By: Ryan Bordow
Has a movie ever fundamentally changed the way you think?
The first time a film hijacked my ideological process was somewhat stereotypical for a teenage boy. It was spring break, I was 16, and my cousin found out that I hadn’t seen David Fincher’s cult classic Fight Club. My parents — who were, at that point, fairly puritanical about what movies I was allowed to watch — were gone all week, so my cousin brought Fight Club over with the reverence that some have for religious texts. Off went the lights; on went the ritualistic rite of passage: a young man’s first engagement with the movie’s philosophical explorations of manhood and consumerism.
That day is largely responsible for two things: my desire to be a filmmaker, and my never-ending inclination to question authority structures (including those of capitalist systems, as the movie’s characters would’ve wanted). My young peers at the time were unconvinced that “a movie about men fighting in a basement” could prompt such a drastic sociopolitical conversion. Seeing art as a force for change was pretentious well wishing, a niche belief for the kids without confidence in themselves.
That attitude has pervaded into many adult lives. A host of filmmakers and actors have voiced outspoken political opinions lately, but they’ve been repeatedly shot down by cries of “they’re just Hollywood elites”, or — in the words of one Facebook commenter — “they work in make-believe and don’t live in the real world.”
But what if cinema has more truth to reveal than its dissenters (or even its supporters) expect? In the past few years, some of the world’s most powerful people have cast aside the pursuit for truth like it’s an inconvenience. Scholars have taken to defining the world’s current state as “post-truth”. Hopefully, I can convince you that the consumption of worthwhile art is an antidote to this acceptance of artifice. It’s more important than ever to sit down, turn the lights off, and watch a good movie — whether your authority figures want you to or not.
Is Cinema Just Make-Believe?
Documentaries aside, movies are typically fictional accounts. Even movies that are based on true stories are fictionalized to add a degree of entertainment or dramatic flair. So yes, on the surface, cinema involves a bit of “make-believe”. But there’s more to take into account.
One of the crucial pieces of advice given to screenwriters (besides “show, don’t tell”) is “write what you know”. If a filmmaker is going to commit the necessary time, money, and soul to tell a story in cinematic form, they’d better shape their vision around aspects of the human experience that they know well. We don’t want to watch movies lacking in conflicts or characters that we can identify with.
That's demonstrable. You may not have fought wars in space, but you might identify with the pressures of living up to a path already set before you. You probably haven’t battled mutant hunters with your adamantium claws, but you might understand the feeling of watching your old friends vanish from your life while you struggle for purpose. You definitely haven’t had tense conversations with a self-aware artificial intelligence, but you might have questioned what it means to be human.
Point is: whether filmmakers are expressly trying to make a point or not, cinematic storytelling echoes human experience, no matter how “make-believe” the outer narrative. It’s impossible for a film made by a human being to not have subtext — though the depth and intention of that subtext certainly vary.
This phenomenon is demonstrated with emotional resonance in Tim Burton’s masterwork Big Fish. A dying man’s estranged son visits home in an attempt to learn the truth about his father. Edward Bloom had raised his son Will on outlandish stories about his life, but Will is not satisfied with these unreal accounts and wants to hear his father’s actual history. Still, Edward and his surrounding community supply Will with stories of giants and werewolves and love stopping time — all visually rendered with colorful grace.
By the film’s end (spoiler alert!), Will discovers that the fantastical elements of his father’s stories were illuminating allegories for real personalities; real pain; real passion. Will then understands his father and the people around him more than he thought possible. The undercurrent of Edward Bloom’s stories was an attempt to capture otherwise indescribable feelings — and “make-believe” was the conduit that described them most truthfully.
Truth Behind the Scenes
So fiction presented cinematically is a vehicle for genuine human expression. Sometimes filmmakers wish to communicate their worldview, other times it’s a side effect of translating a human being’s vision into movie form. Where does “truth” make its grand entrance? What’s the key ingredient of Fight Club (or Ex Machina, or Calvary, or another film with especial life-changing ability) that can start a receptive viewer on a journey of questions and authenticity?
A screenwriting professor once told me “events have no inherent meaning”. If this is how the universe works, then truth is subjective: individual experience shapes truth, and cinema is crafted from parts of individual experience with which we can identify. Truth lies therein by definition. If objective truth guides this universe, then pursuit of it throws us in community with millions of other people whose individual experiences differ from ours.
Either way, the key ingredient is empathy. Empathy is not a partisan issue; empathy dissolves cultural divide; empathy refuses class distinction. If truth is subjective, empathizing with another helps us garner their truth; if truth is objective, empathizing with another helps us glean the advances towards truth that they’ve accomplished. Thankfully, movies envelop our mind and senses with the genuine expression of another. Cinema is empathy.
The Cinematic Commission
In a world of temptations to toss truth aside, our charge might be to engage with great cinema. But simply watching a lot of movies isn’t enough: we must seek out cinema that fathoms the difficulty of truth. Avoid movies that divorce conflicts and characters from reality in order to flaunt messages without nuance; look for films that weave understanding of the human condition into every frame. If they can entertain and engross all the while, even better (this is where the helpful opinions of film critics come in handy!)
An open mind is paramount. What truth can you find in Boys Don’t Cry if you’re not willing to empathize with the struggles of transgender people? What truth can you find in Arrival if you’re uninterested in the language of someone completely unlike you? When the lights go down, switch on a heart wide open and a goal to understand.
Look to cinema like that, and our “post-truth world” is going to be just fine.