Why do we watch?
Consider these two quotes:
“I am like a cinema screen – clear and empty – the pictures pass over it and disappear, leaving it as clear and as empty as before. In no way is the screen affected by the pictures, nor are the pictures affected by the screen. The screen intercepts and reflects the pictures, it does not shape them. It has nothing to do with the rolls of film. These are as they are, lumps of destiny (prarabdha), but not my destiny; the destinies of the people on the screen … I feel myself as if floating, aloof and detached.” — Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj; “I AM THAT”
“A story is not just there for entertainment, I think it’s there to in some way help you in life. As a storyteller, especially in films, you get to be something like a therapist for two hours. If the end isn’t right, it feels like if at the end of a therapy session your therapist said, “Oh, yeah, okay, that’s an interesting point, but I have another appointment. See you next week.” You go out there thinking, “Is this guy in any way interested in me or does he just want the money?”” — Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck; writer and director of “THE LIVES OF OTHERS”
It’s a conundrum I often return to. How to reconcile the necessary manipulation involved in the telling – and watching – of stories with the peace (or “clarity” or “emptiness”) that so many of us also desire?
I was really moved, and fascinated, by THE LIVES OF OTHERS, which, in many ways, has this conflict at its core. The main character, Weisler – a picture of detachment (image above) – is sent to spy on a playwright and his wife, but becomes so emotionally involved in their lives, that he ends up severely jeopardizing his own. What’s the message here? Never watch anything? Live as a monk? Even though he wrote the screenplay for THE LIVES OF OTHERS in a monk’s cell (click here for a great interview about this), the man who made this film clearly would not agree with this approach. In fact, as he insinuates, we are all driven to watch – to get to the end, to be moved, to have our clarity and our emptiness shattered. In a sense Weisler is the utimate audience member – a man whose life is totally changed by the scenes that he witnesses. He does not need his money back.
But that’s not the typical audience member – even, sad to say, the audience member who has seen the Oscar winning LIVES OF OTHERS. If we were all to watch movies like this man does his job, we would, certainly, all go crazy. And here, perhaps, we can circle back to Nisargadatta Maharaj. Perhaps, as he does in the quote above, we use the technology of movies (and stories in general) to practice NOT going crazy. Though few of us can boast of being as “blank-screened” and peaceful as the masterful Maharaj, most of us can boast of not being as pathologically sad, lonely, repressed and susceptible as Weisler.
So the truth (as it tends to) may lie somewhere in between these two quotes. Our lives are changed by stories – but not a lot. We are all capable of being clear and empty and destiny-free – but don’t do it too often. The force of life is strong, and the more practice we get in negotiating it, the better. So here’s to more watching. (And telling.)