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Mind-altering movies: How cinema changed our perception of reality

Posted on 14 Apr 2021

Hypnotic, hallucinogenic, with the power to raise the dead. Since the nineteenth century, films have continually proven their powerful effects on our psyche. Here, ‘The Mysteries of Cinema’ author Peter Conrad explores five iconic movies that have changed our view of reality.

1. Louis and Auguste Lumière, Train Pulling into a Station, 1895

This short clip, lasting less than a minute, was first shown by the Lumière brothers among a series of ‘actualités’, produced with no aesthetic ambition in mind: the purpose to demonstrate the workings of a newly invented camera which they called the ‘cinématographe’. It now looks innocuous enough – the train sidles to a halt on the platform at La Ciotat near Marseille, passengers get on and off or mill around randomly – but according to urban legend it alarmed early audiences, who thought the engine might crash through the wall of the room in which they were sitting and run them down.

Our ancestors were hardly so naïve, but they were right to be startled. Here, for the first time ever, was an image that moved, and it served as a promotional announcement for the new and hyper-kinetic art of cinema, colloquially known as ‘the movies’. There are plenty of more accelerated trains in later films, and many some spectacular derailments; one of Tom Cruise’s action movies even ends with a battle between the Eurostar and a helicopter inside the Channel tunnel. But this modest, peaceful little scene deserves pride of place, because it is an introduction to the mysterious physics of film.

2. James Whale, Frankenstein, 1931

Without quite explaining the science and technology involved, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein anticipated the cinema. Her hero, a would-be ‘modern Prometheus’, wants to usurp the role of God by creating life on an operating table, which he does by stitching together bits of grubbed-up corpses and electrifying them into motion.

A first attempt to film this sacreligious marvel was made in 1910 by Thomas Edison’s company: in this ‘kinetogram’, the amateurist alchemist sloshes chemicals in a cauldron and is aghast when a monster rears up out of the soup. By contrast, the wild-eyed Colin Clive, cast as Frankenstein in James Whale’s film, madly rejoices as the lightning bolts and electrodes animate his creation, the square-headed, hulkingly angular Boris Karloff. ‘Look, it’s moving! It’s alive, it’s alive!’ cries Clive. He has staged cinema’s primal moment, channelling the energy that makes possible an art which is also an industry.

3. Jean Cocteau, Orphée, 1950

When Maxim Gorky saw the first brief Lumière films, he was chilled rather than excited, because their eerie silence and their grey, grainy pallor made him think he was in a post-mortem underworld, a kingdom of the shades. Yes, cinema is an art that we can only experience in a darkened room, and the people we see on the screen are ghosts, shadowy replicas of themselves, not real physical presences; film-makers inevitably conduct us on a journey into the supernatural realm imagined by Gorky.

In the classical myth, Orpheus descends to the underworld in order to win back his dead love Eurydice. In Cocteau’s modern adaptation, the Orphée of Jean Marais follows the same course, and in doing so explores the surreal mystery of cinema. He enters the underworld by slithering through the surface of a mirror, which liquefies as he touches it. Here is Cocteau’s mission statement for an art that in his opinion should abandon the banal job of reflecting reality, which can be left to mirrors. Cinema has a more mysterious vocation: it allows us, as if hypnotised, to dream with our eyes open.

4. Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho, 1960

One of cinema’s sneaky functions is to extract our fantasies from their hiding place in our heads and show them back to us, projected larger than life on a screen. We may pretend to be terrified or traumatised by what we see, but can we deny that those violent, perverse or erotically flagrant images have their source inside us?

Psycho is about forbidden sights which we cannot resist looking at. Here for the first time at the cinema we were shown a toilet flushing; we also saw – or thought we did, because the carnage is cut short by the editing and is entirely imaginary – a knife ripping the naked flesh of a woman in a shower. The film’s defining emblem is a close-up of Anthony Perkins’s inflamed eye, which peers through a hole he has drilled in the wall to spy on Janet Leigh as she undresses in the next room. As we watch him watching, can we deny our own compulsive voyeurism? At the end, we’re tugged, perhaps against our will, on a trip to an earthier and more obscene version of the underworld in Orphée. Hitchcock’s Hades is located in a fruit cellar, where a mummified matriarch sits through eternity in a rocking chair.

5. Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979

Tarkovsky is the cinema’s great mystic: he had the power to show us miracles or to envision heaven. Stalker is another version of the Orphic quest, in which two seekers for enlightenment are ushered out of a sooty contemporary city, led down a disused railway line, and permitted to enter a luminous fourth dimension known as the Zone. This visionary precinct contains a fabled Room where the wishes of those who make the journey will be fulfilled – a symbolic cinema?

The quest fails, and the Stalker, a professional guide, accompanies his disgruntled clients back to their starting point. But despite the anti-climax, Tarkovsky’s film ends with a beautiful, inexplicable disruption of the laws of physics, a feat of telekinesis that seems to have been achieved with recourse to special effects and that serves to demonstrate what Tarkovsky called the mystery of ‘cinemagenesis’. The Stalker’s daughter stares at some glass jars on a marble table, one of which contains a broken eggshell; the sheer intensity of her gaze causes them to slide across the table, and one of the jars even jumps off the edge and hits the floor without audibly shattering. Can we believe what we have seen with our own eyes? Our incredulity is a useful reminder: that ought to be the question we always ask ourselves when watching a film.


By Peter Conrad

From the very first moving pictures to timeless films like Citizen Kane, A Clockwork Orange, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Mysteries of Cinema explores how the medium of cinema has changed the way we see the world.