Three Cinematic Lessons I Learned During the Doldrums of the 2016 Summer Movie Season.

Or… How I learned to stop worrying about the box office and embraced both old and new in order to gain new perspective

“There are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer to the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything.”- Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

If you are as into film as I am, you’ve experienced the fatigue represented at the end of a long summer movie season where things might not have turned out the way you’d have anticipated. This year has been especially challenging, with some calling this the worst summer movie season in recent memory. While there certainly is plenty of evidence to support this, I found the summer of 2016 to have offered plenty of alternatives to the mainstream, some of which have entered into my top 10 for the year so far. From incredibly heartfelt family fare (Finding Dory, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Pete’s Dragon) to excercises in relationships (Swiss Army Man, The Lobster) to big budget crowd pleasers (Ghostbusters, The Nice Guys, Star Trek Beyond), 2016 had plenty to offer even as box office numbers slipped.

The first realization I had, which came the longer I meditated on the films I did manage to see and review, was that perhaps this summer wasn’t all that unlike movie summers of the past. Considering the last 2–3 years, I’ve found that one’s perception of how well a season of movies does is all dependent on what you are looking for and where you are looking for it. Independent features coming out of Sundance, like The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man, is a much bigger sell to audiences than it is a built in revenue stream, but considering how imaginative and original it was, isn’t that the point of making movies? I am overtly less concerned with how an Independence Day sequel or Captain America: Civil War does globally, than I am about getting people to give Pete’s Dragon, The Lobster, Kubo and the Two Strings or Weiner Dog a chance. If we’re always looking to the box office numbers as a sign of quality, then the results are never going to match what we are truly looking for in cinema.

As I considered the summer at large, I began to reflect on where I am at personally and with writing, and discovered that one area that I wanted to focus on during the month of August was rekindling my sense of cinema through some well established classics.

This second realization was indeed the best remedy for the summer blues and inspired me to pull together this post exploring three cinematic life lessons that I’ve been learning from both past and present. What I hadn’t anticipated fully, was just how relatable these truths would become for me personally and how by reengaging with film I found a fresh perspective that I believe had been there all along but just needed some attention.

For this project I watched the following films (including all aforementioned films during 2016):

  1. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
  2. 8 1/2 (Frederico Fellini, 1963)
  3. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)
  4. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
  5. The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)
  6. A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)
  7. Paris, TX (Wim Wenders, 1984)
  8. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
  9. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
  10. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)
  11. Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.”- Robert McKee (Brian Cox) in Adaptation (2002)

Lesson 1: Cinema, like life, forces us to change our perspective from time to time.

Watching Adaptation, The 400 Blows, The Last Picture Show, and Paris, TX in one month is a feat unto itself. Each of these character driven films follow non-traditional plots featuring a person sidelined by their own personality and made subject to the world around them. When things go well for them, life seems to take a turn towards some new horizon, but when things turn sour, everything feels, as in life, a struggle. Redemption resides at the core of each of these 4 features and what I loved about experiencing all of them for the first time was just how genuine and straightforward each tended to be. How close we get to these characters determines how much of them we see in ourselves, and for me, this was a great realization of how I’d distanced myself from the art in recent months.

2016 has been a tough but favorable year for me personally. I’ve discovered a great deal about myself and made some huge strides in my abilities as a writer. I moved across the country to a new city and began to recognize that although I’d grown accustomed to a certain level of comfort and routine, the ability for me to remain unaffected by my new surroundings just wouldn’t be possible if I truly wanted to grow. These self-realizations are not all that unlike those of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) or Antoine Donel (The 400 Blows) or Travis Henderson (Paris, Tx), who are all confronted about their approach to life, and challenged by society to conform. Through the course of a single film, we are treated to a characters arcs, both major and minor, and are reminded that the destination each of us desires to reach by the end is entirely determined by the roads that lead there. Sometimes there are unforeseen forks or challenges along the way, but if we relate this to real life, isn’t that what allows for our journeys to have meaning?

Change nearly always invokes some degree of conflict. Although most of us strongly object to this reality in our everyday lives, in cinema we crave it. When pressed about his screenplay in Adaptation, Charlie Kauffman is lambasted by his agent, himself, and famed screenwriting guru, Robert McKee (Brian Cox), for having unwittingly writing himself into a corner and not facing the reality of his situation in the wake of it. In The Last Picture Show, the adults of Anarene are miserable reminders to the towns youth for what their future holds. As we follow Sonny (Tim Bottoms), Duane (Jeff Bridges), and Jacy (Cybill Sheppard) over the course of a year, we understand the enormous weight placed on each of them as time unforgivingly moves forward with little regard to their plans to remain together. In Paris, Tx, it is only through Travis recognizing his faults as a lover and a father that is able to forgive himself and let go of the life he left behind.

For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the concept of accepting cinema’s ability to break open my expectations and take root in unexpected ways. Lesson #1 is a great example of a time when I recognized that as I was intentionally trying to bring about change in my own life, I was only concentrating on what that act could bring in the form of reward, and without actually producing anything, I could really only count on this experience of disconnecting from SM as a waiting game. Through these 4 films, I reconnected the concept of actionable change with the internal and external factors that make up our stories.

Cinema can provide a sort of spiritual awakening, if we allow ourselves the proper time and space to make a distinct change. Thinking over the films of 2016, specifically those falling under the May-August banner, I found that three films truly exemplified this concept.

In Kubo and the Two Strings, our young hero must contend with the difficult task of defending his parents honor by combating his supernatural extended family whose immortality has distanced them from the realities of the human experience. Though Kubo would like to resurrect his parents in order to continue their stories, he realizes that the only way to truly accomplish this would be through letting go. In Swiss Army Man, Hank (Paul Dano) risks suicide before meeting his savior, a farting corpse named Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). They begin a one-sided friendship until, something magical happens and Manny begins to take on a life of his own and provide insight into Hank’s insecurities and troubled past. Regardless of whether Manny is a hallucination or not, his presence forces change in the life of his friend, who’d simply run away from society in order to feel something authentic but only ended up becoming more lost in the process. In The Lobster, middle aged David (Colin Farrell) brushes past the societal obligations to find a mate at The Hotel, and instead risks everything for a woman (Rachel Weisz) whose role within a group of outsiders dissuades them from having a physical or emotional relationship. David makes some significant changes on her behalf, but it comes from a place of true sacrifice in the end (which I won’t spoil here).

In all three of these modern films, the leads are forced to change through circumstance, yet each defiantly pulls through to discover something unexpected and magical in the process of determining who they truly are. This sense of motivation is solid and consistent and altogether foundational to these stories, and it creates a sense of fulfillment by the end credits in a way that sticks with you. Perhaps it was that I too was looking for change and thats why I found all three fascinating, or perhaps the filmmakers just really stuck their landings.

Accept me as I am. Only then can we discover each other.- Guido (Marcelo Mastroianni) in 8 1/2 (1963)

Lesson 2: Persistence Can Be Perilous If One Hasn’t Determined What They’d Like To Be.

The essence of cool has long been an indefinable attribute of cinema. A combination of charisma, social constructs, sex appeal, taste, and behavior- the ability to appear or to act cool, is often a byproduct of something either tragic or compensated for during a past life. Balancing between tragedy and comedy isn’t easy, but in Fellini’s 8 1/2, Breathless, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, this concept is masterfully explored. The internal and external lives of these characters is given time to emerge over the course of the film, yet each exhibit the attribute of cool from the first moment we see them on screen.

Be it a loner (Hard Eight), a famous director (8 1/2), a card shark (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), or a pair of star cross lovers who’ve committed a terrible crime(Breathless), the essence of a characters persistence allows for them to engage with the world around them with confidence even as they struggle to determine how to bring their true selves to the surface.

In 8 1/2, Guido (Marcelo Mastroianni) is a legendary film director whose fame across Italy has given him a grand reputation and a pantheon of female admirers. While creatively stunted by the woes of a troubled production, we learn that it is his personal life that has brought him both joy and sorrow, and until he finds a way to reflect and repent for his mistakes, the ability for him to retain his stature as an artist is sacrificed.

With Breathless, I was reminded of just how loose and vibrant Godard’s messages often were, and how he relied on aesthetics, facial expressions, jump-cuts, and mood to truly sell his stories as expressions of frustration. In its deliberate and provocative exploration of youth culture, Breathless manages to turn Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo) and Patricia (Jean Seberg) into symbols of a lost generation, and molds the film to their chemistry which still stands today. It is the unpacking of his persistence, the desire to live a life as an outlaw, that initially fuels the fires of their love, but also begins the collision course that ultimately ends in tragedy.

At the core of each of these films is the essence of experience; both vibrant and charismatic, it fuels our desire to see larger than life characters attempt to find solace in a world changed by their persistent, sometimes ill conceived desire. As I considered this as it related to my own life, I was immediately struck by something from Breathless. Michel at one point states: “There’s no need to lie. It’s like poker. The truth is best. The others still think you’re bluffing, so you win.”

The lesson here is cautionary.

To know oneself and be wiling to stand outside of the norm is a scary, sometimes dangerous reality. I began to ask myself how I’ve taken strides to evoke conversation with others about life, art, and philosophy and often found myself frustrated by somewhat lacking responses. Then I began to realize that although I wanted more from these conversations, perhaps others did not, and that finding a solution to my problem in others may only result in the same frustrating predicament I’d faced before. To be 100% to yourself is difficult, but produces vastly more fruit over time and allows our persistence to shine through even as we encounter parts of our lives that bring us little fulfillment. As I’ve began to search for a new job, this reality sunk in, and I recognized that while it may take me longer to find something fulfilling, the end result finds me as a more honest, defined, and satisfied person.

Perhaps the closest example I found was in Yorgo Lanthimos’s The Lobster, which I mentioned before. If you haven’t seen that film it truly is a wondrous, bizarre, and profoundly comedic experience that is worth your time.

“I just couldn’t help myself. The gates were open and the hills were beckoning and everything was so green and fresh, and the Untersberg kept leading me higher and higher, as if it wanted me to go right through the clouds with it.”- Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music (1965)

Lesson 3: Its okay to be a bit outlandish or old fashioned, just as long as you find room to be genuine and charming.

Pageantry is a form of flattery, in a sense.

I have to say, at nearly 30 years old, that I had never seen The Sound of Music until about two weeks ago. My first reaction was delight, of course, and my second was surprise. To see a film brimming with immense optimism felt worlds apart from the high degree of cynicism incorporated into films today, and Sound of Music, was perhaps the most sunny cinematic experience I’d had in nearly 6 months. Its infectious and lighthearted and bristling with traditionalism, yet, as most of you probably already know, it shares in that experience with a sense of honesty that still retains its shape a half a century later.

While most of the films this summer skirted that line between optimism and pessimism, one film was defiantly positive in the most charming and most unbelievable way imaginable for 2016. Pete’s Dragon, the latest film from Sundance darling David Lowery, is so well constructed and removed from our current strain of family oriented films that its mere existence is a testament to the power of its design. The earnest charm it employed delivered some great laughs and even a few tears in a way that few summer movies feel prepared to offer nor would they if given the chance. Pete’s Dragon, as I mentioned in my review, is a film that takes root in the tradition of cinema while seeming new and old at the same time. That special place, where films can be fun, engaging, and meaningful is a testament to the power of being kind to oneself and to othes.

What I enjoyed about this lesson was that film so often feels intended for subject matter about the sheer weight of the human experience while instantly reminding us of how difficult it can be. In films like The Sound of Music, A Hard Day’s Night, and even to a lesser degree in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, there is a power behind the optimism and overtly positive message demonstrated by its core beliefs. There is a tradition and a classicalism to them that is largely absent in today’s cinema, and I was struck by the degree to which a film like Bridge on the River Kwai goes out of its way to celebrate what procedure, honor, and identity could bring to an otherwise horrible situation.

I will admit that this is something difficult for me to swallow, and often I am far harsher to myself, as many of you can probably relate, than I am kind to myself. Life is difficult, but as human beings we are all striving for that sense of fulfillment and relief where our efforts are rewarded, our time is spent doing the things we love, and we are surrounded by those we care most about. Perhaps we are all looking for our own little slice of heaven waiting for us on the alps of the European countryside, or in my case, a sense of relief that I am worth it.

What I re-learned about cinema this month was that despite the state of the box office, the power of film still carries an amazing ability to remind us of what we are striving for in our daily lives and how escaping to another world, even those mirroring our own, allows us to wrestle with big ideas and artistic expressions we weren’t expecting to encounter. While not every message will relate to every person, the lessons we can take away from film, even during a disappointing summer, are worth more than the price of admission.