Why I Go to the Cinema

Source: Elizabeth Bowen, extracts from ‘Why I Go to the Cinema’ in Charles Davy (ed.), Footnotes to the Film (London: Lovat Dickson, 1937), pp. 205-220

Text:I go to the cinema for any number of reasons – these I ought to sort out and range in order of their importance. At random, here are a few of them: I go to be distracted (or “taken out of myself”); I go when I don’t want to think; I go when I do want to think and need stimulus; I go to see pretty people; I go when I wanted to see life ginned up, charged with unlikely energy; I go to laugh; I go to be harrowed; I go when a day has been such a mess of detail that I am glad to see even the most arbitrary, the most preposterous pattern emerge; I go because I like bright light, abrupt shadow, speed; I go to see America, France, Russia; I go because I like wisecracks and slick behaviour; I go because the screen is an oblong opening into the world of fantasy for me; I go because I like story, with its suspense; I go because I like sitting in a packed crowd in the dark, among hundreds riveted on the same thing; I go to have my most general feelings played on.

These reasons, put down roughly, seem to fall under five headings: wish to escape, lassitude, sense of lack in my nature or my surroundings, loneliness (however passing) and natural frivolity. As a writer, I am probably subject during working hours to a slightly unnatural imaginative strain, which leaves me flat and depleted by the end of the day. But though the strain may be a little special in nature, I do not take it to be in any way greater than the strain, the sense of depletion, suffered by other people in most departments of life now. When I take a day off and become a person of leisure, I embark on a quite new method of exhausting myself; I amuse myself through a day, but how arduous that is; by the end of the day I am generally down on the transaction – unless I have been to the country …

… I hope I never go to the cinema in an entirely unpropitious mood. If I do, and am not amused, that is my fault, also my loss. As a rule, I go empty but hopeful, like someone bringing a mug to a tap that may not turn on. The approach tunes me up for pleasure. The enchantment that hung over those pre-War facades of childhood – gorgeously white stucco facades, with caryatids and garlands – has not dissolved, though the facades have been changed. How they used to beam down the street. Now concrete succeeds stucco and chromium gilt; foyers once crimson and richly stuffy are air-conditioned and dove-grey. But, like a chocolate-box lid, the entrance is still voluptuously promising: sensation of some sort seems to be guaranteed. How happily I tread the pneumatic carpet, traverse anterooms with their exciting muted vibration, and walk down the spotlit aisle with its eager tilt to the screen. I climb over those knees to the sticky velvet seat, and fumble my cigarettes out – as I used not to do.

I am not only home again, but am, if my choice is lucky, in ideal society. I am one of the millions who follow Names from cinema to cinema. The star system may be all wrong – it has implications I hardly know of in the titanic world of Hollywood, also it is, clearly, a hold-up to proper art – but I cannot help break it down. I go to see So-and-So. I cannot fitly quarrel with this magnification of personalities, while I find I can do with almost almost unlimited doses of anybody exciting, anybody with beauty (in my terms), verve, wit, toupet and, of course, glamour. What do I mean by glamour? A sort of sensuous gloss: I know it to be synthetic, but it affects me strongly. It is a trick knowingly practiced on my most fuzzy desires; it steals a march on me on my silliest side. But all the same, in being subject to glamour I experience a sort of elevation. It brings, if not into life at least parallel to it, a sort of fairy-tale element. It is a sort of trumpet call, mobilizing the sleepy fancy. If a film is to get across, glamour somewhere, in some form – moral, if you like, for it can be moral – cannot be done without. The Russians break with the bourgeois-romantic conception personality; they have scrapped sex-appeal as an annexe of singularising, anti-social love. But they still treat with glamour; they have transferred it to mass movement, to a heroicised pro-human emotion. I seek it, in any form.

To get back to my star: I enjoy, sitting opposite him or her, the delights of intimacy without the onus, high points of possession without the strain. This could be called inoperative love. Relationships in real life are made arduous by their reciprocities; one can too seldom simply sit back. The necessity to please, to shine, to make the most of the moment, overshadows too many meetings. And apart from this – how seldom in real life (or so-called real life) does acquaintanceship, much less intimacy, with dazzling, exceptional beings come one’s way. How very gladly, therefore, do I fill the gaps in my circle of ideal society with these black-and-white personalities, to whom absence of colour has added all the subtleties of tone. Directly I take my place I am on terms with these Olympians; I am close to them with nothing at all at stake. Rapture lets me suppose that for me alone they display the range of their temperaments, their hesitations, their serious depths. I find them not only dazzling but sympathetic. They live for my eye. Yes, and I not only perceive them but am them; their hopes and fears are my own; their triumphs exalt me. I am proud for them and in them. Not only do I enjoy them; I enjoy in them a vicarious life …

… How much I like films I like – but I could like my films better. I like being distracted, flattered, tickled, even rather upset – but I should not mind something more; I should like something serious. I should like to be changed by more films, as art can change one; I should like something to happen when I go to the cinema.

Comments: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a Irish novelist and writer of short stories. The above is extracts from her contribution to the compilation book Footnotes to the Film.