It may seem a verbose question but if I may be indulged I think there’s something in this image that tells us something important - that challenges a common acceptance - about cinema and the engagement of dramatic action.
To steer away (momentarily) from the Dog and his ‘Business’ we might pose a more palatable question “Why do we watch Movies?”
Entertainment, Information, Escapism.
If the old Family Feud game show had surveyed a 100 people and gathered their top three responses for contestants to guess it would be no family of Einsteins required to take home the prize.
The low-brow family might say Entertainment, the high-brow family would say Information to hold up an appearance of holier-than-thou and likely a cross demographic of busy modern workers would simply declare Escapism.
But im not so sure any of these is the reason Why We Watch? These are things we get from watching but none of these three - Entertainment, Information or Escapism are inherent to drama or to cinema. To bring relevance to the blog title; I can be entertained, be informed and experience escapism by watching a dog take a dump on a lawn. But I wouldn’t call it cinema and unless it held a particularly dynamic performance aspect, I wouldn’t call it dramatic.
So why do we watch? (Movies that is, not the dog…) We watch because we like to Worry. We love to stew in our own worry about the fate of the world, about whether the boy will get the girl, about the soldier, about the mother, about the child, worry whether the bomb will go off, whether the hero will escape, whether then treasure will be found or the secret uncovered, whether the truth will be revealed or the criminal escape, worry if love will ever be requited or the family reunited…
Where Entertainment, Information and Escapism are the by-product results of watching it is Worry that is the essence of the desire to watch. Our most primeval impetus as humans is to Hope for something to happen whilst Fearing that it won’t. Hope +/- Fear = Worry. And there is no great work of cinema that doesn’t with each shot, cut and word seek to make us worry More…
This is what is inherently problematic with the oft touted idea of cinema’s reason for being and driving goal being ‘entertainment’. Entertainment can exist without Worry, can be plain to view without the nexus of Hope and Fear. As such, whilst cinema can (and should) be entertaining, entertainment is not of itself cinematic. Any film whose primary endeavor is ‘entertainment’ invariably risks failure - failure to engage the viewer with more powerful drivers. Such films become the equivalent of a dog dump on the lawn; funny, amusing, disgusting and alarming such a sight may be - perhaps even a little emotional - but ultimately unmoving, disposable and un-cinematic because whilst I may be entertained I am not in a state of Worry…
These ruminations have become course mantras of mine for my students in recent years but I was delighted to find much more articulate expressions in the pages of the journal Lum:na; a publication of the Australian Film TV and Radio school (AFTRS) (where incidentally I now work - or will do come the 18th January).
Karen Pearlman (head of screen-studies at AFTRS and an accomplished film editor in her own right) lays out a compelling argument for the power of Myth in her essay ‘Make Our Myths’ (a shortened abstract can be read on Urban Cinefile but I thoroughly recommend getting a copy of the full Journal from your local good bookshop)
The trap for Australian cinema (and by extrapolation many national cinema’s outside of the US) has been an all too often unquestioned premise (most often linked to government funding and subsidy) of ‘telling our own stories’. Karen’s argument (one that had me in near epileptic fits of agreement-nodding like a scene from Wayne’s World) is that such a directive has led “us down the garden path of naturalism to a rut so deep that it seems people would rather stay at home and argue with their own families than go and watch another Australian domestic drama on screen.” p32
More powerful than telling our own stories is forging our own Myths. Karen suggests such cinematic myths are borne of three tenets - Scale, Dynamics and Ownership and that evoking such properties; “Does not mean movies have to be happy or sad, smart or dumb, expensive or cheap, real or surreal. They must have scale, dynamics and ownership by more than just their makers.” p37
Following similar empowering and informative perspectives is Ron Cobb’s sentiments on Science Fiction cinema with the pages of the same issue. Best known for design work on Star Wars, Alien, The Abyss and Total Recall Cobb also draws connection with the power of mythical scale and grand-stakes. He observes the trap of mistaking Escapism as the primary driver of cinema “Nonsense is okay so long as it is experienced as nonsense, understood as a metaphor; escapism shuts of the grandeur of the world. It is self-comforting and in that sense infantile.” p99
He goes on to connect this issue in cinema to a deep and broad spread of modern societal problems;
“We escape from reality at our peril. The current social realm of pseudo-cures, cults, quackery, conspiracy theories, etc., comes from gullibility, a desire to retreat into a dream world that I would not like to see so accelerated.” p99
Both these examples, which draw from different impetus, point toward some powerful truths of the cinematic experience - or perhaps, more correctly, highlight the flaws of common misconceptions. Cinema is not driven by a desire for entertainment nor for escapism (and certainly not information) but by something simultaneously more complex and primeval - the desire to teeter our senses on the fulcrum between Hope and Fear. The screenwriter and filmmaker’s mantra therefore should not be ‘Keep them Entertained or Interested or Informed’ but rather ‘Keep them Worried…’
We watch because we like to Worry and if what we are watching fails to make us worry because it’s too concerned with an intangible and un-fulfilling desire to ‘entertain’ then we are relegated to the role of watching the dog take a dump on the lawn… Amusing though it may be, it’s a poor substitute for a cinematic experience.
Lumina: Australian journal of screen arts and culture. Issue 2, 2009. AFTRS