Book Review – The Power of Movies


Now there is only one exercise left for the whole module I decided to upload some of the reviews about books I’d read. Starting with The Power of Movies by Colin McGinn. I decided to purchase this book after enjoying the exercise on the Mosjukhin experiment and the power of the mind in perceiving emotions not necessarily being conveyed. Nonetheless it was a disappointing read. If I had purely picked this up in a library I wouldn’t have progressed beyond chapter two. As it was for degree work I persevered and whilst there were a few interesting points (mostly from other sources) any gems of information were lost in a bulk of flat and monotonous writing.

It started well, the forward was interesting and I was intrigued to find more about the relationship between dreams and the movies but my interest and concentration waned almost instantaneously. McGinn asked so many questions it almost felt like he had no answers and was doing this purely as a way to bulk out the book, in addition to this he asked the same question over again in as many different ways as the thesaurus would allow . The entire way through I had the question ‘Why are movies so powerful’ but this answer never materialised and I realised I would be searching other sources to discover the answer.

The influx of questions would have been bearable if not for the way he consistently expressed the same view in multiple ways. For instance, he stated the fact that when we watch a movie in the cinema we know that the actor isn’t actually in the room with us, we know it’s not real and we know that the battle we are watching isn’t actually happening. And yes, it was fine to express this but to span it over two pages was pushing it. Then consistently referring to it throughout the book was unnecessary, even children can understand the characters are not actually in the cinema with them (it would be quite a palaver if they were) That said despite all this incessant repetition he failed to mention that in 1895 the Lumière brothers film (L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat) featuring a train arriving at the station sent the audience into mass panic. “The spectators ran out of the hall in terror because the locomotive headed right for them. They feared that it could plunge off the screen and onto them.”

I was interested to read the quote by editor and sound designer Walter Murch “The screen is not a surface, it is a magic window, sort of looking glass through which your whole body passes and becomes engaged in the action with the characters on the screen” A beautiful quote and one which really encompasses the feeling of watching a movie. It does feel like one has been transported to a new level. However, McGinn decided to elaborate on this even though more is less. The following dozen or so pages were filled with a list of things that one could look through. The obsession with the minutiae was painful. Through the density of the pages, I managed to pick up the following statements which interested me.

“The endless visual fascination of water in motion is mirrored in the fascination of the screen which indeed can create an oceanic aspect. It is as if we are seeing water through water” This is a very interesting statement and the more one thinks about it does feel like you are peering through the water. That said, I do prefer the window statement as it expresses how one feels to leave the cinema seat when watching movies and being engaged in them.

“The mid twentieth-century pessimism about the future of cinema, which foresaw a future ruled by television overlooked the perennial human urge- at least as old as language itself – to leave the home and assemble in the fire-lit dark with like-minded strangers to listen to stories” This primeval urge appealed to me, we do see faces and stories in the fires and it brings connotations of the ancient times, far back as prehistory with images of the elders gathered around the fire (such as the scene in Pochahontus” telling stories of fearsome beasts, heroic tales and moral lessons. A movie is essentially the story you see in your mind visualised on the big screen.

In the book, McGinn started exploring the more graphic aspects of movie psychology, comparing watching a movie to a voyeurism felt sickening and unnecessary. In a world of psychology dominated by Freud it seems natural to have opinions such as this but to me, they felt tasteless. A movie is not an act of voyeurism, it is to engage in a world that is not your own, to enjoy a story, celebrate or commiserate with the main characters, not like voyeurism.

What I was especially intrigued by the relationship between dreams and movies, however this wasn’t looked into until half way through the book. This though was packed with insight, the author came into his own and you could see he had great knowledge on the part and had a real passion. I decided to look at this in another  blog post though associated with dreams and movies. Here

So in conclusion of this review, I bought this book to help answer my questions but ended up having more questions than I had before and even fewer answers. Whilst there were good points they were buried deep in the recesses of the book and one had to wade through excessive statements before finding them, it had the promise to be interesting and thought provoking but his obsession with the minutiae was exhaustible and painful.




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