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Can watching movies make you unwell?
Is it possible that, just occasionally, our love of movies could have a detrimental effect on our health? Slarek recalls a couple of times when films had a negative impact on his own wellbeing, and that of others.
10 May 2014

Well, can they? It may seem a curious question to ask, but it's one that recently I've had cause to ponder. And I'm not talking about the sort of sickening sensation you may experience when watching a Michael Bay film, but something that interferes with your ability to function in the real world. Allow me to explain. First I need to set the scene, and I'm not angling for sympathy, just laying the groundwork.

For the past few weeks my lower back has been giving me merry hell. It's an old complaint that exercise largely had under control, but recently it's flared up again. It's the sort of pain that keeps you awake at night. You do eventually drift off due to sheer exhaustion, but you don't sleep for long and rise the next morning looking and feeling like an extra from Dawn of the Dead. You thus approach each evening with a curious mixture of relief at having been freed from work and the glum knowledge that you're unlikely to get the sound night's sleep that you so desperately need. One thing's for sure, if you do have an evening when the pain has abated, even a little, then you need to get your head down and grab some sleep before your body realises you're trying to pull a fast one on it. What you do not do, under any circumstances, is pop a Blu-ray of a film like Violent Saturday into the player to do a quick check on it before going to bed.

My reasons were sound enough. Right from the moment it was announced for release by Eureka! as part of their Masters of Cinema label, I was really looking forward to seeing this title. But competing reviews, a heavy daytime workload and sleep deprivation had already delayed my coverage by a couple of weeks, yet I remained determined to somehow fit it in. If I knew how it looked and how many extras I would have to cover, then at least I'd have a handle on how long it would take. That night my bed was screaming my name and I'd only intended to watch the opening five minutes, but... Seriously, you try watching the first five minutes of Violent Saturday and see if you can switch it off and trot off to bed. You just can't do it. Well I certainly couldn't. I should have been in bed shortly after 10pm. I ended up getting there well after midnight. The next day I was even more hopeless than usual. Indeed, the combination of the later-than-intended hour of my retirement and the early rise provided by my perky back pain actually made me feel ill. And all I had to do to prevent this was go to bed at a sensible hour, not put the disc in the Blu-ray player, or at least have the self control to switch the damned thing off and watch the film the following evening instead. I just couldn't do it.

The thing is, this is not an isolated case. Films, particularly those with which you have a strong relationship, have the power to make you act in an irrational manner. See if this rings a bell with anyone else out there. It's late at night, you're flicking through the channels looking for something to distract you for those last few minutes before you hit the sack, and you stumble across one of your favourite films. It's already halfway through, the print being screened is hardly pristine, and it keeps being paused so that monstrous corporations can pester you with advertisements. But you end up watching it anyway, right to the end, despite the fact that you have to get up early in the morning and really need a decent night's sleep. The thing is, you've got the bloody thing on DVD, sitting on the shelf just a few feet away, sporting a far better transfer and not blighted by ad breaks. So why do you keep watching? Oh hell, maybe it's just me, but a quick survey of those in my immediate vicinity suggests that it's not. It's one of the key reasons I've stopped watching TV.

But whether films can actually have a physiological effect is another matter entirely. I remain unconvinced that the experience of watching a film, however traumatic, can cause real physical harm to any viewer. But a temporary effect? Well try this for size.

A few years ago a female friend told me she was keen to see Jan De Bont's effects-driven tornado fest, Twister, which was at the time on general release. My then housemate and I were planning to see it that very evening, so invited her along, and to maximise the experience we chose the cinema with the largest screen and the most piercing surround sound in the local area, seemingly perfect for a film that was primarily about spectacle. Two tornadoes in I started to notice that something wasn't quite right with my friend's demeanour. Indeed, she was no longer looking at the screen at all, but staring at the floor wearing the expression of someone who was on the verge of bringing up their dinner. I suggested we leave but she insisted on sticking it out for our sake. Every time the wind picked up in the film, I was willing the scene to end so we could get my companion out of what for her was turning into a public torture chamber.

When we finally got her home she had to lie down in a darkened room for a couple of hours before she felt stable enough to even converse. From what I could gather, the combination of the film's waggly camerawork, the size of the screen and the volume and intensity of the surround track had triggered a severe case of motion sickness. It was a long time before she ventured into that cinema again, though interestingly she now owns the Blu-ray of the film and intermittently brings it round to mine to watch it on a large TV in full DTS surround sound.

But my fondest memory of a physical response to a film was one that I was indirectly responsible for triggering but unfortunately was not present to witness. When at art school, a friend and I used to make short 8mm films, and our latest was one that had been triggered by a life-changing viewing of Buñuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou (if you've not seen the film then check out our review to find out why it still has such impact). The result was a surrealistic work full of random incidents and encounters, its centrepiece a sequence designed deliberately – much like the opening of Buñuel and Dali's film – to catch the audience aware and give them a horrible shock (I'll leave it to you to imagine what we did). It went down well with the rest of the art students, so we included it in our end of year show, where it was screened every fifteen minutes by whoever was on monitor duty at the time. We were working elsewhere when that particular afternoon's monitor came running into the room. "You've got to come downstairs!" he said excitedly, "Somebody's just fainted watching your film!" What made the incident all the more special was that the victim was not a frail and overly sensitive old lady but a burly biker who had stood in front of the film with a "what the hell is this?" attitude, and at the above-mentioned shock moment had keeled over on the spot. Fortunately he didn't seriously injure himself on the way down, and was more embarrassed than traumatised when he awoke. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the college principal insisted that the film be withdrawn from the show. It remains to this day one of the most satisfying moments of my shaky artistic career.