It’s in our human nature to be attracted to things that are the direct opposite of what scares us.
When we’re too cold, our instinct is to seek warmth – but when we’re too warm, it’s our instinct to flee in search of something cooler. When we’re afraid of the dark, we turn on a light. When we’re afraid of falling, we keep back from the edges and cling to the centre. Self-preservation is embedded in our very DNA.
For many of us, people ‘our’ age, this is the first time that we’ve truly seen the world for the mad, divisive, scary place that it is. It’s been a period of turmoil, outspokenness, and of clamouring to be heard over a din so loud that we’re still not entirely sure what we’re hearing.
So it should come as no surprise, then, that the desire to keep away from the things that frighten us spills over into the art that we create.
Film is a reactionary medium, and it’s multi-faceted too. It’s an excellent way to wrestle through problems that we’re struggling with, face demons head on, and battle society’s failings by retaining just enough distance for it to become discussable without taking ourselves out of the equation entirely. Sometimes it can be a safe middle-ground between real and fake that allows us to work through our issues a little more comfortably.
It’s often said that the cinema is the finest form of escapism, and it’s true. It can be a romantic fairytale epic, a fantasy world, or a far-flung planet. We can fall in love on grand scales and find ourselves sucked into other worlds. But it’s a testament to the crazy, cacophonous times that we’re living in that a different form of escapism is coming to the forefront of filmmaking. In this, there aren’t any sprawling plotlines or mystical realms.
In a period of time where the world has teamed with anger and strife, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are in all of it – so the cinema has given us a reminder. While people battle daily for identities out in the world, film is reminding us, one two-hour instalment at a time, what it is to be a human. No grand turmoils, no plot twists – just the ebbs and flows of the lifespan of a person.
If the world is loud and scary, we’re creating a quieter one. We’re carving out a space for reflection. Escapism is how we preserve ourselves when we’re not quite sure what to make of what’s going on around us – and I think a few of us just aren’t sure how to be a person in all of this. Political debates are wringing us out, the socio-economic climate is scary to the younger generations who are starting to take their first steps, foal-like, into the world. Being one of the most socially-engaged generations brings with it, for all its liberations, one very large hindrance: fear.
So recently, we’ve been taking ourselves out of the larger picture for a brief moment, and we’re taking a moment to just live as someone else. We’re taking refuge in humanity.
Some of the last couple of years’ best films provide us with a glimpse of a life that feels so lived in, it’s as though we can step into it like a warm coat and zip ourselves up. Filmmakers are bringing us stories of people, real people, who feel so entirely human that it’s easy to let ourselves just exist as them for a little while.
There was Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2017 ‘semi-autobiographical’ coming-of-age drama, which simply follows a teenage girl as she wrestles with the onset of adulthood and a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Then there was Call Me By Your Name, a halcyon haze of a film following Elio, a teenage boy, and Oliver, a grad student, as they fall in love over the course of a summer in Italy. This year, we’ve had two offerings in the form of Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (and I mean, seriously, A24 is definitely finding its niche), two films about 13-14-year-olds struggling through, at its core, how it feels to be a kid.
We’re shirking the world around us to remember how it feels to be young – and there’s almost a comfort, when life is so loud and its problems so brash, to live for a moment in a time where our emotional strife was so intensely personal, so utterly related to us. They’re films that explore how we form an identity, how we weather the storms of just being a person, and how we shape our own experiences.
Working backwards, you can trace the careers of filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, who’ve been eschewing plot for poetry for years, particularly in films like 2016’s Paterson – swapping volume for minimalism and prizing stillness and character above all. There’s an entire subgenre of film, mumblecore, devoted to films that emulate naturalism and dedicate themselves to studying the mid-twenty-something: think Frances Ha (Gerwig again!), Hannah Takes the Stairs (Gerwig and Mark Duplass, double indie whammy), and what’s largely considered to be the subgenre’s inaugural film, Funny Ha Ha. A writer described Funny Ha Ha as having ‘no crescendos to some huge climax or any major revelations about anything. It is just a series of events that happen to a young woman drifting through life. It’s a movie about the spaces in between those slices of life that we assign meaning.’
These films aren’t new, but the fact that these recent entries have become some of the most-talked-about films of the year tells us a lot about the renewed importance of films about people. No longer relegated to an indie-movement that you have to Wikipedia to understand, no longer confined to conversations had by people drinking cheap merlot in dark sitting rooms. The human film – the film about personhood, identity, and life – has resurfaced as we try to use it to find moments of stillness.
Keeping an eye on the world is one of the most important things we can ever do as a global citizen; if recent times have taught us anything, it’s that keeping engaged is more crucial than ever. But we shouldn’t feel bad about needing to take a second away from this. The human film’s restored popularity isn’t avoidance, because we’re too good for that. It’s escapism, and a couple of hours to step in the warm shoes of another human life. It’s empathy and understanding above all – and if there’s one thing we should be taking back with us into that loud, scary world, it’s this.