I get the impression that for many, a trip to the cinema is a religious experience. Note that I say ‘religious’ and not ‘mystical’. People commonly reach for transcendental terminology when groping for fresh panegyrics with which to adorn some film or another; said film is not merely good, watching it is comparable to what a medieval peasant might have experienced upon visiting a cathedral or what a fakir might experience after twenty years crouching upon nails in the sub-continental wilderness. This is not what I mean by religious experience. What I mean instead is that people go to the cinema (or read a book) in order to have their moral compasses reset. They go to see a romantic comedy in order to re-connect with what it is to be really in love. They go to see Pixar’s Up (2009) in order to know what it means to grow old with someone. They go to see a navel-gazing drama that deals in matters of identity and alienation in order to get some insight into who and what they are. People use films in the same way as they once used the Sunday sermon : As a form of guidance. Simple moral and psychological truths made accessible and easily digested along with pop-corn and diet Coke. Is it then any wonder that we treat successful actors as living gods? These people are not merely entertainers, they are the prophets of a secular age. Our need to constantly tell stories about ourselves drives our desire to consume the stories of others.
Most films are happy to play their role in this relationship. Modern romantic comedies have their relationship advice, Godard had his attempts at spreading Maoism and even nihilistic film-makers such as Noe are happy to sell their audiences on the horrors of existence, a belief which, in its own way, is no less consolatory than the more up-beat alternatives such as Sam Mendes’ bile-raising “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it”. However, some film-makers seem instinctively aware of their positions as moral teachers and reject the role. Directors such as Hanneke and Von Trier assume accusatory and playfully obtuse attitudes towards their audience in order to avoid it. Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, based upon the play This Story of Yours by John Hopkins is a film that seems to deconstruct this relationship, turning it into something unhealthy and disturbing.