At the beginning of this year, the news of a study published by the Social Observatory of la Caixa on the relationship between the perception of well-being and cultural activities – going to exhibitions, the theatre or the cinema – included «the co-participative (social) dimension of culture and its impact on happiness». Other recent studies, in the United Kingdom (Wheatley and Bickerton) or a World Database of Happiness report, agree with this assessment.
In Poéticas del cine, the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz writes that «to live a work of art is not only to be fascinated by it, to fall in love with it, but also to understand the process of falling in love. For that we need the freedom to get away from the beloved, to better return to them, freely. An amorous encounter with a work of art is an erotic practice that can be summed up by this formula: loving makes you intelligent – which contradicts the argument according to which love stuns you like a bang on the head».
This association between emotion and understanding seems to me to be important to emphasise that artistic contemplation, for the spectator, is not a mere activity of leisure or distraction – an evasion not to think about daily problems, as they say – but a process of reflection during which we can get to know each other and think better.
In fact, watching a film, reading a book or looking at a painting, we can experience liberation of the imagination – very present in childhood, and that later tends to be buried, in the form of a relationship or correspondence, the poetic association that widens the world that we perceive (the same principle by which, as children, figures are seen in the clouds, or a jungle is constructed in a piece of grass). After all, a work of art offers the possibility of an aesthetic world and turns the viewer into a participant in the artistic act: it is a mental and sensory connection with that world, in which our ability to interpret is also developed – almost in a musical sense – and to think about that, we visualise it from the emotions.
Another filmmaker and writer, the Canadian Bruce Elder, writes about the need for «art to become physical: that we recognise that works of art are machines whose objective is to affect the bodies of those to whom they are directed. (…) We must emphasize the role of the body when it comes to making and experiencing art. The body learns first through activity, not concepts».
These ideas imply that the viewer’s experience goes through the mind, but also through the body, and that the relationship between the two generates greater knowledge. Perhaps it is an important idea to put forward the viewer’s place before the artistic object, not as a consumer, but from what they feel through an openness and predisposition in the act of observation or reading. More than distract us, we can connect, deepen and treasure experience. An encounter then takes place («the cinema is the predisposition for an encounter», says Jean-Luc Godard), which enriches our capacity for empathy, understanding or awareness about what surrounds us or towards what we do not know and is different: other cultural contexts – geographic, social, political, historical-, other realities and mentalities. A film, for example, without the need to physically travel, offers us sensitive data from other cultures or countries, or from other eras. Can we consider that this is a real action, an experience that gives us qualitative information about other ways of seeing and thinking?
On the other hand, in this process our mind also revives the imaginative and creative potential that, quite often, we put aside in our activities. Think of the way in which, without realising it, certain films or books bring memories back to us, that is, they lead us to complete the work, from what is subjective, from the memory that we have written in our minds and bodies. Think, for example, of Summer 1993 by Carla Simón. It is a film that tells a story in the intimate sense in which one says: “I’ve lived a story” or “that relationship is history”. When she was a girl, the director’s parents died of AIDS. After the death of her mother, she went to spend a summer with her uncle and aunt, in a village. From that summer Carla keeps a few photographs, which over twenty years later she has recreated and converted into scenes from her film (the potential that a family album can have, the way we carry certain images in our head is extraordinary). In Summer 1993, through plans full of particular and precise details – a game, a song – memories buried deep in childhood are activated in the viewer, which may possibly not have come to mind for a long time. And thus, through montage, the spectator is able to project in their mind, unconsciously, their internal films – or lives-, their memory, in parallel with the one taking place on the screen. From that moment, Summer 1993 becomes popular, shared, lived, in spite of the fact that a large part of the spectators will not have experienced dramatic events similar to what is being told. However, the connection is profound, because we find ourselves again with those unspoken truths that penetrate inside, with the certainty that the child’s perceptive intelligence knows or understands things that are difficult for adults to recognise. In that process, we find ourselves again with that original root, that child that we were and perhaps we are, with their sensitivity and ways of seeing and feeling. A work of art enables us to be intuitive regarding many lives – those imaginary and potential – that we carry within us, that we are multiple, and the connections between those temporal layers that make us up: that encounter excites us, surprises us and makes us happy. It puts us in the place of the other – empathy – to understand that girl better. It puts us in the most intimate and profound places regarding what we are like: so we get to know ourselves better. It comforts us and opens up possibilities for improvement, change, transformation. After all, as Elias Canetti wrote, the function of the poet is none other than that of «the custodian of metamorphoses».
Gonzalo de Lucas
Director of the postgraduate course in Audiovisual Montage