Human beings seem to be put together in such a way that no matter how extensive and ironclad their experience, it is never sufficient to dash their hopes. On the whole, this is of course a fortunate thing. But sometimes experience does take its toll. After all, when we are now repeatedly told (Presidentially no less) that “after September 11 things will never be the same,” that things have “forever changed,” no one really believes it – nor should they. People want to believe, but they cannot.

We have been hearing about things changing “forever more” since at least the “war to end all wars.” And there is a self-defeating irony in the fact that one thing that remains, seemingly immutable, is the statement itself, asserted by many/believed by few, that “things will never be the same.” The relation between cinema and reality did not change on September 11. For that to have occurred the nature of cinematic spectatorship – the bases of cinematic pleasures – would have to have changed. This in turn would have had to entail an alteration in the affective and cognitive make-up of moviegoers. Not likely.

It is true that September 11 generated sensitivity among consumers and producers about the content of certain films – action and horror in particular. Film releases were postponed, TV programming was altered (temporarily) and the like. None of this was surprising, and none of it will last. Cinema has played a varied (good and bad) role in both conditioning and helping people to emotionally apprehend and intellectually understand terror, violence and war. What can one expect since, after all, cinema obfuscates at least as much as it clarifies – emotionally and intellectually. But what drives cinema are the sources of cinematic pleasure and the pleasures themselves. These pleasures may help us to apprehend and understand such horrors, but they can only do so if they are entertaining. Particular films may be ideologically driven, but cinema can never be.

Let’s consider the “winds of change.” The New York Times (November 8, 2001) reports:

Several dozen top executives in the film and television industry plan to meet on Sunday morning with Karl Rove, a senior White House adviser, to discuss what Hollywood can do to aid the war effort … Several executives emphasized today that they were not interested in making propaganda films. But perhaps, they said, Hollywood could produce something like “Why We Fight,” a documentary series made by Frank Capra during World War II, or public service announcements on topics like germ warfare and homeland security. During World War II, Hollywood filmmakers made some of the cinema’s most celebrated war documentaries, including John Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” John Ford’s “December 7th” and William Wyler’s “Memphis Belle,” but such foxhole-level access seems unlikely in the current conflict. Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America … said he would not object to Hollywood making the kind of patriotic war movies that characterized the early years of World War II … “I think if it’s a good story, compellingly told, it is entirely appropriate to see movies that show the heroism of American armed forces.”

Does any of this suggest a sea change in terms of the relation between cinema and reality? Undoubtedly, the horrors as well as the heroisms of Sept 11 will themselves be depicted in new movies – many crass, exploitative and moving – and some (fewer) intelligent, insightful and moving. That is what film does. But all that this can do, as September 11 itself did, is to reinforce the problematic relation between cinema and reality. It is a relation that cinema cannot alter, though it can perhaps explore. The cinema is often associated with a god’s eye view, and yet the nature of the relation represents a blind spot – something cognitively impenetrable and out of bounds – to cinema’s eye.

Suppose some of the following features, psychoanalytically conceived, are (by themselves or in combination) essential to understanding cinematic spectatorship, and especially to enjoying movies; voyeurism, fetishism, masochism, sadism, and various other perversions. Suppose, further, that these are essential to accounting for the other basic psychoanalytic categories like phantasy, projections, introjections, denial, defense, repression etc. If so, then any attempt to do away with these features (for example, to rid cinema of voyeuristic pleasure and the like) must result in a cinema that, whatever considerable merits it may have, will fail to entertain. Of course one must be careful to distinguish sadism and masochism etc. as nosological categories in psychoanalysis, and as dispositions that may become mobilised transiently in people while watching movies who would not be classified as sadists by psychoanalysts or psychiatrists.

There is, I think, something insidious in the idea that Sept 11 has changed, or could change, the relation between cinema and reality. Such a supposition is not really a soul-searching about the effects of certain kinds of movies. Instead, it may be evidence of a kind of professional (and hence also personal) narcissism on the part of an industry in love with itself, its power and its money. The narcissistic idea is not that September 11 could possibly change anything, but that (omnipotently/phantastically) the cinema (and those in it) can and will change reality – perhaps by further getting life to imitate art or what passes for art. I need to get Wag the Dog out on video.

About The Author

Michael Levine lectures in the Department of Philosophy, University of Western Australia.

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