To give you my simple answer...
Because most people aren’t sociopaths.
Kidding. Kind of. What I really mean is, the vast majority of people experience this wondrous thing called empathy. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. It is basically our birthright as humans. It’s our ability to understand, connect, and relate our own emotional experiences to those of someone else. When watching a film, we are committing ourselves to approximately two hours of empathizing with the characters and stories presented to us.
To break it down to its core, filmmaking is just one of many mediums of storytelling. And, since the beginning of time, storytelling has been composed of both character and story archetypes, that mold a solid and reliable structure and path for the plot to follow.
Looking at it from a psychological point of view, the famous psychologist Carl Jung established twelve character archetypes: The Warrior, The Child, The Orphan, The Creator, The Caregiver, The Mentor, The Joker, The Magician, The Ruler, The Rebel, The Lover, and The Seducer. While it might seem dehumanizing to put characters in a box and reduce them down to one “type” of person, in fact, it is the opposite, and in turn, has the opposite effect on the audience.
Rather than smothering the lifeforce behind the character, archetypes allow for a freedom within the structure. With structure, the writer is given the flexibility to create something outside of the box, but that isn’t SO out there that people can’t connect to it.
No surprise, Carl Jung wasn’t an idiot. The archetypes that he defined were not a figment of his imagination, but rather a reduction of the myriad of different roles human beings can play in real life. By doing this, he gave authors a tool to lay the foundations for meaningful and even life-changing storytelling, storytelling that connects to the human psyche.
Beyond the structure of characters and the psychological games used to play on the audiences’ empathy, there are many other reasons why good films can change lives. In conjunction with Jungian character archetypes, good films are so impactful because they provide a glimpse of another being’s life. Whatever or whoever the character is, films are art imitating life.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned Wes Anderson as a filmmaker who is particularly talented at capturing the nuances of life to present them the way that life feels rather than how it is. Mike Nichols once said about shooting black and white films, “here’s the thing about black and white: It’s not literal, it is a metaphor, automatically...it is already saying, ‘no this is not life, this is something about life.’”
As human beings, we don’t go to movies because we want to spend twenty-four hours living every single breath and every single moment with another person. We can do that by simply existing. The point of a film is to provide an edited and condensed life. With a time frame generally under three hours, films are the highly concentrated version of someone’s experiences, thus making the experience of observation much more impactful than those of everyday occurrences.
One way in which this can be achieved is through elevated and exaggerated plots. Take, for example, George Lucas’ infamous Star Wars films. These are some of the most beloved movies of all time. The sheer amount of people whose lives would be so different without these films’ existence is phenomenal. You might be wondering, how does a movie about people and creatures from other galaxies and planets fighting and at war with one another “change people’s Lives?”
Beyond the highly entertaining and action-packed exterior, Star Wars has a lot of hidden meaning to connect to people. Whether you’re following Luke’s hero’s journey to ultimately defeat Darth Vader, or if you’re connected to the love story between Han Solo and Princess Leia, or even if you connect to the friendship and comic relief of R2D2 and C3P0.
There are so many specific and detailed character subtleties and storylines, that these characters become real. While sitting in the theater, or watching from home, no longer are these just actors on a screen, but people draw personal connections, and rather than simply watch a story unfold, the audience begins to feel a part of someone else’s life.
Another example of a film that has changed lives is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining - a personal favorite of mine. It not only shows the impact of good filmmaking, but it also brings the topic of books versus movies into the conversation. Personally, I have both read Stephen King’s masterful novel and watched Stanley Kubrick’s ingenious film. When looking at them as one piece of art, one always sucks. You could choose either and make your case why the book is better or why the movie is better. BUT, if you observe them as independent works, they are both life-altering creations.
The novel focuses on the mental suffering of a man tortured by his inner demons, trying to fight his urges through the extremely detailed psychological warfare that King has written. I found the descriptions and the emotion of this poor man deeply moving, and frankly quite sad. Sad, however, is not the first adjective that comes to mind when watching a horror movie. Instead, I found the film to hone in much more on the actions of the characters. Through suspense, thrilling nuances, and both the anticipation and actual occurrence of such horrifying brutality and violence, Kubrick’s The Shining lets you make your own psychoanalysis of Jack Torrance and his family as the terror at the Overlook Hotel ensues.
The iconography of The Shining, similar to Star Wars, makes for a life-altering effect. With famous and quotable lines like “redrum” or “Heeeere’s Johnny,” again, the characters become more than just a fabrication of the mind. The vivid nature of the filmmaking makes the family, the entire story, truly feel real. And when something feels real, human connection prospers.
You could follow this same analysis for any of the most iconic, beloved films in history. Watching a great film is like taking a shot of pure lemon juice. There is no dilution with water. Instead of the minutia and lull of everyday existence, you get the opportunity to watch life the way that it feels.
Taking it another step further, these films allow us to learn more about ourselves. It could be in a big way, realizing that we struggle with the same demons as a character, or in a small way, sharing a favorite food in common. Either way, learning more about ourselves paves the way for self-reflection and subsequent personal development.
No, a movie on its own can’t actually change who we are, but it can serve as the sour, undiluted, lemon juice shot that makes it abundantly clear what it means to be a human, thus making us more empathetic and more highly developed people.
And that, right there, my fellow storytellers, is the lifeforce for changing lives.
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.