The Power of Movies
On Sunday I went to see Searching for Sugar Man. It’s a really lovely documentary about an almost unheard of American folk singer called Sixto Rodriguez. In the early 70s his producers thought they had discovered the next Dylan. He created two albums, but they both tanked, and he quickly faded into obscurity. Except, through quirk of fate, in South Africa.
In South Africa, he became “bigger than the Rolling Stones and more popular than Elvis”. His songs became a catalyst for the young, white, middle-class anti-apartheid movement. His songs helped these kids realise that they didn’t have to conform to what their society expected of them and opened them to another way of thinking about their participation in their culture.
The effect of his songs on an entire generation made me think about my own personal experience. I can think of several such moments in my life where a song changed the way I thought or felt about the world in some profound way. I can think of many times when reading has provoked this sort of shift in my world view, and even more of these moments have occurred during conversations with friends or strangers.
Which brings me to my point. I can’t think of a single instance in my life where a movie has provoked this kind of response. I’ve come out of movies on emotional highs and emotional lows, I’ve left documentaries inspired and horrified. I’ve learned, and vicariously experienced, a huge amount from movies, documentaries and television, but I can’t think of a single instance where they have radically shifted my view of the world.
It’s always dangerous to generalise from personal experience, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to anyway. Here’s a theory:
The combination of sensorial engagement and dictated time frame which movies provide is actually antithetical to the meta-processing required for these world shifting moments to occur.
I think of knowledge as a spider web of connections between islands of information. For me, these moments come when I suddenly discover a new connection between pieces of information which I thought I already understood. Last night, a friend referred to these moments as “ideas having sex”. These new connections provide a fresh perspective and allow us to review and reshape what we already know. At that moment, our existing knowledge suddenly has new meaning.
There are two things which are relatively unique about the story telling which happens in movies. The first is that movies engage our senses more than any other medium. Modern movies are designed to provide an incredibly rich experience for our visual and auditory senses. Processing this sensorial data uses quite a lot of our mental capacity. Secondly, movies move at the director's pace, not ours. It is sometimes possible to pause a movie to consider something, but this isn’t how we typically view them. In combination, this means that when we are watching movies we have less mental capacity available to make new connections, and if we do make a new connection, it’s difficult to escape the story for long enough to process any new ideas which result.
I believe that the best stories provide more than pure entertainment. The best stories pose scenarios and questions which challenge our assumptions and provoke our sensibilities. Movies offer increasingly immersive experiences, with plots and editing styles becoming increasingly frenetic. Assuming that this dual purpose of entertainment and provocation is desired, are modern movie techniques actually making the job harder? Are we actually limiting our ability to engage with the inner voice of our audience?