Cinematic Experience: From Spectacle to Empathy

A new housemate once told me she didn’t like movies, and I was surprised, how could she not like movies? She said she didn’t like having her emotions manipulated. And sure, I’ve cried at the movies. Even a good documentary can move me. It’s empathy happening.

Say you’re watching a movie at home and you have no empathy for the protagonist, what’s to keep you interested, keep you from turning off the show and moving on with your life? Perhaps curiosity? Suspense? If you don’t want to know what happens next, the movie has failed. And in that sense, every movie is a suspense film.

Let’s recall an onscreen superhero battle where they’re destroying the city, and then imagine a restaurant scene where a man is seated with his girlfriend and three guys come in and immediately attack him and he starts fighting. The man’s fight is visceral for me, and creates more tension and thrill because it’s happening at a scale where I can imagine myself. How would I react? Superheroes don’t lend themselves to viewer participation at a gut level because it’s a stretch to imagine myself costumed, mutant, godlike. The superhero battle relies on spectacle and, watch the credits rolling, it’s an amazing amount of talent applied to creating those scenes.

People more gifted than me might see themselves as superhuman avengers, but I think the real awe-inspiring thing I’m seeing in superhero movies is the characters I read in three-color process, floppy, staple-bound comic books realized with such perfect photorealism! The nine-year-olds who came to the adult superhero movie with their parents and have no mental collection of back issues to guide them, I wonder what they are seeing, how do the superheroes appear to them?

It’s been said that an appeal of the superhero is its fantasy of power—when every significant decision is arbitrated by a parent, the agency of super powers could be some wishful thinking, fulfillment even, for a child. But why do we keep watching as adults? Maybe superheroes provide us with entertainment, but why would we go in for costumed gladiators? Imagine what our civilization would be if if the incentive was to create empathy for humanity in the viewers, rather than bombastic spectacles of eternal conflict and huge returns at the box office. Movie franchises like Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however sincere their origins, are now more like theme park rides cemented to the cultural firmament than vehicles for human drama. And actual amusement park rides based on movies, that’s a thing!

Movie journalists cover blockbusters like the news does Trump, dumping more attention (and its dollar equivalent in advertising) into already loaded corporate coffers. Okay, sure, their publishers obey market mechanics, respect the page views, and so do their advertisers. It’s cash. But let’s imagine movie journalism that didn’t focus on the box office but rather sought out and covered human-scale storytelling. I watch franchise movies, they’re obvious, but I’m looking to discover movies that might have no recognizable source material and yet both surprise and entertain. And, possibly, enlighten.

Why do I watch? The onscreen representation of some previously unknown realm of experience—it could be criminals, white collar or otherwise—onscreen, and I have no desire to be like them, but the movie provides a vicarious thrill. It could be the characters, the feelings evoked in exploring fears and desires. I’m curious, watching how these other people live. And when a character feels similar to me, so akin to who I am or who I might want to be, watching the movie is less like voyeurism and more like fulfillment!

To stay interested in the character’s journey for two hours, especially when watching it streaming on a computer and another window is one click away, the viewer has to participate in the story. This is obvious, so obvious to be overlooked: the participation is entirely in the viewer’s mind. For the onscreen protagonist to evoke emotion, or interest, the character must first elicit some recognition, like, oh, that guy, with the bat mask—or archetype or personality or, maybe, some behavior that reminds the viewers of themselves—I know him.

Superhero stories have become so baroque that wish-fulfillment or power fantasy doesn’t encompass everything that’s happening. It’s expensive to create, market, and distribute movies to an international audience and the pressure to generate a return for investors makes it hard for filmmakers to take risks and tell original stories. Tell original stories? Is that possible? You hear the old saw, there are only twelve kinds of stories. No, there are two stories. You hear that? There are only two kinds of stories: the hero leaves town, and a stranger comes to town.

In reality, there are many more stories and they are not tidy hero’s journeys, they are complex and messy human stories, real life dramas that indie-minded makers could capture if they cared to. Playing to voyeurism or wish-fulfillment, it’s a wonder that more independent filmmakers haven’t taken reality shows for all their worth and brought a greater variety of human experience to the small screen. It’s no secret that turning the camera on reality is cheaper to produce than scripted entertainment. And for the big screen, documentaries are more than narrated newsreels, these modern histories employ all the innovations of movie magic to help us understand and navigate the world.

The more connected our media landscape becomes the more homogeneous it is, and innovations require being different, maintaining difference, representing difference—while remaining connected. And that’s hard, because we want to be liked and to fit in with our tribe.

The difference between watching someone cry onscreen and creating the emotion in the viewer: in the first instance the camera is just pointed at something, and in the second, you’re experiencing the narrative within you. Creating that experience in the viewer is to be celebrated. And for all the tears, to each their own!

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