Cinema is about magic not machinery. Should that tell us something?

Towards the end of the nineteenth century at the screening of the Lumière brother’s, ‘L’Arrivée d’un Train en gare de La Ciotat’, the audience is supposed to have recoiled from the screen in fear as they saw the train approach. Facing down the forward movement of a large train, or, perhaps in today’s visual idiom, a spaceship or aeroplane, an audience might sink their fingernails into the nearest available armrest. But would they flee the cinema?

Even this anecdote from the birth of film reads like the illustration of a philosophical point designed to answer the charge of a sceptical mindset. Philosophers from the seventeenth century were forever searching out examples like this one, to elevate clear and distinct ideas above the misleading testimony of the body and its senses.

Cinema is sometimes described as a pre-eminently modern invention, an artform adapted to the machinery of new science and its clear-sighted representations of reality. But, as this example shows, from its first flickering experiments, the images projected onto screen were as much about the creation of illusions as they were about dispassionate examinations of a world with clear boundaries.

The cheerful submission to an illusion, it might be said, is surely part of the thrill and a large part of cinema’s cultural and economic success. Since the development of an industrial approach to the creation and distribution of film, the public has flocked around cinema screens to participate willingly, happily, curiously, in the illusions on display. Cinema goers gripping each other’s hands, showering each other in popcorn through fits of solicited shock, and peering through the gaps of their fingers, are clichés now more or less shoehorned into marketing footage designed to celebrate the screen experience.

But the world of film has not always embraced the projection of illusions. Realists (and neorealists) wanted to seize the opportunity of moving pictures not to project fantasy but document social reality. These filmmakers and early documentary makers saw the medium as a way to confront a broader public audience with the darker and disconcerting side of society, including social and political injustice.

And film theorists from the second half of the twentieth century adopted a different sort of sceptical attitude. The appearance of reality, they said, is a false god disguised as ‘reliable’ two-dimensional objects. Cinematic contrivance constructs nothing more than an illegitimate myth masquerading as realism; and this deception panders to an ingrained strain of self-conceit.

First supremely confident in the picture it illuminates, then supremely sceptical, do these reactions only reflect an unbalanced polarisation? Both, within an agreeable measure, pit themselves against the mainstream. “Realism” wants to sweep aside the costume-designed monstrosities of commercialised fantasy to reveal the state of nature. The new sceptics want to expose the costume designer just to make sure we realise that Grace Kelly didn’t scoot about the house in French satin.

Put another way – a more philosophical way – this might be described as a standoff between “modernism” and “postmodernism” (granting that these terms mean different things to different theorists). Modernity wants to unveil the shape of a determinate world, which too easily turns into postmodern disillusionment.

For my money, applied to film, these critical disquisitions destroy the term that is so often pulled into a discussion about cinema: its magic. Both perspectives are peculiarly literal-minded. In cinematic terms they want to get beyond the simple starting point of a body tenuously conjoined to a mind smiling stupidly at the pretty pictures puppeted for public consumption. Just as Descartes began his famous meditation by doubting the information he could discover through his five senses, so these reactions to the screen fundamentally don’t trust the natural intuitions and credulity of human nature, which must lead them towards reinvented forms of snobbery and self-seclusion.

A postmodern ‘deconstruction’ of film might draw attention to the technique behind the magician’s tricks: long shots, tracking shots, multiple exposures, montages and so on. To watch a film fully aware of all these techniques is one sure way to completely destroy any charm or character it might have.

By way of a simple example, the 2004 political satire Team America: World Police, includes a “montage song” which satirises Hollywood’s use of the cinematic technique. Having watched this film, and given the satire is so tasty, it’s more or less impossible to watch any other film with a montage without recognising it as such (not to mention chuckling). By this stage in the history of our cinematic experience, we are no longer scared by the train entering the station; our ironic gaze leaves us more or less bored.

So a little knowledge truly is a dangerous thing. To know and understand the machinery of cinema – to see cinema in reductive terms – destroys it. And, through a sort of reverse manoeuvre, by trying to render life reductively on the screen usually means removing from the experience the frills and rhetorical flourishes that make the experience a memorable one.

Most “realist” filmmakers however usually recognise the unavoidable need for some editorial or creative judgement in the presentation of “reality”. So realism is really always neorealism. In especially creative hands this can produce vivid and compelling pieces, but just as easily the most dismal and cauterising illustration of this point is “reality” TV. Either way the search for “realism” must fall back on the need for technique and interpretation; or, in other words, “art”.

“Technique and interpretation” means that, to live and flourish, cinema depends on a kind of visible mythology, without which it becomes a sterile object. All of which might imply that cinema is a fragile thing: as we become more ”educated”, as we see cinema for what it is, this gives the lie to the apparent “charm” it might have. Does this mean that, within the broad cultural movements of the time, cinema is an increasingly defunct medium, a dog on wheels that only appealed to the sensibilities of a bygone age?

The answer is “only if you think in a reductive way”. And the history of cinema suggests that it is more resilient than that, maybe even as tough as old boots. Despite an assault of different distractions, despite a level of public knowledge that crowd-sources the content of IMDB on a mind-boggling scale, we keep returning and rediscovering the “magic” of cinema.

I’d suggest that we do this because it is made in our own image. Reduction to basic explanatory elements might work as a form of explanation for the hard objects of perception but it is a false analogy to apply to ourselves. The point of deconstructing the illusion is always elusive. We are the projection of a train hurtling towards a station, the other side of the conjuring trick we cannot see. And when cinema, through an accidental assembly of skills, projects this trick before our eyes, it is bewitching.

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