Initially, I was quite smitten with this slim volume because Colin McGinn’s central thesis–that movies share essential qualities with dreams–is intuitively convincing and inviting. Why is it that nobody has to learn to watch a movie, that the free-roaming eye of the camera and the time-and-space-dissolving qualities of montage don’t disorient us (unless they’re meant to)? What is the key to the movies’ powerful emotional hold over us?

In somewhat clunky prose, McGinn, a philosopher, diligently unpacks these questions. The first half of the book, where he investigates “the metaphysics of the movie image” and the way we perceive it, is required reading for anybody trying to get a better handle on what it is, exactly, those flickering shadows do to us in that dark room. He lays out a theory he calls “film mentalism,” which asserts that the movies present us with “consciousness externalized,” a highly charged way of seeing straight into the minds of other people. In the process, he reveals realism/formalism debates as a false dilemma. (Ken Wilber calls this strategy “transcend and include.”)

In the final stretch, though, McGinn loses himself in conjecture and pursues all the wrong angles. The psychological similarities between film and dreams he painstakingly ferreted out leads him to conclude that dreams must be subject to a production process that’s similar to that of a movie–written, produced, and edited ahead of time, stored up until triggered by emotional necessity or external stimulus. Unfounded assertions like these are dubious and somewhat beside the point. A quick excursion into lucid dreaming contradicts most of what I have read on the topic. Some of the most interesting conclusions to be drawn from his thesis are dismissed with brief paragraphs that miss the point entirely: if McGinn’s thesis is correct–and I believe it is–wouldn’t it be worth paying special attention to the movies’ immense power of suggestion and the shared nature of the experience?

Colin McGinn. The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. 2005. ***