Used to be that hidden in the dark of a movie theater full of anonymous fellow travelers, we could get lost in dreams and nightmares, sometimes wildly fantastic, sometimes as real as right now. Watching bigger-than-life realities up there on the movie screen made us vicarious participants: We could submerge ourselves in cinematic fictions, hungry for transformation and enlightenment, without fear of drowning.
But these days, the flickers, so promiscuously accessible in portable frames and big-screen rec rooms, have lost a good deal of that private, privileged magic. Like Aldous Huxley’s soma, cinema’s served up to everyone anytime anywhere. Often, the stuff it’s made of tastes more like sugary escapism than spicy significance. Ironically, breaking news—planes flying into skyscrapers, a real-life orange-haired Joker—has come to look like figments from the fertile imagination of Michael Bay or Christopher Nolan.
So does the Hollywood Dream Factory aim to help us embrace or escape our everyday lives? Do current movies mirror our deepest fears and hopes? Or is our multiplex entertainment designed to distract us from discomfiting reality?
Remember back in 2009, when Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds turned the silver screen into a fiery weapon of vengeance against primal evil? In QT’s rich imagination, the movies are powerful enough to rewrite history. Yet, recently one studio felt compelled to change the title of its forthcoming comedy Neighborhood Watch to guard against potential ticket buyers being reminded of the George Zimmerman–Trayvon Martin shooting.
Even more recently, during a screening of the latest—and bleakest—chapter of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a man began firing nonstop into a Colorado movie audience. Coincidentally, that same evening a preview was running for another soon-to-be-released film, Gangster Squad, featuring a shootout in a crowded theater. The entire ending had to be excised and reshot so as not to disturb presumably traumatized moviegoers. As a poet once opined, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
The ticklish tension between screen visions and voyeuristic dreamers, between movie-made fictions and crazy offscreen plots, has long intrigued great directors, from Buster Keaton to Alfred Hitchcock to David Cronenberg to the previously mentioned Tarantino. Probably not a smart idea—in service of good art or mental health—to doctor our movies so that they look better than life, scoured of any images that conjure actual unpleasant events. Especially when news coverage of such events repeats the same pictures over and over and over, until all emotional impact is leeched away.