🎬 #38 Films Are Empathy Technology.™
The first films were almost scientific documents. A train approaching a railway station, a man riding a horse - it was such new technology that people were just excited to see the magic of it work. With the advent of motion picture you could record the world, watch it later and show other people what it’s like at a particular place, train station or otherwise.
I also have to be reminded how young cinema is. It’s barely passed the 100 year mark, it’s a child in the company of painting, theatre, music and the written word. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what films can be. But what we have figured out since the early days of filming places and events, is that film has the power to transport you into someone else’s perspective. Once we’re there, we can feel what they feel, we can imagine ourselves in their shoes and experience the world as they do. In other words, cinema is a technology that creates empathy. Even the most horrible characters, with a totally different perspective to you, who you couldn't possibly feel empathy for - that all falls away when you see the world from their perspective.
And this empathy technology will only keep getting more fine tuned and powerful. With the adoption of AR/VR/ and the continued evolution of gaming, this can only go in directions and to depths we haven’t yet imagined. In this sphere, we’re still at the filming-a-horse-in-motion-phase.
So this week, strap into your empathy machine and get transported into the shoes of a stripper who wants to be an artisanal furniture maker and a side show freak.
Happy choosing, happy viewing
FILM ONE: MAGIC MIKE
2012 Dir Steven Soderbergh
Channing Tatum’s star vehicle drops us into the male stripping, show boy world of Florida with more commitment than even the most well practiced slut drops. But this isn’t just empty titillation. Channing and Co put us in the shoes-on-the-stage, head-in the-clouds mindset of a man wanting more from life. His stripping hustle is just one of many jobs he has to do in order to fund his dream of becoming a furniture maker.
What I love about this film is that you might totally disregard it, but it’s lean, fun and genuinely emotionally engaging - it’s almost like Soderbergh said to Channing one Saturday afternoon, ‘hey want to do this stripper movie with me’ and Channing was like ‘hell yeh.’ It has that energy. But Soderbergh’s lens amplifies it, it takes a simple story and makes it as anthemic as the strip shows themselves, both big and intimate all at once. Every single member of the cast from Tatum to McConaughey has a blast. McConaughey has too much fun, particularly in the scene pictured above. He plays their grease slick manager. He’s the ringleader of the show, a ‘daddy’ to the guys, but equally, he’s a slippery viper ready to slither to wherever the ground is hot. That brings us to Mike’s protege, a character through whom we can see this world fresh and new, as he does.
For all the machismo and ripped abs on display there is a tenderness to the film that lingers long after the stage lights have died down. The romantic dream and the romance at the centre of it feels entirely legit. And what’s refreshing is that it feels like the timing is real - where other films would have them meet and get together in the first 20 minutes, Magic Mike takes its time and that makes the show and the ‘getting’ of the dream all the more tantalising.
TL;DR why should I spend 1 hr 50 mins of my precious life watching this? Take a front row seat for Soderbergh's stripper spectacle that is tender, quiet and wickedly ostentatious in equal measure.
*Available for a small rental fee on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: Soderbergh’s first assistant director would go on to direct Magic Mike XXL. And happily, Soderbergh is back in the director’s seat for Magic Mike’s Last Dance which is in post-production.
FILM TWO: THE ELEPHANT MAN
1980 Dir David Lynch
There are few films that made me feel as much as The Elephant Man. It’s a film that has oodles of emotion. Thanks in no small part to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of a Dr/Father figure to John Hurt’s Merrick. Merrick is a man born with severe deformities and rendered as a soulless circus attraction. Hurt’s and Hopkins’ performances make the film sing. They take the Disney-esque story and make it pack far more emotional punch that you’d expect from a Lynch film.
Remember at this time Lynch had just the highly experimental and lauded Eraserhead midnight movie to his credit. As interesting as that film is - you wouldn’t necessarily praise it for its ability to emotionally capture an audience. Here you feel the heart bubbling up, as we follow Merrick’s rise from destitute animal to human. Suddenly we find ourselves enraptured, falling deeper into Lynch’s hands as he wrings our hearts with every cut, every shaft of high contrast lighting [courtesy of Freddie Francis] exposing more of the human behind the ‘beast’ we find at the film’s start. To resist is futile, you might have a heart of stone if you can.
Like Magic Mike, there is lovely interplay of spectacle. Does Merrick just end up as a different kind of attraction when he’s saved from the circus? Does he just become a different kind of entertainment for a nicer audience in nicer surroundings? Who is using who and why does the way his body look define who he is? Merrick is much more than his ‘abnormal’ tissue growths would have you know, just like Mike is much more than his finely toned abs. Beneath both exteriors are men with dreams, vessels of human passion and warm humanity. The magic of film means we can inhabit both bodies and feel everything they feel, without having to remain there forever. And I hope the more films we watch, the more we engage with this empathy technology, the more we can feel what it’s like to be others, so they no longer feel like ‘others.’
TL;DR why should I spend 2 hr 5 mins of my precious life watching this? If you feel like the world is hopeless and heartless, do yourself a favour one night this Autumnal weekend - pop on Lynch’s film and experience the world through John Merrick’s eyes.
*Available for free on BBC iPlayer and for a small rental fee on Amazon, BFI Player, Google Play, YouTube and Sky Store.
Fact: Mel Brooks was instrumental in getting this film made and David Lynch was his choice for director.
Thanks for reading Video Shop ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.