There isn’t just one reason that people watch movies. Individuals have different reasons for doing anything; movies are no different. Take my dad, for example. He’s not a huge movie person. Getting him to sit down long enough to watch anything more lengthy than an episode of “The Three Stooges” is considered a Vatican-certified miracle. Just like anyone, though, he has a few favorite movies that he will watch over and over. I’ve noticed that most of the movies share a couple common themes, not limited to:
-Awesome airplane scenes.
-Really, really boring dialogue.
-War, but not the lame action movie type war with too many explosions. Strategic war.
-Characters with a strong moral compass. No moral ambiguity for this man. No steamy affairs, heavy drug use, or shady salesman techniques will be excused when my Dad’s watching a movie.
-Bizarre situations concerning in-laws.
-Cats dying in comical ways.
These themes are reflected in a lot of his favorite movies: 12 O’Clock High, Tora Tora Tora, Chevy Chase’s Vacation and Christmas Vacation, Airplane, Lonesome Dove, The Ten Commandments, Kujo (for some reason). So my dad, being the morally upstanding yet comedically bizarre pilot he is, enjoys movies that validate the way he views the world. I’m kind of the same way; I watch movies because, in a way, I like feeling like someone understands me. I don’t think this position is unique, but I also don’t think it’s the only reason everyone watches movies.
Take early films. A lot of comedy, some melodrama, nothing too deep (in most cases). Early movies, meant for the lower classes, provided an escape from daily reality for a lot of people. People working hard and living a hard life don’t really want to go see something that is trying to reach a way deeper meaning; they just want to be entertained. A lot of parallels can be drawn to Bollywood now. In India this summer, I noticed that most of the Tamil films that were released contained a few crucial elements: catchy song and dance, romance, comedy, and ridiculous drama. Theaters there are relatively inexpensive, and a lot of the time serve as a release for the lower classes who are living very difficult lives. Someone who spends all day worrying about their sick child and laying bricks does not usually want to see an in-depth film about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes, people just need to be removed from reality for a while. These films definitely still exist in the United States as well; I don’t think anyone’s going to see Jackass 2 with high hopes of being enlightened.
From my standpoint, though, modern cinema (and most of what would be considered “good” cinema from the past) aims to do one of two things: criticize an aspect of society, or make the viewer feel alive. Gone with the Wind doesn’t necessarily criticize society all that well (apart from some nostalgic scenes of the “good ol’ days,” but the sweeping, colorful scenes and emotionally tense plot make the viewer feel as if they themselves are living on Tara and trying to squeeze into an 18 inch corset. Movies like Clockwork Orange and Soylent Green use scare tactics and psychological elements to criticize the current society, with less focus on the feelings of the main character and more focus on the events occuring in the story. Making the viewer feel as if they are really experiencing life, as if they have fought in the Vietnam war or lost a child to a desperate cause, is a crucial element of “good” modern cinema. If the viewer doesn’t have a dramatic emotional connection with the movie, the movie just doesn’t stick.
The perceived security of the society we live in mandates that people must seek outside sources of humanity. Simply put, people in the United States now generally live comfortable lives. We know where our next meal is coming from, we have shelter, and we have some sort of political voice. Movies, with their dramatic endings and unfortunate characters, help us to feel empathy toward people we deem less fortunate. Slumdog Millionaire, for example– you mean they really live like that? In those houses? And there’s so many of them doing it? They must be really living life, then. To know what really struggle is– that’s really living life.