I recently exercised my reality-alchemist prowess by creating a phrase to describe a concept I have longed mused upon. I am not sure it ‘explains’ anything – but it does give a picture about we valorize the ‘real’ and fail to heed alternatives to our versions of reality. Let me proudly introduce you to the ‘cinema-house effect’; but, before I let you in on what it means in my flippant lexicon of mad metaphors, I shall provide some context.
Any ‘proper’ cinema experience comprises of at least three elements: a dark room, projected images, and screaming fans (well, it depends on the movie, doesn’t it?). In that dark place of magical stories, rapidly changing images fill our vision – commanding our attention, thanks to the augmentation provided by the darkness. At first, at some level, we recognize the artificiality of it all. However – if it is a particularly good movie – we are eventually drawn in to the stimulating images, and then we are literally captured by the story.
In time, we find ourselves identifying with the characters – sharing their anguish over unrequited love, negotiating their densely ambivalent ethical landscapes, sweating and ducking when an increasingly intense moment of suspense suddenly explodes into the horror of a barbaric murder. At this time – this time of racing heartbeats, clenched lips and spilled popcorn – nothing else matters in the world. At least this is so for some of us. All we crave is some kind of resolution to the story – some kind of closure that satisfies our own personal narratives about how the world ‘should’ work. We desperately want to forget that the men and women on the screen are merely actors. In fact, we don’t behave like we recognize that. As Mr DiCaprio drowns in blisteringly cold water, surrounded by the detritus of a broken ice continent and a sinking cruise-liner, we cry and sob silently; and when the majestic, soul-lifting operatic voices from Zimmer’s sonic landscape lifts the heroic cape of the Dark Knight, we feel the urge to glide atop the ominous city of Gotham alongside the troubled vigilante. In a nutshell, the stories shape us, condition us, blind us – so that it is impossible to distinguish between our reactions in the ‘real world’ and our cinema-house behaviours. We do not recognize that the images are sculpted, put together, and projected – or at least we do not behave as if we do. No one goes to the cinema to watch the stream of light proceed from the overhead projector; all we are interested in is the story – the end result.
In a way, our world is a megacomplex of many cinema houses – each commanding their own versions of reality, each summoning different reactions. Most of the time, we get caught in a particular system, a particular story, a particular ethical space, and – thanks to the peculiar influences of the commanding image – everything else about our world shrinks into the dark. For the time being, only the story playing out before us is ‘real’ – and we reinforce its realness by participating in the spaces it provides. Consequently, we display all the corresponding emotions; we get scared when we arrive late at work; we ache to outwit the competition for a new parking slot; we cry when we don’t get high grades or a commendation; we display indignation when a stranger makes rude comments about our faith; we get angry when a loved one cheats on us. All the while, we fail to recognize just how much our experiences are constructed, projected and arbitrary – we fail to see that it is all illusory, a game…’real’ only because we permit it to be so. Caught in the morass of a moral compulsion, we are ‘unable’ to see that our belief systems are not as neat and tidy as we would have them be; yet we exhibit emotions consistent with the story told. By force of habit, we do not see the ‘streaming projected light’, the histories of contested meanings, the trajectories of counterarguments, the constructedness of our ethics. In the dark, away from the big screen we are betrothed to, lies other ethical motivations, other ways of knowing, other stories to be told – other emotions to experience. We see only the screen – all else is lost.
The corollary of this analysis is the subtle suggestion that though our realities exercise profound power over us, we can ‘choose’ to tell other stories – we can choose to recognize the fragility of the frameworks that underline our ideas about legitimacy and probity, and we can decide to reclaim a more wholesome awareness of our agency and walk out of the theater. We abide in storied places and improvised arenas. The powerful ones among us are seemingly those that realize that no power is implicit, essential or necessary – but arbitrary and assumed.
Here is a convenient definition of the ‘cinema house effect’:
A metaphor that pictorially represents how an illusory context or situation compels persons to act as if what they are experiencing is obvious, necessary or real – when in fact it is contrived, sculpted, participatory and made up. The cinema-house effect applies to our ethical spaces, ideas of correctness, our belief systems, our social institutions, our paradigms and worldviews, and our senses of self.