At first, this series may seem strange to you. All I can say by way of preparatory remarks is that cinema properly understood is the self-understanding of a society. It comprises individual taste, popular phenomena, prestige, and also great achievements. It is at once all-American and almost universally opposed in America. Cinema is part of civilization — it is an attempt to think through and therefore to educate Americans about what it means to be a human being. But it retains elements of barbarism — a surprising fondness for images, let’s say.
Cinema is remarkably democratic in that it shows us the bodies of human beings whom we instantly recognize, with all the moral and intellectual consequences that follow from that knowledge. But it is also aristocratic, in that it privileges stories which are impressive by reason of being unusual — we generally look for great beauty, great power, or great achievements in stories. Or at any rate, cinema inevitably produces celebrities, the most obvious form of inequality in America.
Cinema today is what books used to be in America. To define the thing by the work it does characteristically is to see that movies, like books or literature previously, are our poetry — our making up stories about the things that most interest us. Our poetry is defined by a concern with the wholeness of life or human action. This is not to say that the highest purpose of cinema is the only purpose — I start there because it is needful to do so in our times. I remind you of Tocqueville’s statement that poetry in democratic times is bound to lose its ambition. The greatest things somehow slip from view without our noticing it. So, what is typical of our situation is that cinema has overrun our lives while at the same time its every claim to consideration is collapsing.
In this generation, music videos, television, internet-based series, and advertising have gradually taken on the polish of cinema — talent from cinema — and even the feel of cinema. Come to think of it, computer games are also full of cinematic events and a realism that is increasingly derivative of cinema. Maybe graphic novels are immune to cinema, though by no means always.
All these changes and innovations, however, do not spell a glorious future for cinema. We are not talking conquest here. It’s not clear that cinema itself has any future, faced with the new technologies that can connect computer animation with digital recording on a phone and the peculiarly half-real actions which our internet-connected screens make possible. Should America be faced with a social revolution, everything you are about to hear will suddenly be obsolete, unless some kind of theoretical insight should work its way through the observations and arguments I will present to you. I justify the insistence on the greatness of cinema partly to explain why it is so imitated, but partly to explain something about American society.
I should also say that my statements are intended to include both the exceptional and the typical; to hold true both in the case of what we can know about greatness in American cinema and how cinema works most of the time, including now. Whatever the next form of poetry is going to be, it will have to square with the requirements of poetry as such, which are perfectly obvious in the case of cinema, at least if civilization endures. You may think of this as a minority opinion, but I hew to it, and it is venerable: It is not possible to have civilization without poetry.
Now, we come to understand things in terms of their being and their power. The power of cinema is to teach justice, ultimately, in both its moral and intellectual components. Who can look at a few favored American films and not learn what Americans think of justice? Who can find many favored films which break away from the American opinion concerning justice? Americans going to the movies know what they want and they expect to get it — they want to see characters get what they deserve.
So much for the society. Let us turn briefly to the man. It is true that we are curious animals. Curiosity, one of the lesser vices, is what gets us going to the movies, if not boredom. But it is also true that we have recourse to stories because we are dissatisfied — both with our experience, each of us a private man, and with the abstract statements that dominate our public life. Each one of us may abandon some of his dignity for the sake of believing what “studies show” — but that authority does not carry over into the secret councils of our hearts. There, other things reveal themselves, which lead us to the movies rather than to dedicate ourselves to scientific control for a successful life. Our lives are massively deficient when it comes to being reasonable.
Poetry deals with our deficiencies of reason — we usually find it easier to tell a story than to define a thing. Poetry also gives remarkable power to our reason — in defying the categories and classifications by which we reason about our affairs, poetry makes it possible to begin to wonder about what we think and why. It is therefore in the basics or even the primitive powers of cinema that a philosophic inquiry becomes possible.
Reflecting on how things appear to us, which is what movies show us, can be a beginning point for philosophy, one that is of great importance for all of us now, because it takes our human perspective seriously instead of replacing it with some kind of public or theoretic authoritative perspective. We do not merely see ourselves at the movies — more importantly, we see in the way that we as human beings do see the world, if we but dare take it seriously.
This is Part I of a five-part series. Part II will be published tomorrow.