January and February are Movie Season in our home. After years of going to Oscar parties and not knowing a thing about any of the films nominated for Best Picture, we decided to change our outlook. Now, as soon as the movies are nominated, my wife and I go on a mad movie binge to see as many of the films as humanly possible before the big night. It still hasn’t won me any money, but at least I have some idea what’s going on as everyone else takes my hard-earned dollar bill every year.
As I progress through this year’s Best Picture nominees, I’m noticing a theme. A sad theme. I used to teach my English students that “literature is a reaction to the world.” Novelists, artists, and even screenwriters look to the problems they see in the world and turn to their artistic medium to express their views on those problems. If that is so, then there is one undeniable problem being tackled in this year’s films: loneliness. If these films are reactions to today’s world, then we may be the loneliest, most isolated people on the planet.
It’s more than a personal loneliness. Yes, many of these characters are physically isolated from the world. But it’s also an esoteric, almost spiritual loneliness that emanates from the top films of 2013. As much as social networks and other modern technology, connects us together, we seem to be feeling more isolated than ever before. Just look at the evidence from the nominated films:
Gravity: Surrounded by realistic, modern technology astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) becomes stranded in space by a freak accident. Plagued by internal doubts stemming from her failures on earth, Stone must somehow get herself back to terra firma. In many ways it’s a story of death and rebirth, but she has no loving family or personal mission to return to. She has gone into space to escape the ravages of real life, and that space almost ravages her. Surrounded by the endless void, Stone must choose to make a new life for herself, one without self-doubt and that celebrates the forgotten beauty of living in the real world.
Her: In a slightly futuristic, yet very recognizable Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer’s new artificially intelligent operating system. This is a world we all recognize- a city full of people who never even notice each other because they are too wrapped up in their own love affairs with their tiny, portable computers. Twombly is surrounded by a different void, a city void of purpose, meaning, or pleasure that forces him to turn to an artificial relationship that has no real hope of lasting. He has no higher purpose, and like many of us he lives on his computer. It’s only one more step to actually consummate the desperate relationship.
Captain Phillips: Based on a true story, cargo ship Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is navigating his ship near Somali waters with no escort or protection when the ship is attacked and commandeered by local pirates. Ultimately, Phillips is left alone with his captors and must survive through his own wits, ingenuity, and perseverance. Phillips is forced out of the protective bubble of his vessel and into a face-to-face showdown with the true squalors of the third world. It’s a different kind of isolation, but it is isolation nonetheless, and as Phillips’ rank and humanity is slowly stripped away, we become more and more cognizant of the intangibility of our own position in life. They say we’re all two paychecks from the jungle, and Captain Phillips proves how little our titles and degrees mean in the grand scheme of things.
Nebraska: There is profound loneliness in this film even when the room is crowded. As befuddled, alcoholic father Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) make their way to the state’s capital on a fool’s errand, Woody is confronted with his family and all the ghosts of his past. Never mind the ghosts he’s already running away from: his overbearing (and annoying) wife (June Squibb), a string of failures, and a family that treats him like a stupid child. Throughout the film, Woody is surrounded by family, yet completely alone. No one understands him. Few even try. They treat him as less than human from the first frames of the movie, and he can’t convince anyone that he is a real, thinking, individual person. Woody is isolated and ridiculed even by his own loved ones.
American Hustle: Unable to find their share of the American Dream, con-artists Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) team up to lie, cheat, and steal money from the most down and out people they can find. This is no Robin Hood film, where the crime is justified because our heroes are stealing excess money from the wealthy. No, in this movie we sympathize with two people who are perfectly content robbing the poor and desperate by baiting and switching them out of the last of their money. A zealous FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) forces them to help him bust other bad guys, but even he gets greedier and greedier until he has lost sight of the good he was trying to do. This is a story of deep isolation from the good within all of us at the expense of personal wealth and power.
Those are all the nominees I have seen. I’ll be checking out as many of the rest of them as soon as possible, but from what I can tell, these themes will continue. Even Blue Jasmine, a film nominated for other awards and written by a man suffering his own (possibly well-deserved) isolation, contains the theme of loneliness. Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine tries to make a new life for herself after all her comforts have been stripped away. Much like Hanks’ Captain Phillips, Jasmine shows us just how reliant our supposedly developed world is on the work and toil of others we dare not acknowledge.
All of this takes me back to the Pixar film Wall-E. Remember when they finally showed what happened to humanity? They were all fat and lazy and staring at computer screens in a hedonistic, artificial world. This year’s Oscar films seem to be bringing the predictions of Wall-E and manifesting them into our world. All of them present a world of spiritual dearth, with no common bond among humanity beyond possibly an atavistic brand of tribalism.
During the Super Bowl a Coca-Cola ad that featured people of various cultures singing lines from “America the Beautiful” in their own language got a segment of our population so angry that they took to social media in droves to register their complaints, trending the hashtag #cokesucks. If this isn’t evidence of misguided rage, isolation, and tribalism, nothing is.
You would think that people would be happy that cultures from around the world were showing affection for our country, that we were a respected member of the world community. Nope. Instead, fear, anger, and xenophobia won out. Plus, this happened in the same week that some people got vocally angry when the Grammys celebrated marriage and love by performing a mass wedding of 33 gay and straight couples. We are in Nebraska, surrounded by potential friends, yet keeping ourselves isolated. We are somewhere in LA, making love to our computerized girlfriends. We are somewhere in the Somali Basin, trying to sail alone when what we really need are friends.
Our loneliness is self-inflicted. These are all good movies, and they are all reactions to the modern world. Have we lost that part of our collective soul that connects us to others?