Hooked to the Silver Screen: Why is the allure of visual entertainment an enduring force?

The subtle attraction of the screen is like an addiction for many, but do we really want a cure?

As we race along history’s line towards the quarter century mark of an already aging millennium it is becoming more tempting to escape into fiction. Why is that? Why is the allure of cinema, and even in its golden age, television, so strong? Is it because we are surrounded by obvious and not so obvious crises that so effortlessly stack up against each other? Tragedy placed on top of tragedy that slowly create an eclipsing tower of doubt that we can never hope to climb. Political monsters clamouring for possession of our hearts and minds, ever eager to devour our votes. Rampant warfare that is a virtual corporate venture, creating billions of jobs and stabilising a national economy. The list of woe could go on.

It’s a truth that this future is no more dangerous than its past ever was, something that we can witness when we possess the right oracular tools that enable us to do so. Stepping through the glittering parade of images presented in any movie that was, or ever will be, we can more easily identify the truths of our own reality. Not that this is the reason we do it, of course, not consciously anyway. There is something comforting about taking ourselves away from our own lives, depositing ourselves for a few ignorant hours in someone else’s story. We switch off and become willing participants of that story, those character arcs, the journey to a neat (or if we’re talking about Christopher Nolan’s films, sometimes perplexing), conclusion.

As Rutger Hauer’s impassioned replicant Roy Batty once stated in his infamous Blade Runner (1982) monologue, “I’ve seen things”. Sitting huddled in a boat behind the unfortunate Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) (spoilers for a film that was released in 1972), I watch silently as he is slain upon the tranquil waters of Lake Tahoe. Flash forward and I wince as the unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton) of Fight Club (1999) lands a solid blow against Tyler Durden’s (Brad Pitt) ear. Flash backwards and I struggle to watch impassively as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) listens to a fellow inmate blubber his way to a beating within the solid walls of Shawshank Correctional Facility.

In my mind, as I watch, I am there, just as I was there when Kennedy caught the raw end of a conspiracy bullet in Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). But in truth, you and I both know that I wasn’t there, not really. Just like you weren’t there when a toy cowboy yelled at a toy spaceman about the folly of his existential dilemma. The enduring power of cinema is such that it renders us all temporal tourists, granting us the ability to flit between these celluloid fantasies with ease and believe that we too have seen things.

Perhaps it is as Elon Musk hypothesises and we are currently residing in someone else’s movie, an entertainment simulation for some advanced species. Do they shift, as we do, between the different stories of all of our ages? Do they witness what we do to each other and smirk at our ineptitude to see the bigger picture? WWI, II and (maybe) III? Tsk tsk. All of that exposition gathering outside of the frame of our own perception. Probably, we will never know. Probably, we will end as poor Fredo did, sitting alone in a tiny boat, waiting for a bullet.

But that’s okay. It’s totally fine. Because, while they are watching us, we are watching someone else, watching their joy, their sadness, their hope and their despair. We are whisked high on the dreams of the auteurs and the blockbuster directors, allowing them to remove our thoughts far from the perils of humanity. That is really what those flickering images have always done for us, given us an escape, an exit strategy from ourselves, and therein lies the baited hook that we will never not bite. Isn’t that an illusion worth clinging to? Just for another couple of hours. Another few seasons. For the rest of our lives.

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