How cinema can change the world

Rupert Read, Philosopher at the University of East Anglia and Chair of think tank Green House, discusses his new book, ‘A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment’, and how films can play a vital role in helping people envision and bring about change in the world.

A cinema audience facing the screen
A cinema audience facing the screen
Rupert Read
Mon 17 Dec 2018

Film is the great popular artform of our time. It may not always be – perhaps it might be displaced by interactive games of some sort, at some point – but right now, it is.

Artistic representations, if they are good enough and powerful enough, can catalyse. They can impact our worldview, by changing how something is conceptualized and presenting it in the context of an actual life, which abstract thinking on its own cannot do.

The very future of our living planet is linked to the possibility of evolving attitudes towards our place in it. Film, as the great mass medium of our time, may turn out to have a vital part to play, if there is to be a future for us. My new book, ‘A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment’, seeks to indicate some of the dimensions of that part, that task – and to begin to pursue it.

How did I choose the films that appear in my book? One criterion is that the films I chose had to be understandable as philosophically and ecologically relevant and impressive. Another, to be honest, is that I had to like them and had to have something original to say about them. Otherwise, I couldn’t have devoted the deep time and energy to working on them, and in any case doing so wouldn’t have been worthwhile. I believe that each one of the 12 films I discuss has something unique to offer, and that I have something unique to say about that offering.

The films I’ve looked at in the book are, we might venture to say, designed or destined to bring about a personal or interpersonal, philosophical and even political aware-ing, by means of which we no longer take ourselves to be superior to or alienated from the rest of life. This process of becoming aware, conscious, is a true freedom (from dogmas in which we are drowning, from the ‘heteronomy’ that rules us), including a freedom from the hegemonic fantasies of freedom itself, fantasies that are killing us: consumeristic, individualistic, ‘progressive’ fantasies, that rule our world.

The films that I chose to discuss address, as I see them, important features of our time in its heart of darkness, in a manner that essentially includes the viewer. They do not (in the main) lecture or didacticize; they facilitate an open-ended experience of growing wisdom, and of ethical and indeed political engagement.

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Reels of film

 

Every one of the 12 films I explore in the book makes its most important contribution of all by enabling a possible liberation through an experience: such as the kinds of consciousness-shift that come, to an open mind, at the end of Waltz with Bashir, Apocalypto, Hiroshima, Melancholia, 2001, Gravity and Avatar; or the kinds of perspective by way of ‘impossible’ nightmare that are afforded variously by Never Let Me Go, The Road, Marienbad, Solaris and The Lord of the Rings. If we experience those experiences together (especially in a cinema), so very much the better; and yet they must be our own. You cannot outsource philosophical work to another person.

Some of the films I look at, such as Melancholia and The Road, emphasise how the very worst that we can do to our world, and to each other, can nevertheless bring out something wonderful in us. It’s as if disaster brings out the more beautiful us we know is possible. It gives us the ‘excuse’ we apparently crave, the unwelcome but necessary nudge we need, to become human. This is what we must hope will happen as the rising tide of climate disasters hits us in years to come.

Other films I’d love to have discussed in my book include Son of Saul, Persona and the Hunger Games trilogy. I also talk briefly in the book about one or two films that I think are dangerous and highly problematic, films that oppose the spirit of the films I have focused on. My leading example here is Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi film. My reading of this film is that it is (besides being philosophically incoherent, in terms of its ludicrous time-travel narrative) anti-ecological and thought-narrowing. If I’d have had more space, I’d have loved to have gone into that in more detail.

Finally, I’d add that what connects all the 12 films I have focused upon most obviously is their common interest in trauma. This interest is present even in the one film where it is perhaps not obvious – in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where I argued for its presence in HAL’s experience. In nine of the films, there is also a strong interest in recovery, figured as re-emergence, as an awakening and as real freedom. (In Last year in Marienbad, Never Let Me Go and (I argue) Solaris, that interest is absent, but profoundly absent; present, we might say, by way of its absence.)

But, it might be asked, how can we know if films are really capable of changing people in the way that I posit in this book?

One way to know this is with actual evidence of people changing their lives after watching films – something I observed happening when Avatar (the last of my 12 films) came out in 2009. Following the Avatar hashtag on Twitter, one could see people saying, for instance, that they were going to give up their 4x4. I gave a talk on Avatar, and someone in the audience said that as a result they were no longer going to seek work in the army. That was a powerful moment!

My book suggests that we, human beings, are or should be nature coming to consciousness of itself. Ready to defend itself against the worst instincts of humanity, and against our failing institutions.

We’ll see in the next few years whether that happens more. If it doesn’t, then this civilisation will fold. It will ecologically undermine itself, as it is currently doing.

I hope that readers will take from the book an enhanced sense of the beauty and import of these films and of films like them. And that also means an enhanced sense of the beauty and import not just of films, but of animals, of each other, of the future, of this half-wrecked but still exquisite planet.

A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Environment by Rupert Read has been published by Routledge, and is now available for purchase via their website and, as they say, in all good bookshops! (But, until the paperback comes out, it isn’t cheap – you may wish to order it through your local library!)