There’s a phrase that’s started to bother me when I go to the cinema. Just before the main feature is about to begin, a voice tells us all to sit back in comfort and get ready to ‘escape reality’.
Since when has going to the movies been about escaping reality? Of course films can and sometimes do perform that function. During the Great Depression in 1930s America, dancing duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became box office gold, and it is not hard to see why.
For just a few cents, you could leave a world where you had no job, no money, little to eat and be transported to the splendour of top hats, tails and evening gowns with Astaire singing, “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak, and I seem to find the happiness I seek, when we’re out together dancing cheek-to-cheek.”
However take another film from that era, John Ford’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, it’s about a poor family of tenant farmers (the Joads), who must leave their home in Oklahoma to seek work in California. The film casts an unflinching eye on the suffering they endure and shows how the rich mercilessly exploit the poor.
Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) is the hero and vows to dedicate his life to fighting injustice, “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” There is no way that Ford’s movie is an escape from reality. He criticises this society that supposedly holds out a dream to all its citizens. Bruce Springsteen took up this same theme in his 1995 album, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’.
During my student days in Belfast, there were a few films I saw that I normally would not have gone to. One guy persuaded me to go and see Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’ (1925). Chaplin was a genius he said, who produced, directed, wrote and starred in his own films. He even composed the music.
The thought of seeing a silent film in black and white was not appealing. But I have to say I enjoyed it. It was about two men prospecting for gold in the snowy wilds of Alaska. There’s a happy ending because both men eventually strike it rich, but an earlier scene shows them snowbound and starving in a log cabin. One man starts to hallucinate with the hunger and sees his friend as a large chicken and goes for him with a hatchet.
Chaplin shows us that, in extreme situations, men may be driven to the most desperate deeds. Not much escape from reality there, either.
Emma Thompson starred in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. She had also written the screenplay based on Jane Austen’s novel. In an interview shortly after the film’s release, Thompson took issue with the interviewer who said, “Of course, there’s no sex or violence in the film, so it offers a wonderful escape from reality…”
For Thompson the film was very much rooted in the real world, as it told the story of two young women of a certain privileged class who had fallen on hard times. They have to make difficult decisions about where and how to live. She went on to say that many violent movies that have bullets flying about all over the place are actually escapist fantasies.
Coincidentally, Emma Thompson appears in one of my favourite movies, ‘In the Name of the Father’ (1993). She plays the solicitor Gareth Peirce who represented Gerry Conlon (played by Daniel Day Lewis), one of The Guilford Four. Now there is no way that the film is an escape from reality as it is based on real events.
Also, so many of the themes of the movie; the conflict between father and son, the abuse of power, the search for justice, are staples of everyday life.
Some films, far from taking us away from reality can plunge us deeper into it. Recently I went to the cinema twice within five days to see the same film. It was Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’. I’d heard it was a dark comedy about male friendship. After the first viewing I came away thinking it was all very bleak and brutal, though the scenery was impressive.
But after the second viewing, it was as if the film opened out to me. I could see the humour in so many of the exchanges between different characters, not least the irrepressible Pat Shortt. I noticed the music and the beauty in the scenic portrayal. I don’t want to give away too much, but a main theme is about time and how best to use it. I left the cinema with all kinds of thoughts and questions about Ireland’s past and how it still plays out in the present.
It definitely was not escapist cinema. Feel-good movies, the kind where you leave the cinema feeling all is right with the world, are obviously escapes from reality.
However I have some sympathy with Larry David who said, “If you want to feel good, go and get a foot massage.”
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