Can movies bring light into the world?

Laments about the lost luster of movies are common these days.

A few weeks ago, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott declared, “Film is Dead? What Else is New?” in an essay about the diminishing enchantment of modern moviegoing.

“It can be hard to escape, and even harder to argue against, the feeling that something we used to love is going away, or already gone,” he wrote. “Does whatever we have now…represent at best a pale shadow of bygone glory?”

The question is a relevant one. And it resonates as a nostalgic longing not just for better movies, but for the idealism of youth—the days when everything was possible.

When I read Scott’s piece I remembered how movies used to be, for me, a way of coping with the strangeness and suffering in the world. As a teenager, my immersion in Hollywood fantasy was sustaining through all the disillusionment and despair that comes with being an adolescent girl. In the movies, things were usually better than they were in real life—and if they weren’t, there was comfort in their definite end.

Movies are a way of escaping the world. But they’re also a way of responding to the world, a tool for filtering life’s ineffable beauties and its heavy, burdensome baggage. The characters that fill the screen a model for how to cope. And somewhere in there, the fantasy of ideals imprints upon the brain and you start believing that every love should be a “Titanic” love.

But those moments when the projector could run admission into another universe has become more difficult in today’s world of constant connection. The dark, quiet refuge of a theater isn’t exactly so—last week, while watching “Shame” a young boy sitting beside me couldn’t resist the temptation of text messaging. So I had to endure the light of another screen, luring me back to the real world as I wondered what waited on my phone. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote earlier this week, there is no escape from reality when your smartphone literally functions as a tracking device.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

The same is true of literature, of course, which has also been a mode for deep, absorbing reverie. But rather than treating that immersion as an escape, the lessons of film and literature can sometimes illuminate reality, providing relief from our internal incarceration.

In a review of a new dual volume of letters by T.S. Eliot in The Weekly Standard, Edward Short notes that Eliot’s escape from a tumultuous marriage was in letters and literature. He notes how even Eliot’s wife, Vivien, knew this, and said, “poetry and literature are the very only things Tom cares for or has the faintest interest in”. Short adds, “it is as if he can only approach the ruin of his marriage by resorting to literature.”

Then he excerpts the following passage, written by Eliot:

In the last ten years—gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V. .  .  . I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living—This I did in 1915. What will happen if I live again? “I am I” but with what feelings, with what results to others—Have I the right to be I—But the dilemma—to kill another person by being dead, or to kill them by being alive? .  .  . Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

We have all been made machines by the technological triumph of convenience. Dowd acknowledges the irony that a silent film—“The Artist”—is making a comeback in the 21st century.

In the case of “The Artist,” silence is not only golden, it’s a reminder of how much you can articulate without words. If you take away the language, green screens and 3-D glasses, the feelings — pride, vanity, envy, fear, love — can be more primary and fascinating.

Even in an age when “Hollywood rarely makes great movies anymore” a film can still scintillate and inspire. She notes a scene in “The Artist” in which the film’s starlet, Peppy Miller, tries to connect to the man she loves by canoodling with his empty jacket as it hangs on a rack in their dressing room. For Dowd and for others, that quiet moment of closeness and longing, the simple pleasure aroused by a lover’s apparel, proves there is still glamour, there is still romance, there is still hope.