You're sitting in a movie theater, the lights go down, the projector turns on. What do you see?
Some people want to be entertained, maybe a superhero film or the next volume of Fast and Furious. Some people want to be scared, maybe Friday the 13th or Halloween. I was certainly jolted by the jump scares in It, and I enjoyed the intense action-packed Avenger’s Endgame as much as the next person. But, speaking for myself, these movies are not the reason that I wanted to become a filmmaker. They are not the reason that film is so special to me. When I’m sitting in a movie theater, if it’s the kind of movie I want to see, there is this feeling that will wash over me. It’s a feeling of the voice, the human behind the screen. I want to be immersed in the story. I want to feel like I'm inside the movie, like the movie is a living, breathing entity that has merged with my own. I want to be made to live my life more vividly because of the energy that the movie has fed my soul. And that feeling, the connection to another human, the connection to humanity, is what makes film so remarkable.
To better explain what I mean, I'm going to share some examples of some of the films and filmmakers that I think have captured the essence of humanity in their filmmaking so wonderfully. Spanning over almost every genre of film, these writer/directors are unbounded. And, through breaking the limits of what is “supposed to be,” they are paving the way for more stories to be told. I’m going to discuss how nuances and attention to detail, imitation of life, personal connection to story, and authenticity of character all come into play, either individually, or in an amalgamation, to create the onscreen masterpieces that connect to us on such a profound level.
I’m going to start off with one of the first films that began my love for cinema, Fantastic Mr. Fox, by the iconic Wes Anderson. While there are many elements to this movie that I adore, the thing that I found so striking as a ten year old was the detail that was put into every frame. Whether it be Mr. Fox’s trademark “whistle with a clicking sound,” describing Ash as being (wavy hand motion) “different,” the spirals that characters would get in their eyes when they were zoned out, or Kylie’s titanium credit card (and his anecdote about how he’s always had good credit). All of these moments are so odd, so specific, yet so true to life. It is that specificity of characters and actions that allows for a humor and connection to the film that can’t be achieved any other way. By allowing these characters to have such uniquely exaggerated qualities and eccentricities, Wes Anderson is creating a more vivid depiction of life, one that is not reality, but rather how reality can feel. It is sort of the opposite of life imitates art. It is art imitating life, serving as a mirror of our experience from the mind’s eye. And, it is these quirky reflections of our inner being, in Anderson’s other films as well as this one, that allow for a coupling between our perceptions of ourselves and our actual selves, making us see and experience life with a newfound awareness and lucidity.
Another way in which films can serve as a deep reflection of humanity is when there is a personal connection to be drawn. This is something unique to everyone, and for me, I have found this to be particularly true with Ari Aster’s astonishing film, Midsommar. What I love about Ari Aster's work in general is that he doesn't shy away from the gut wrenching horrors of reality. With both Hereditary and Midsommar, he does a fantastic job of making a "horror" movie with all of the tropes that people prescribe to the genre, but what you realize very quickly is that the true horror that he is presenting is that of real life (shit that could and does actually happen to people).
When we first meet Dani, the main character in Midsommar, she’s an independent young woman living away from home. Dani struggles with anxiety, a lot of which seems to be brought on by her sister, who lives at home with their parents and suffers from bipolar disorder. First off, the story of the sibling of the "sick" kid is a story that is very close to home, as I have had experience with my sibling suffering from severe physical and mental illnesses. It is a story rarely shown, and one which I think needs to be explored more in film. Taking it a step further, the tragedy that Ari Aster chose to bestow upon Dani is basically my worst nightmare. There have been a number of times where I've been living away from home, my sibling (who has bipolar disorder) has been living at home with my parents, and I have been absolutely terrified that this exact situation could become my reality. I had always felt ashamed for allowing myself to imagine that such a thing could happen. But, seeing this film showed me that I’m not the only person who lets their mind go to that dark place. Ari Aster is willing to push the boundaries of what is "socially acceptable" in order to give an accurate portrayal of the true horrors of life and in turn portray people in the most sincere way.
Last, but certainly not least I would like to discuss Greta Gerwig. In my opinion Gerwig is the ultimate master of the art of connecting people to their humanity. Her films have hilarious yet touching nuances, messy and authentic characters, incredibly crafted dialogue, and it is all tightly scripted and written with the utmost precision, freedom, love, and care. She has often said that when she starts working on a movie, it will begin with a bunch of nuanced moments of a character. For example, someone debating whether to pay the surcharge at the ATM. She then will take these moments, form a character around them, and she will find the story structure within the “mess."
In Frances Ha there is a scene in particular that is so simple yet so profound. Frances and her best friend Sophie like to share a bed when they sleep, and Sophie always asks Frances to take her socks off. Later in the story, they are relocated and a lot has happened between them. They are in a college dorm room, sleeping in a twin bed, and Sophie asks Frances to take her socks off. The following morning, Frances wakes up, realizing that Sophie has left. She bolts outside yelling Sophie’s name and is too late to catch the car. At that moment Frances looks defeated and then looks down at her bare feet. It is something so simple, so unimportant, but there is so much emotion and thought resting upon this single close-up that it becomes a moment of catharsis and a turning point in the film. By relating the audience to the nuance of socks in bed, something quirky and humorous, the gateway is opened for a deeper personal connection to the characters, thus making the story as a whole connect to people on a deeper level.
Although there are so many examples I could reference, the last is from her most recent work, Little Women. In particular the scene where Beth dies. There is this beautiful thing that Gerwig has done, where she stacks two moments on top of each other. First, there is childhood where Beth is on the verge of death. Jo wakes up and Beth’s bed is empty. She rushes downstairs to find their mother at a table, and when she turns we see Beth sitting up. She’s going to make it. Then, in the present day, Beth is on the verge of death. Jo wakes up to an empty bed. When she goes downstairs, their mother is alone. We know Beth has died. Gerwig has said that she wrote this stacking of the two scenes on top of one another, based on the feeling that she has had when someone dies. The feeling that they were just there, that it was just the other way, as if the memory of their presence could inoculate them from death. This moment, to me, perfectly exemplifies the beauty in Greta Gerwig’s extraordinary talent, but also the medium of film as a whole.
There aren’t many other artistic mediums that can represent life in this way. To let the past and the present live side by side, to weave an emotional tapestry that can take the peak emotional experiences of humankind and mirror them in such a way that they feel like they have come directly from your soul. As if the filmmaker has given a part of your soul back to you. And when you leave the movie theater you’re so full of life that everything seems a little more real, a little more emotional, and a little more vivid. That feeling is the beauty of cinema at it’s core. I realize that this is a more modern diagnosis on filmmaking, however if you trace any of these filmmakers back to their inspirations, one begets five others. Whether it be Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Chantal Akermam, François Truffaut, Martin Scorese, Jane Campion, Steven Spielberg, the list goes on and on. As you go down this rabbit hole of artists, the depth of human experience is exacerbated. And, the more stories are told, representing all perspectives and ways of living, the more we can open ourselves up to conversation, whether with ourselves, or with others, ultimately making the world a more loving, understanding, and empathetic place.
I would like to end this off with a quote from Philip Roth. He said that his writing process begins by “rubbing two stones of truth together to spark the imagination.” Take your experiences, take your humanity, take the eccentricities that make you you, rub them together, spark your imagination, because the world might not know it yet, but we need your stories.
What films have made you feel the most connected to humanity?
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