Last Night the Cinema Saved My Life: What Happened to Movies That Made a Difference?

07/12/2011 16:00 GMT | Updated 05/02/2012 10:12 GMT

Inundated as we are with a never ending deluge of shit pouring forth from Hollywood's glittering gates, it is easy to forget that cinema can be something other than disposable. It's hardly our fault - we can't be blamed for neglecting something that is rarely on offer in the first place (you can put down the cilice, self-flagellation may not be necessary...) Multiplexes are rammed to the girders with ephemeral money vehicles, like celluloid compost heaps of Hollywood's garbage, showing Aniston boobs, Lautner abs, and very little in between (unless it's in 3D, in which case another anaemic indie filmlet will be bumped off to make way for yet more migraine-inducing gratuitousness).

My last drop of cinematic goodwill was about to evaporate forever - prompted, largely, by the arrival of the hulking black hole of a film that is New Years Eve (if you are over 12 and watch more than 30 seconds of that trailer you will start to feel the edges of your soul shrivel and die). But luckily, as I was trundling home on the number 8 bus, it came to me, like a sign from Media God (no, not Rupert Murdoch, one with a modicum of taste) - Suddenly, I felt like I was on the set of V for Vendetta.

Crowds of protestors were sprinkled around the grounds of St Paul's Cathedral, masked by the face of Guy Fawkes. The sardonically lifted eyebrow, the alabaster skin... the sartorial choices of the fuming 99% are not random- this isn't any old Guy Fawkes mask. Hundreds of tiny replicas of V's stylised masquerade not only disguised the identity of those protesting, but also conveyed a message of a united front, tackling a faceless corporation. Not exclusive to merely St. Paul's, V's mask has been the trademark of the activist group Anonymous since 2008, who can frequently be spotted at Goodge Street, protesting against Scientology.

In fact, a staggering 100,000 of the masks are sold worldwide every year. The tale of Guy Fawkes has been around for as long as we've all lived, and we're more than familiar with it, after years of ritually burning his wooden facsimile while fervently chomping on our toffee apples every November. Not to mention the subsequent existence of Alan Moore's 10 issue comic book series through the 1980s that gave bought the character of V to life within its pages. But it took James McTeigue's 2006 filmic interpretation of Fawkes' visage as a representation of political rebellion (and admittedly, David Lloyd's beautifully stylised design), for the world to truly identify with Fawkes' image as a legitimate symbol of political protest.

Such can be the power of film, when its sole trajectory isn't 'bums on seats', or in the words of Harry Enfield, "LOADSAMONEY!" In recent years, the documentary has come up trumps in terms of tangible impact: cast your minds back to Morgan Spurlock barfing up half a drugged-up cow and a bucket of grease-sodden potato in 2004's Supersize Me. No, I didn't particularly want to see his half-masticated McCarcass burger either, but it was a good point unsubtly made, and MacDonald's called time on the Supersize a mere six weeks after the film's release.

Similarly, Al Gore's 2006 documentary may not have been a thing of cinematic wonder, or particularly balanced for that matter, but it went on to become the fourth highest grossing documentary in America, and obligatory viewing material for government officials. Gore's film was a worldwide phenomenon, drawing attention to the cause of global warming in a way that only a film could. On a smaller scale, it's easy to forget the impact Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line had on the life of one individual: sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit, Morris' documentary film was not just a genre-defining piece of cinema- it saved a Randall Dale Adams' life.

That's not to say that cinema always comes in the form of a knight on a shining white, morally upright horse. Leni Riefenstahl's 1935 film The Triumph of the Will was instrumental in swaying a nation to rally behind an insane man with insane ideas, but a rather good Charlie Chaplin moustache. Riefenstahl's Nazi-supporting film became the propaganda prototype, and did its job disastrously well.

Narrative cinema, too, plays an important role in moulding our minds and shaping our world- believe it or not, screenwriters often turn their pen to a topic weightier than Marley the dog dying, albeit with all the frequency of a 60-year-old woman's menstrual cycle. In 1915, D.W. Griffiths' racist slurs and historical 're-moulding' in Birth of a Nation had the NAACP up in arms. Riots, deaths, and ultimately the re-grouping of the KKK followed in its wake. Battle of Algiers was shown in the Pentagon in 2003, as a sort of Hitchhiker's Guide to Counterinsurgency, despite being made in 1966. Now that's longevity.

If you rifle through the back catalogue of your filmic memory, the list really does go on and on. So if, like me, you're sitting in some hum-drum film featuring yet more fangs, or no-strings sex, or Jennifer blooming Aniston being 'quirky', and it's all you can do not to scream "WHAT IS THE POINT, YOU CANDYFLOSS-BRAINED CRETINS?!" at the screen... Muse on those V masks, and know that sometimes, just sometimes, the Hollywood hotshots shoot something so good, it captures the imagination of not just one person, but the whole 99%. And breathe.