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September 17, 2004

The Darkness of the Matinee

When we gaze at a painting, our eyes see exactly what the painter has created on the canvas. We see it for as long as we keep gazing. Our interpretation of the image may be different than someone else’s, and it will no doubt conjure up different memories, ideas, and feelings that depend on our own experiences, but the painting always stays the same. It never changes. The same is true of music, literature, and theater.

When we watch a film, however, the process of viewing becomes uniquely subjective. Because film relies on the ability of our brain to create motion from a series of still images, known as the Phi Phenomenon, it is different from the other art forms. For example, when the alien ship descends on Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind it does so only in our minds! To go back to painting, it would be akin to walking through an art gallery and constructing a narrative based on the progression of paintings that adorn the walls. Film is our imagination at work. Without us, a film wouldn’t exist as anything other than a series of photographs. It’s strangely fascinating then to think about how our minds operate and how involved we are in the films we watch, because while it’s amazing to know that we can create a UFO landing, isn’t it also scary to think that we can create wars and commit crimes?

When we watch a film in the theater, we spend up to half the time in total darkness. What a weird kind of entertainment. We spend nine dollars to see a two hour film during which we see actual images for maybe seventy minutes and see nothing for the other fifty. And we don’t notice! We don’t notice because our brains are still functioning, still creating motion, still creating film, and our eyes still see images which are no longer there. Does this mean, perhaps, that up to fifty percent of a film is entirely subjective? And I’m not talking about interpretation, but about what we actual “see” on the screen! If so, then, although our brains all work in a similar way, I could have seen a much different film than everyone else, even in the same theater audience. No wonder we can sometimes argue about films without ever getting anywhere! We’re not arguing about the same thing.

Imagine reading a book with only half the sentences on a page. Imagine having to fill in the rest of the sentences for it to make sense. What if Shakespeare only wrote the First, Third, and Fourth Acts of his plays? Would it make sense? I don’t know, but probably not. But that’s what cinema is. It’s an incomplete work of art, in a sense. And every time you sit down and watch a film, you are not simply a spectator. You become a filmmaker.


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