Much is made of cinema’s dual purpose of being both a reflection of our own lives, and also place to which to escape into fantasies. We can see aspects of our existences projected onto the big screen, writ large for us to ponder and weigh. And we can experience people and places and events that we never could in the real world. There is a need for cinema to do this: it brings us closer to a truth about who we are, and it also takes us further from who we could ever hope to be. This duality is the twin core of cinema. But, wavering between these two central poles of film, is a third concept. Not a reflection of our lives; nor a wish-fulfilment of a life we could never have; but a glimpse at a world we would never want for ourselves, would never experience, but could.
I am, at heart, a pacifist. Neither of my grandfathers was in the war (necessary home front careers) and nor have any other close family members. And yet I’m innately fascinated by war stories. I watched cancelled TV series The Unit, which followed a team of US special special op agents on various ultra-covert missions. Created by David Mamet, it had a style, and a vision which I liked. Yet the underlying message, the lack of answerability these men had, the naturally conspiratorial actions were opposed to what I felt might be right. War as a whole I find disagreeable, yet a good war film, which shows not necessarily just the heroism, but also the grim reality of war, affects me in a way that I would never have thought feasible. I never want to actually go to war. I never want to be stuck in a field, cold, wet, waiting for hours on end for the enemy to make a mistake. I don’t even want the glory of the victor, the triumphant hero’s return, the knowledge that I’ve defended my country, because I know at what cost it will have come. But, when it’s up there on screen, it is beguilingly easy to imagine oneself doing that.
In the same vein as, but on a smaller scale than, war films, are fighting films. Wrestling, boxing… I can never see it as something that would interest me: I don’t watch boxing or wrestling for fun, nor do I partake of it as a leisure activity. But, again, on screen, it’s gold. The story, the situation, it works cinematically, and serves to tempt one in. War films, or boxing films, might not be the thing that draws you in against your expectations. You may have a crippling fear of performance and the very idea of actually being in a musical fills your veins with ice and your head with cotton wool. But watch a musical, and you unexpectedly find yourself tapping along, or humming bar or two of the tunes. It’s curious sensation: the desire to do something you know you do not desire to do. And that is cinema’s power: it plants within us a brain-twisting feeling that we can do the impossible. Not the literally impossible, but that which is impossible to us. Film transcends the story: I have no interest in Formula 1 racing, but Senna was utterly gripping. That being said, it didn’t make me want to become a racing driver.
Anything that has the power to demonstrate this cinematic sleight of hand deserves our attention and our respect. In the moment, when watching The Thin Red Line, or Rocky, or Somebody Up There Likes Me or The Hurt Locker, there is something counter intuitively appealing about what is happening that it takes over your own hopes and desires, for just that moment, and replaces them with those on screen. Maybe I’m too empathic a person that I map myself over the film. Perhaps it’s how I personally connect with a film. But I’d be curious to know if I’m alone in this or not. I’ll be seeing Warrior next week. I’ll come out fighting.