What kind of book can talk about “the power of movies”, and never refer to a single scene in a single movie? Oh sure, McGinn mentions Citizen Kane in the second chapter, but says absolutely nothing about it: he uses the movie, and the fact that Orson Welles played the lead, not to tell us anything about the art or craft of making movies, but merely to ruminate on the relation of image to object. This is not helpful.
I suppose the subtitle of the book (How Screen and Mind Interact) ought to have been a clue. Still, you would expect (OK, I would expect) that to talk about “movies” would involve talking to some extent about actual, specific movies. What can you possibly hope to achieve by generalizations? When talking about “movies” are we meant to think that there is nothing different between the films of Peter Jackson and those of Carl Theodor Dreyer? That the mind “interacts” with all films in the same way? McGinn seems to suggest exactly that, as when he says that you don’t look at the image but “through” it. That may be true for many films and for many viewers, but it is nowhere close to true for certain films (12 Monkeys, or Un Chien Andalou, or Daisies come to mind). And it is certain that film students, actors, and directors look at the images, to figure out how the director and cinematographer achieved the effects, the “power”, that they achieved.
This was just a disappointing book. As I was reading it I felt that McGinn was being lazy, that he hadn’t done proper research. But I think the problem is more fundamental: McGinn simply doesn’t see this (the understanding of cinema) as an object of empirical research. For him it seems to be a matter of pure analysis, taking the most evident features of cinema as a jumping off point. What next? Will he write a book, The Power of Painting, and never refer to any specific painting or artist? What could anyone ever learn from such a book? And what can anyone learn from the book that he actually wrote? Nothing, I think, or very little.