Films: bad for your perceptions of reality?
by Robin Ince
17 December 2003
It's all too easy to forget the true meaning of Christmas - watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade while desperately trying not to barf up 20 pounds of turkey, roast potatoes and Quality Street - and end up going to church or something.
But have you ever stopped to consider the harm that watching too many films might do you?
Not in the sense that watching violent films makes you violent, or even that you're doing irreparable damage to eyes by sitting too close to the screen. No - we're suggesting that films distort your understanding of life in general. Take these popular themes of films, and ask yourself - just how far from real life can you get?
You can achieve redemption and atonement...
Many films contain the idea of redemption and atonement. Take Zulu. One character is a feckless drunk and a waster. Fortunately, he's stuck at the battle of Rourke's Drift, and gets the chance to redeem himself by bayoneting lots of Zulus. Or Han Solo. He's a look-after-number-one guy - until he redeems himself by sending Darth Vader's TIE fighter spinning off into space and letting Luke get a clear shot at the Death Star's power source.
But think about it - when was the last time you got the chance to either atone for your sins or find redemption? The biggest opportunity for redemption most of us get is feebly telling someone 'Sorry I couldn't make it to your birthday party'. And even then, what we meant is, 'Because it was a bit too far away and I couldn't really be bothered and I wouldn't have known that many people anyway.'
Arguments are both meaningful and conclusive...
'You ask for it.'
'And I bloody well get it, don't I?'
This exchange between Ruth Ellis and her abusive lover in Dance With a Stranger perfectly sums up how arguments are misrepresented in film. This exchange is pithy and clever.
Contrast it with real life arguments, which tend to run more along the lines of:
'I don't know what you're getting on at me for... for fuck's sake... I mean, just, fuck it. I'm going to bed. Yeah.'
'Oh right, yeah well that's right isn't it? You just fucking do whatever you want. I don't care.'
Not the stuff of Oscar-winning scripts.
The other great film fib about arguments is that they have some sort of conclusion. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is essentially one long, vicious, personal argument, but it does lead to some sort of closure and suggests that Martha and George can finally begin to move forward in their lives. Contrast this with the most trivial of real-life arguments, e.g. querying bank charges. You may be completely morally right when you complain about being charged £20 because you temporarily went £10 overdrawn. But is it going to cut any ice with a suicidally-bored call centre operative in Dumfries who's a microscopic cog in a faceless multinational? No.
Struggle comes to an end...
Films are realistic insofar as they portray life as a struggle. But films tend to focus on cut-and-dried struggles like finding the Ark of the Covenant, escaping from a giant monkey or saving your mermaid girlfriend from the US government.
However, no film to date has tackled the problem that life is - in most cases - a struggle without end. Film heroes and heroines tend to be focused on one goal; once it is attained, some sort of contentment is found, especially since by the end of the film you're probably shagging Fay Wray / Colin Firth / Princess Leia (unless she's your sister. Perhaps we shouldn't delve too deeply into what happened AFTER Star Wars and BEFORE Luke and Leia found out they were brother and sister in Return of the Jedi).
But real life consists not of one big struggle, but hundreds of thousands of tiny ones. If films were a bit more realistic, the characters from Star Wars would defeat the Empire, only to find the Millennium Falcon needed a new clutch and gearbox and it was going to cost five million credits, and the rent on the rebel base on Hoth is two months late, and the Ewoks need cleaning out, and Wedge has been living on Han and Leia's sofa for six weeks now and he hasn't lifted a finger round the house, etc etc etc.
The system can be defeated...
Examples of the system being defeated are almost too numerous to mention: the Empire is defeated; Erin Brockovitch finally gets justice; the US/UK wins the war; Mordor is destroyed; even the bloke in Ken Loach's Raining Stones manages to escape the attentions of the brutal debt collector after the guy crashes his car.
But ask yourself: when was the last time you beat the system in real life? Have you ever tried not paying an outstanding mobile phone bill for £33.51, hoping they'll write it off? They will not. The Carphone Warehouse will HUNT YOU DOWN LIKE AN ANIMAL, trust us. Or have you ever tried querying an excessive electricity bill? By the time you've actually spoken to someone who even knows what you're talking about, you'll have spent so much on your phone bill you might as well just have bought your own generator.
Other people's opinions can be changed with impassioned speech...
In films an impassioned speech will invariably change people's minds. Look at It's a Wonderful Life or countless others. Now try expressing your heartfelt feelings of injustice at being fined during a rail journey because you lost your travelcard. It makes not a jot of difference, the fucking Nazis.