Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 205-208

Text: 22. Mr. …

An ardent filmgoer since the early days of Cinema I can recall no instance of a film encouraging me to make any important personal decision. I was, however, inspired during adolescence by the antics of the late Douglas Fairbanks, snr. I tried to imitate his personal mannerisms and emulate his athletic prowess in the mistaken belief that I could, so achieve an extra strength and self reliance — (at the time I suffered from exaggerated feelings of inferiority).

Since those days, I have never consciously desired to imitate anything admired in others, on the screen.

Whereas my early cinegoing was largely a matter of ‘escapism’, to-day choice has supplanted habit. What concerns me now is enjoyment through interest, not escape through fantasy. I now seek interest through appraisement and analysis. The appreciation of good acting, imaginative lighting, interestingly authentic decor and wardrobe, evocative ‘cutting’, the expressive use of sound and dialogue — in short, seeing films ‘whole’ motivates my present day picturegoing. It is the content and manipulation of a film that now interests me and not merely that a film can provide a temporary escape from a reality which is, in nine cases out of ten, largely self-created.

Having grown up with the Cinema my understanding and appreciation of it has matured just as the Cinema has, in many ways, itself matured. It was during the pre-talkie period of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of German and Swedish production, that I first became aware of the real possibilities inherent in the film as an art, and a mental and cultural stimulus. The notorious Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, for instance, excited my imagination because, for me it opened up new vistas of a fascinating and undreamed of significance.

‘Caligari’ is said to have changed the whole outlook of cinema, and I believe that it did.

I will admit that my first impressions here were largely bound up with childhood wonder and excitation experienced through Grimm’s fairy tales. I think ‘Caligari’ re-created for me those perhaps rather unhealthy delights, connected somehow with fear, i.e. the fascination of weirdness, dark forests, witches, hobgoblins, magic, sinister castles, and, in fact, the frighteningly suggestive in general.

And yet it was through such films as Caligari, Waxworks, The Student of Prague, The Golem, Nosferatu (Dracula), etc., etc. that I was subsequently to acquire a more objective understanding of what artistic and constructive film entertainment could mean. They gave me my first insight into the true potentialities of Cinema.

To-day, I visit films less often, and when rare and culturally valuable ones such as Citizen Kane, Earth, The Grapes of Wrath, etc. do become available I try to see them as often as possible before they disappear — possibly for ever.

In answer to your question regarding fashions and manners, it is obvious, and especially with regard to women, how greatly the screen has influenced and encouraged consciousness of and interest in personal appearance and behaviour. Women have learned the value of attractive clothing and make-up in the development of poise and self confidence, or at least a sense of it, for I notice that people influenced by such things frequently fail to adopt them with any real degree of success.

Misapplication, resulting in artificiality rather than attractiveness seems all too often the inevitable result. Finger nails and hair ‘do’s’ are not necessarily indicative of character or self reliance, or even of good taste.

Personally, I cannot say that I have been influenced in any way here. I believe that real poise and self confidence result from an objective rather than a subjective attitude to life. I would far rather be my natural self (at least as far as I am capable of being), than a second rate edition of some movie idol I admired, or might happen, faintly to resemble.

Love and divorce do not apply to me. For one thing I have never really been in love, and for another I do not believe that the screen exercises so much influence with morals as seems generally to be supposed.

So now to dreams. I believe that few people dream about the films they see, but I can recall (though of necessity, only partially) dream experiences the content of which included the Cinema in one form or another, although I have never dreamed of any particular film. When I have dreamed about Cinema, the building itself seems always to have been included. Sometimes it has been curved in shape, (which is when I have been inside), and sometimes square, and rather aggressively strong looking, (and then I have been outside). Recognising, in my limited understanding of Freudian psychology, that ‘shape’ has significance in dreams, I draw, or imagine I draw, the obvious conclusion here. I have also dreamt of meeting ‘stars’ personally, and having them regard my criticisms of their work and of Cinema in general as something to marvel at.

I certainly do feel that the Cinema can and does exercise considerable, and probably far reaching influence on individual psychology, and mainly in the sense that many filmgoers tend unconsciously to identify themselves with pictured characters and emotional situations. More briefly, many of us see ourselves in the movies we like.

I think, for example that it is possible to read into films the things we would really like to do and be. But are the things we enjoy really projections of the hidden truths about us? I cannot arrive at a decision about this.

I do think about it, but I really do not know. I would very much like to determine just why I believe my initial reactions to say Caligari, or Warning Shadows, or perhaps The Street or The Last Laugh, would not be repeated were I able to see them again to-day.

I might still enjoy them as museum pieces, and in a nostalgic sort of way, but would, somehow be unable to ‘recapture the first fine careless rapture’. This overlong letter must now end.

I hope you will gather at least something from it that is worthwhile to you. I expect there are many things I have failed to remember, and probably from your own point of view the most important ones of all, but, on the spur of the moment, it is the best I can do in the time at my disposal. I have tried to be truthful about it, but how often can one be satisfied that one has succeeded in being really truthful? As a psychologist, you will probably arrive at a much truer solution to this problem than I myself am at all capable of achieving.

Age — 44. Sex — Male. Nationality — British. Profession — Shopkeeper — (now in costing office of war factory).
Profession of Father — Builder. Mother — originally a court dressmaker.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’. People were asked to answer two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The films referred to here are Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks) (Germany 1924), Der Student von Prag (Germany 1926), Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Germany 1920), Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Germany 1922), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Zemlya (Earth) (USSR 1930), The Grapes of Wrath (USA 1940), Schatten (Warning Shadows) (Germany 1923), Die Straße (Germany 1923) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (Germany 1924).

This entry was posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Reports and studies, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sociology of Film

  1. Joan says:

    Wouldn’t it be more likely that The Street refers to Karl Grune’s Die Straße from 1923? The English title is The Street unlike that of the Pabst film.

    This blog is very interesting. Keep up the good work!!

  2. Thank you for the correction. I had quite forgotten about Die Straße. I’ve amended the post.

    Glad the work is of interest. It’s certainly interesting to compile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *