I love the movies, especially the experience of going to the movies, of sitting in a darkened theatre and hearing the swell of the music from speakers and sound systems so sensitive that I can hear the rustle of the wind in the background of the scene or the hero’s catch of breath as he sees the heroine, and then share his gaze, seeing the beloved on that flickering screen: her eyes lit to sparkle, her cheekbones sculpted by light, a slight shadow falling on her dress, a dress that invites the gaze, concealing and revealing each curve to the hero, to the viewer… Ah, yes, I’m a sucker for the movies, and I have a particular fondness for old-fashioned Hollywood films, the products of studios lavishly spending on every aspect of production, all the money clearly up on screen to showcase the gods and goddesses of our recent past, their names a litany of many pleasures.
Despite this particular passion for older Hollywood films, I tend to roam widely in the cinema landscape, from action and horror to musicals and comedy, from Bollywood to British art house, though I’m not always as adventurous as I should be. My greatest pleasures are often simple pleasures, and while I enjoy special effects—the chance to be thrust into a world of exquisite light and curious sounds, of multiple dimensions that dazzle the eyes and the senses—for me the best effects are often the most simple: an actor’s face, a well-chosen score, and a script that engages both emotion and intellect.
It’s often in these moments that I think of the differences between the medium of film and another medium that I love: theatre. Both can provide profound moments through sequences of tremendous action or serene inaction, vigorous exertion or quiet insight, yet as much as they are kindred arts, they are also separate. Theatre is intensely intimate and thrilling because it is live, with each moment the last, each performance so very different. Film is also intensely intimate and thrilling, but often for different reasons, such as the use of the close-up, which brings the viewer into the emotional orbit of the character to see each slight movement of the mouth and eyes, to read there anticipation, fear, comfort, or desire.
A good script filled with sparkling dialogue or hard truths can work well in each medium, although theatre tends to be much more talky. In theatre, the presence and performance of bodies, of characters played by actors, are of vital importance, but these bodies need dialogue, not just mere presence, in order to speak: to convey the themes of the text and its emotional affect to the viewer. In film, bodies often do the talking, as do objects: a delicate coffee cup filled with poison; a stunning diamond necklace around a blonde’s neck; or a snow globe dropped by a limp hand that shatters into a thousand shards on a cold stone floor.
Here’s an example of film’s particular power—drawn not from an immensely popular film or one the critics endlessly coo over, but one that easily comes to mind. The moment comes in a very chatty, very active film, one full of acts of sudden violence that exist side by side with dark comedy. The hero is attending his high school reunion, an act fraught with its own emotional and social violence, while dealing with his own history, which is, quite literally, violent. He meets his old school mates and they appear jaded, miserable, bitter, and delusional; after talking to them, he can’t see the point of anything: he’s in crisis. He sits in the school gym, slumped in a seat, watching them dance and argue. Then a woman who remembers him comes by and stops. She has her son with him, and when he asks if her life has turned out as she expected, she surprises him: it’s much better, she says. She seems genuinely content. The woman asks the man to hold the child, and before he can say “no” she has turned away. He stares into the child’s face; the child stares back. The man looks again, hard, as if he can find the answer to the universe and all its strangeness in the child’s eyes. The child looks back. The music rises, not sentimental, but asking questions, yearning, and the faces of the man and the child and the strange, unknown interchange between them fills the screen. There is a beat, and then it is over: the moment is gone, but the man seems changed. What happened? The viewer feels like she knows, that she, like the man, has received some sort of insight, yet its ineffable. The viewer has been given a strangely intimate moment with the man, with the child, and with their union, and yet they, and that union, remain an enigma. Yet, within that transient magic circle of the moment, there exists something powerful, profound, that lingers long after the flickers on the screen have dimmed. That, at least in part, is the magic of the movies.