IN "The Power of Movies," philosopher Colin McGinn sets out to discover why movies are compelling to so many. He argues that movies and the mind seem to be made for one another, that we like movies because we are wired to do so. If only he could provide some empirical evidence for this view, it would be very good news for the film industry indeed.
Instead, the Rutgers University professor and author of such books as "Mindsight: Image, Dream, Meaning" offers concise, well-written arguments about how movies might work and about other experiences that might be similar to that of watching a film. He analyzes how we pay attention to films and he describes viewers as looking through the screen to a world beyond. The screen is there to be transcended, he argues, to allow us to exercise our imagination, as if we are looking through the flickering light into another world.
"Movies offer us a transformed reality in which the body is stripped of its material bonds and becomes united with our essential nature as centers of consciousness," McGinn writes. In an actor's screen presence, McGinn claims, we see the psyche, the essence of the person. In the cinematic close-up of the face, we are given access to the "true lineaments of the soul beneath." Although McGinn confesses to a weakness for movies featuring the "suitably attired" actress Denise Richards, he believes that we are naturally alienated from our bodies and find people's essence to be their minds.
The author notes that movies transfigure photographic images of the real world for psychological purposes. That's a fancy way of saying that movies arrange bits of reality into stories that give us pleasure. There is an inherent pleasure in this "imaginative seeing," perhaps because it allows us to become voyeurs. We can gaze into intimate spaces without being seen.
McGinn doesn't ask who is doing the looking. Do women feel differently than men about this voyeuristic position? Do people watching movies in Senegal see visual stories in the same way as people in Queens? The philosopher isn't interested in these questions because he is looking for essential structures of the mind. Do some films offer different pleasures or incentives than others? Do some film genres demand different kinds of looking? These questions are not on this writer's mind; instead, he contends that any movie has power over any person in any situation.
McGinn finds an analogy to the cinematic experience in dreams. "The 'grammar' of films recapitulates the 'grammar' of dreams which is written into the genes," he writes. Because films work on the same parts of the brain, when we let ourselves be swept away by a movie, he argues, it is like sleeping through a dream. On the basis of this analogy McGinn even offers philosophical advice to filmmakers: Movies should be about the soul! Don't make the films too intellectual! Use your imagination!
McGinn's dream analogy doesn't explain why a particular film works for a particular audience. But it dovetails with McGinn's preferred way of watching movies: He wants to relax, to feel his imagination at play without thinking about it, and not to have to work too hard at following the story. With this book, he thinks he has explained why his cinematic desires are natural and universal. Dream on.
Michael S. Roth is president of California College of the Arts and author of "The Ironist's Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History."