Absorbing projections: When a movie says more than a thousand lives

I’m not a movie buff[1]. My favourite movies of all times are blockbuster kitsch romances[2], complicated stories with baroquesque soundtracks[3], and voluptuous film adaptations of morbid masterpieces of European literature[4]. There have been times in my life when years went by without me watching a single feature movie at all[5], and there have been times when I accidentally stumbled into watching several movies in a row that I hadn’t even chosen myself[6]. So, really, I don’t know anything about movies at all.

Still, on this day, which happens to be the birthday of masterful people of screen fame such as Isabella Rossellini or Greg Yaitanes, Carol Kane or Randy Spears[7], Alison Moyet or Paul McCartney[8], Sylvia Porter or Jürgen Habermas[9], I feel compelled to reflect about movies and lives. And the relationship between them (if there even is such a thing). My sincere apologies to all those who know anything about movies, and in particular to those who professionally reflect about them. What I write is most probably wrong, as, really, I don’t know anything about movies at all (did I say this before?).

Going out on a limb, a feeble cousin of some three-year cost-to-cost marathon and with no hope of ever finding a single Deutschmark, no matter how fast or how often I run, I’d like to tentatively propose that – among all their aesthetic, entertaining, and distracting features – movies actually outperform our lives in that they make us think about four fundamental hallmarks of human existence. Given that, really, I don’t know anything about movies at all, you make of that what you want.

Compelling stories: Movies – even the most abstract, experimental, or surrealistic among them – do tell stories, and these stories are compelling in the sense of having a beginning, a middle, and some kind of end, followed by credits and that awkward pause when people dig for their belongings and their pre-movie identities underneath mouldy cinema seats. As the story is being told, we’re temporarily cured from the randomness of our non-movie lives – everything we knew to be true about ourselves is gone, everything we know is stardust, everything will be okay in the end, everything else is cream cheese. We get a glimpse of what a perfect life would look like. And our bodies are trained to sit still for 90 minutes or more.

Coherent emotions: In movies, the sensual experiences that we’re exposed to are deliberately manufactured to be coherent (and when they’re dissonant, even their dissonance is a deliberate form of coherence) – pictures, words, silence and soundtrack blend together to form an emotional sensescape that explicitly invites us to merge into it. We laugh and we cry, and we’re not shy about it as long as it’s dark. As we take up the invitation and blend with what is being offered, we’re temporarily untangled from the contradictions and restrictions that we impose on our senses and emotions in our non-movie lives – we’re melting, we realise that some people are worth melting for, we ride our own melt. We get a glimpse of what it would feel like to live a life of continuous emotional consonance. And our hearts are trained to beat in sync with our feelings.

Knowing realities: Movies do not pretend to be real. Even when they tell stories that could have happened in what we like to call “real life”, they prefer to make disclaimers about similarities with realities that fake an existence outside of the movie. When we sit down to watch a movie, we know this. And somehow, throughout the movie, we keep this knowledge – without any harm to our levels of enjoyment and engagement with what is happening on the screen. As we acknowledge this knowledge, we’re temporarily freed from our engrossment with reality as we know it – we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented, knowing that reality is not what it used to be, knowing that the reality of one night can never be the whole truth. We get a glimpse of living within a continuous truth of non-reality. And our minds are trained to recognise knowing.

Projecting activities: Superficially, our stance towards movies seems passive – we watch, while the action happens on the screen. With a bit more scrutiny, this is not quite accurate. Of course, there are the gross activities of starting, pausing, resuming, and stopping the movie. But even when none of these are taking place, there’s a subtle stream of activities going on as we identify ourselves with characters and their actions on the screen – or distance ourselves from them[10]. As we observe the coming and going of our identification games, we’re temporarily released from the burden of owning (or disowning) actions – we can follow the action, what is called life, activities available, meaning added, the true source of our actions. We get a glimpse of living with indiscriminate activities. And our intentions are trained to be effortless.

Given that, really, I don’t know anything about movies at all, I better stop here. And let the movies do the talking. We’ll always have movies. And tomorrow is another movie. May the movies be with you.


[1] As a matter of fact, I’m hardly ever a buff at all. Apart from an episode of intense interest in planes and air carriers (when I was around nine years old), I’ve never – not even in my academic pursuits – become totally engrossed in any field of interest or study. Whenever I felt that this might be a deficiency, I consoled myself with a quote from Dorothy Sayers’ “Gaudy Night” where Miss de Vine says to Harriet: “Detachment is a rare virtue, and very few people find it loveable, either in themselves or in others. If you ever find a person who likes you in spite of it – still more, because of it – that liking has a very great value, because it is perfectly sincere, and because, with that person, you will never need to be anything but sincere yourself”. I’m digressing here. Please go back to the text. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Proof of this being that I actually watched Sydney Pollack’s “Out of Africa” (1985) about ten times in my life so far, and Emile Ardolino’s “Dirty Dancing” (1987) about twelve times, discovering a new fascination with either at every re-watch. BACK TO TEXT

[3] Such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975) or Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtman’s Contract” (1982). BACK TO TEXT

[4] Think Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” (1971) or Marleen Gorris’ “Mrs Dalloway” (1997). BACK TO TEXT

[5] The longest of such periods probably between James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), which I watched at the (iconic, and now closed) Streit’s in Hamburg a couple of months before my son was born, and Khyentse Norbu’s “Vara. A Blessing” (2013) which I first saw in a showroom-turned-makeshift-cinema in some Asian city in 2014. BACK TO TEXT

[6] Like, for example, Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” (2004) and Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (2004), some time shortly after their release, somewhere in Europe. BACK TO TEXT

[7] Movies are movies, aren’t they?! BACK TO TEXT

[8] I told you I don’t know anything about movies at all, didn’t I? BACK TO TEXT

[9] Wait – you’re saying the last two are misplaced on this list?! Not for long, though – I’m sure someone is busy preparing screenplays for “Money and You” and for “Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns”. Both are going to be big box office hits, for sure. Just like all the other movies that are only in people’s heads right now, waiting to come out. BACK TO TEXT

[10] If you’re not clear about what I mean, try alternating between being and not being Darth Vader in “Return of the Jedi”. Or any other favourite “bad” character that you might want to understand better. BACK TO TEXT

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