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Searching for cinematic hypnotism

Why do we watch movies? It is an impossibly broad question, one I have no intention of answering here. However, in what is likely the most stressful and challenging year that many of us have faced, I have discovered a new motivation for finding great movies to watch, other than having a little more down time. 

The best films have an ethereal, hypnotic quality to them; they transfix and transport viewers to another world. It is an exceedingly rare quality in film — the ability to capture the viewer’s truly undivided attention and create an almost out-of-body experience. With creaky walls, loud friends, the constant gnawing of popcorn, it is so easy to get taken out of the viewing experience both at home and in the theater, worrying about an upcoming meeting or assignment instead of what is happening on the screen.  

“Out-of-body” status, even with a great and deserving movie, may be impossible to achieve with too many distractions, both in your vicinity or mind. It is why I miss theaters so much: the best theater going experiences are perfect for locking in on the movie and the movie only. You cannot look at your phone, the room is pitch black and there (should) be no distracting noises. 

Watching “Minari” this week instead of doing my schoolwork, I should have found it easy for my mind to wander. However, the film commanded my attention, and it refused to let up until the first credit rolled. I was fully invested in the Yi family’s struggle to make it in 1980s rural Arkansas. Only a handful of other films I have watched this year — “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”, “Y Tu Mamá También”, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — had this same unrelenting energy. Nothing else mattered in these moments: it all just melted away.   

I do not think it requires a 300 million dollar budget or elaborate fantasy story to “transport someone to another world.” Vibrant, textured cinematography, sharp direction, powerful performances, well-developed themes and worldbuilding and a deeply human story are enough to force careful viewing and maybe even induce this coveted out-of-body experience. In fact, these stories, the quiet dramas or dazzling comedies, likely require less to elicit this reaction, as it is easier to become enchanted by a reasonably well-told story grounded in realism than a fantasy epic that can easily lose its humanity.  

This is not to say these types of films cannot do both (fans of “Max Max: Fury Road” would rightly complain here as it is the perfect example of cinematic escapism). These stories also do not necessarily have to be joyful or calming. Many highlight stresses or societal problems different than the ones the viewer may be facing at this moment, but nonetheless, they remain relatable and essential to present-day conversations.  

Other mediums are capable of this sort of escapism but not to the same extent. Vivid visuals are essential for a film in this category, shots the best author cannot possibly capture in words and the best reader cannot possibly imagine. TV shows can achieve the same effect, but are harder to come by and often require sifting through hours of even great television that just does not quite draw you in all the way. Magic, while generally lame, is built entirely around bewilderment and enchantment, seeking to briefly entrance the viewer. Even for the best magicians, they can only do so for a fleeting moment. The best movies can do this for hours.  

There is no exact formula for this “out-of-body” experience. Limited distractions and a film firing on all cylinders are a start. It is not going to happen every time, and there is nothing wrong with a good movie that keeps the viewer squarely situated in their own reality. But, I plan to keep seeking out these films because the experience is special, hard to describe and a perfect reminder of why I watch movies. Two-hours away from the Duke pressure cooker and this pandemic-ridden, climate change-ravaged world might be what we all need for a change.  


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