths of our own potential, and the furthest reaches of our emotions.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time pp43

How can you remind people of what very decent individuals they are? If you can do that, and they walk out of the cinema feeling good about themselves, better about the world, you’ve done a service. If you don’t, there are much, much easier ways of earning a living.

Lord David Puttnam in an interview with Leigh Sales on Lateline

Thanks to Scott Henderson’s #Ozfilmblogathon for the impetus to put some of the following thoughts into words.

What is the reason for cinema?

There have been many discussions about the direction of cinema produced locally here, in Australia, but these discussions rarely engage with the question of purpose.  It could be said that each film is an attempt to answer this question, each film is a statement on the purpose of the medium. Commentators prefer to talk about box office figures and business matters yet often those discussions are confused, failing to take into account the budget, P&A spend or the revenue structure particular to a production. They say cinema is for Art or Entertainment (many films have proven this to be a false division) and yet few can give an adequate account of either. Without a clear sense of purpose, and filmmakers knowing that purpose, cinema will flounder. The main question to begin any debate about our national cinema should be; ‘What is the reason for cinema?’

If cinema doesn’t have a reason to exist then many lives will have been wasted. Great efforts will have amounted to nothing. What sort of films do we make if films mean nothing to us? What is cinema without the dignity of a purpose? I couldn’t go on living in such a meaningless void if cinema did not have a reason to exist, a purpose worth striving for. But cinema is here for a reason.  I’ve been thinking about this question for seven years; What Is The Reason for Cinema? Now, exclusive to you my dear readers, I will attempt to answer:

Cinema exists to serve audiences; to serve needs specific to their time and place in history and to serve needs that are universal and timeless. As audiences, we have base needs that are immediate and material. We also have needs of the spirit that are eternal and transcendent. Great cinema can, and should, serve both.

Cinema as Entertainment – Base needs

To create anticipation and excitement

Through the expectation of an emotional experience with well crafted scenarios, dialogue, character and action.

To stimulate the imagination

By creating worlds, dreaming dreams, making manifest ideas narrowly outside the grasp of our reality and following curiosity wherever it takes us.

To provide a rich and satisfying emotional experience

With stories (told through the craft of filmmaking) that are surprising, immersive and engaging.

Cinema as Art – Spiritual needs

To frame moral questions

Through dramatic scenarios that embody the conflict of opposing ideals and values,  allowing the audience to give serious consideration to underlying moral questions. Great Cinema stimulates the conscience of the audience and of society.

To show people the best parts of themselves

Through the transformative final act of the story, that final moment in which the main character discovers their better self.

Or by exposing (through character) our capacity for inhumanity, we yearn to discover our better selves.

To unite audiences

Through the communion of cinema going, the lingua franca of film, the binding force of shared experience and shared understanding.

To foster empathy

Through power of close-ups, the intimacy of sharing a character’s struggles, joys and passions.

To show the truth

By shining a light into darkness, highlighting injustices and the plight of the oppressed.

In my humble opinion, cinema that fulfills these responsibilities is Great Cinema. Films like ‘La Strada’, ‘Pickpocket’, ‘High and Low’, ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Do the Right Thing’, ‘Cool Hand Luke’, ‘L’Enfant’, ‘Dancer in the Dark’ and many, many more. Each of these films should be celebrated in their own right. I intuitively know that these films are Great Cinema by their extraordinary, immediate power and because they have stuck with me. I remember them vividly because I need to remember them. Great Cinema is important and necessary.

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  1. Matt Dooley
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Great article! One film that really ticks these boxes for me is “Dirty Pretty Things”.

  2. Hugo
    Posted July 10, 2011 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Thanks Matt, I must see “Dirty Pretty Things” now that you mention it.

  3. Posted December 22, 2014 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    It would be great to get a bigger cmutonimy atmosphere! So far you are the only one on the whole of wordpress that I have found that has the remotest interest in writing about and discussing the same things I do. I monitor the tags American Beauty as well as a few other interesting ones to see what people are writing about them.. but there is actually very surprisingly very little of our type of analysis.

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