RSS’s Director, Robert Livingston, reflects on the, sometimes surprising, power of cinema

Last Friday, on my day off, I did something deliciously decadent and went, by myself, to a mid-day screening of Black Widow at my local Vue. I was late to the party for this particular film, which had been on release for several weeks, so it’s not surprising that there were only five of us in the auditorium (so no worries about distancing). And while Black Widow is thoroughly enjoyable—I warmed to its particular mashup of a Bond film crossed with The Incredibles—I wouldn’t place it in my top three Marvel Cinematic Universe titles (should you ask, they are Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Endgame).

So taking all that into account, why did I feel so well when I left the cinema? I felt I was standing more upright, moving more purposefully, being more aware of my surroundings, and just feeling good. And that feeling lasted all the way home. I should stress it wasn’t anything as crude as thinking I was myself a superhero, and driving off in my ancient Subaru as if it was the Millennium Falcon.  No, it was somehow more basic than that. And this feeling needn’t be directly related to the perceived quality of the film. I first became aware of it after Captain America: Civil War, and even while watching that film I was thinking ‘this is not Marvel at their best’.

In the interest of fairness I should of course say that other superhero franchises are available, and indeed I only have to think of the scene in the first Wonder Woman where Diana goes over the top into no man’s land to feel my heart starting to beat faster.

It turns out there is something of a scientific basis for this. Academic papers have been written on how, when we’re watching a dance performance, activity in our brain is mirroring what we’re watching as if we were ourselves moving, even though we’re sitting still in our seats. I guess much the same happens with superhero movies, and I think this visual aspect is often under-rated when assessing this genre (especially if you’re Martin Scorsese), and also other films heavy on visual effects.

But it’s an impact that needs the cinema experience to work its magic. The film which first drew me into the MCU was Avengers Assemble, and no matter how preposterous, on almost every level, the final Battle of New York is, Director Joss Whedon turns it into a visually ravishing, almost graceful, ballet. But that’s a reaction I found hard to recapture when watching the film at home.

The first film we saw when cinemas reopened was Nomadland, and I can’t think of a better film to celebrate the easing of lockdown (Screen Machine audiences clearly thought so too), with its themes of community, loss, and reviewing what’s important in your life. But, important as these themes are, what makes the film work is how they are set against the incredible, often inhospitable, widescreen landscapes. You need to be in a cinema to experience that.

Of course, this is simply how I react to film, and why for me the visual aspect is so important. It’s why I love animations so much: from Ghost in the Shell to Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, no matter how ludicrous the storylines, it’s the sheer visual exuberance and inventiveness that draw me in, just as most operas have ridiculous plots, but those are only frameworks on which to hang glorious music.

Anyone who listens to Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, on BBC5 Live, or as a podcast, will be familiar with the frequently occurring situation where Mark Kermode takes a negative view of a film, only to receive a torrent of emails from people explaining how that film connected with them personally, and touched something deep within them, whether to do with parenthood, bereavement, or relationships. And then Kermode always quotes the great critic Roger Ebert: ‘movies are like a machine that generates empathy’. Since cinemas have reopened, the programme has also received many emails from parents who have at last been able to take their young kids to their first, long-delayed, cinema experience. Clearly, nothing beats sharing your children’s excitement at that first taste of the big screen. And in all those cases, those personal reactions are not related to any objective, critical assessment of how good the particular movie is.

Kermode is also very interesting when he tries to explain how he reacts to his favourite genre, horror. Scenes that would give me nightmares for weeks—perhaps years—seem to induce in him a feeling of wellbeing similar to what I get from Marvel films. And of course he always stresses that the folk who make horror films are the nicest people you could hope to meet!

So, in these troubled, uncertain times, I think cinema not only has a place, it’s of crucial importance, as a way of bringing us together in a safe space where we can have experiences—whether as a family or a group of friends or, like me at Black Widow, on our own—that will touch, move, and perhaps change us, sometimes in ways we don’t expect.

Robert Livingston

August 2021

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