Mark Cousins has a word for it. ‘Want-see’. It stands for the relationship the dominant commercial cinema has with us, its consumerist audience. It feeds us what we want to see, tapping to the core of our mind’s eye’s desire and showing us our daydreams, wish-fulfillment and voyeuristic fantasies in full eye-tingling detail, and never any less. No sight is allowed to dare remain veiled to us. Often it also created that need for what it was we wanted to see. In an age of sheer image-saturation like ours, how can anything less satiate us?
These are the thoughts that tumbled through my head as the release of the now long-announced The Walk nears upon us. The Walk is Robert Zemeckis’ biopic about Philippe Petit’s daredevil act of tightrope walking across the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eccentric, agile little Frenchman. But it won’t escape anyone with a passing interest in the recent advent of big-production values, glossy documentaries (one of the few genres to survive alongside Hollywood’s want-see in the last 10 years) that this very same story was already told by James Marsh’s Man on Wire (2008). That’s not even a full seven years ago. Why then do we need another version of this? Why was the documentary not enough?
Certainly it has much to do with the fact the central event, the showstopper moment — Petit actually doing his walk, run, dance and taunt routine on that wire in the sky — was never filmed in reality. Marsh’s doc must make do with photographic stills for what should be the climax of the story, and in our age of instant image gratification that just won’t do. Hence this absence, this missing never-filmed vision, triggered an itch which Zemeckis’ film promises to scratch for us. And in full glorious 3-D naturally. Nothing less would do.
To allude, to suggest, to entice other senses than the visual into play, to — dare I say it — leave something to the imagination, these are simply not options for the dominant want-see cinema. I use one example because it came to mind today, but we know there are countless others. The specifics of The Walk and of Petit’s aerial balletics bring to mind another thought, about the cinema’s treatment of the horrors of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Not that many films have dealt with this seismic event, certainly not as many as were inspired by the only comparable traumatic shock in recent US history: JFK’s assassination. Of course once again this is because of our age; we were flooded with images, videos, amateur footage of the attacks from every angle. What was there left for the movies to show us that we hadn’t already seen?
Well, two things actually. There were two places where no camera-eye could be on the day and hence were dark spots in our visual appetite. And these two perspectives happen to cover the main 9/11 movies that have come out. Firstly there’s the actual horrors from inside the towers (dealt with by Oliver Stone in World Trade Center), and secondly the chilling events which took place within the planes themselves (as shown in Paul Greengrass’ United 93). This is no coincidence, want-see cinema is explicitly about filling in those black holes in our field of view and leaving absolutely nothing unrevealed. Don’t get me wrong of course, I don’t mean to say there is anything the matter with these films dealing with their topics per se. It is just symptomatic of a wider strategy which has long killed off a cinema of imagination, of curiosity, of giving autonomy to the viewer’s imagination, for a cinema that merely panders to our voyeuristic gaze. Personally, I’m thankful for films out there that still try to nurture my imagination and senses beyond the most superficially visual.