Essays

The Cinematic Experience of Film

It almost always starts like this: whatever pulls you towards a dark room with a dozen or so strangers are, utmost, a variety of curiosity, anticipation, and willful boredom. So, you surrender to it and lend a hand towards the story about to unravel before you; and discover.

Anne Carson once asked in Grief Lessons, “Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much.” What is it like to gain access to a story, to another life, and come out of it in another form? To watch yourself unravel in another form? To see yourself through the motions of colors, of language, and emotion? An exquisite process of self-discovery. Whether we like it or not, all that we become after means just as much as all that we are now.

The art of making motion pictures is one of the most accessible ways of storytelling. A collaborative medium of art comprised of acting, directing, writing, photography, music, editing, production design, fashion, etc. to tell the target audience a story. All stories are good stories depending on the subject themselves. It is not the quality of art that transcends the story but the individual experience after.

Many a time, we had sat in our own misery, looking for an escape towards the grief and sorrow of this little life we are forced to inhabit. But press play on whatever media player is accessible and we can escape. It temporarily becomes a vacuum to another world, in another life at another time.

The late Abbas Kiarostami once said that “access to the original is out of reach, and therefore we should appreciate a copy.” His 2010 acclaimed film Certified Copy explores the sentiment of creation and being. The complexity of simplicity and beauty constantly recreating and creating itself in mirror images; an expanded cycle of the universal feeling of being. In one scene, Juliette Binoche stares in a moment of despair and belief as the lines between who she pretends to be and who she is begins to blur. As the film progresses, the audience continues to decipher the lines between reality and make-believe. Kiarostami doesn’t tell us the exact answers, but instead leaves us with the window open—back to world.

Similarly, his 1990 film Close-Up is an examination of how cinema pulls and unravels all these experiences through deception. We follow Sabzian, a man arrested for deceiving a family into thinking he was the acclaimed director Makhmalbaf. He stands on trial for fraud. Kiarostami, an active participant, asks Sabzian, “What do you want me to do?” to which Sabzian explains, “You could make a film about my suffering.” He then explains his motivation for posing as Makhmalbaf—that the director he admires has shown him that his suffering is seen. That he isn’t alone and is accompanied by the experience of it in the form of Makhmalbaf’s film Marriage of the Blessed. By the time Sabzian sees Makhmalbaf, the former bursts into tears and the latter holds him. Kiarostami follows this tender image of companionship as if to tell us that this is what it’s all about: To be seen and held, repeatedly. And in between, the pink flowers blooming; always a reminder of our capability to produce beauty as nature itself.

Such is our capability to produce beauty that we sometimes dismiss its lasting impact towards others. In Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the main character Greg foregoes most of his schoolwork in his last year of high school and devotes his time creating a small film for a dying girl he had barely thought of before. He teams up with his friend Earl, and in the process must compromise his anonymity and detachment with his peers. It is this friendship and confrontation towards his peer detachment that ultimately motivates Greg to pursue creating the film for Rachel. And there is a struggle between creating for the sake of creation and another to create stories for people who need them. And in the climax where Rachel (the dying girl) and her mother at the hospice, sits back to watch the film do we realize: She matters. She is here for the moment, enough to be noticed. Important enough to see herself in a series of moving pictures. Greg doesn’t understand up until the end when he opens the secret pages of Rachel’s books where the re-created memories of him, Earl and herself are crafted in paper. A testament to companionship in the time of despair.

Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear, a film about reattachment, features a man called James. James who had been kept captive for most of his life is rescued and returned to the real world. Upon returning, he is consumed by the unfinished story of Brigsby Bear, until one day he decides to reclaim the story that had kept him captive for most of his life. The initial idea overwhelms his real family so they hinder him from even finishing the film, which he began to make with his newfound friends and his stranger of a sister. But it is James’ passion towards the creative process that binds them again. It is this insistent reclamation of the Brigsby Bear narrative and creative passion shared by James’ friends and family that helps him slip back into the mess of the world.

Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life is about a community of social workers preparing the dead for eternity. These workers give the dead a week to re-examine their life and choose a memory they can keep forever. Upon choosing one, the social workers then reconstruct and replicate the chosen memory into a small film to be screened to the recently deceased at the end of the week. The film examines the process of re-creation and memories. That in our constant re-examination of our lives, we also tend to revisit the people who had made an impact into who we are and who we have become. That maybe the biggest discovery we can make is that we cannot deny the impact of our existence towards another person’s life. And Kore-eda remembers that, in immersing ourselves in the process of creating and of being, do we become part of another life. There is a small joy in it in the end, as the dead crowd watches parts of themselves on screen and disappear into a blissful eternity.

In examining our impact towards another person’s life, it’s hard not to think of how this all comes back to us in the end. Dwein Baltazar’s Oda sa Wala is a quiet reflection on this impact. Sonya, a lonely embalmer, finds a lost body on her table one day. She decides to start prettying it up—she paints the body’s nails, washes the hair, chats with her and carefully brings her into her own life. There is something oddly humorous about it; an empty life working on another empty life. In another empty flesh of a being quietly listening despite its state of decomposition, Sonya finds companionship and luck. With it comes grief and sorrow piling over and over again, until Sonya—having no other choice—decides to carry on. But fate never forgets, and in taking care of these lost lonely things; in creating a place for them to be safe, and in our inherent desire to connect, we eventually find a sense of importance. Those to which we offer our hearts to in moments of grief and ecstasy eventually find their way back to us in one odd way or another.

While these are all but a sliver of thousands of films about creation, it’s worth remembering that art has always been a layered process of self-discovery and being. An experience. An expression. An exorcism. A statement. Whether we are dancing through the streets as colorful as Jacques Demy’s films, running through an open field as any coming of age sequence, the wild violent gaze of ghosts past, defiant bloodied characters, the raging teenage girls, witches screaming, superhumans flying, or the sun beginning to reveal itself in the skyline, there is no doubt that cinema continues to excel in helping us connect and cope with creation itself.

We have always leaned into creation. The Genesis author had written that it took 6 days each to create something out of nothing. Each creation took a meticulous process that by the time God decided to create humanity, the universe was ripe. It only needed tending and caring. So God created man in their image. And man dreamt as God did and they dreamt of apples and truth. They sought meaning in the creation and have cultivated their resources to transcend beyond the limitations God had created. On the 7th day God rested and watched his creation flourish.

What are we but a cycle of stories constantly passed on and repeated? Copies of a copy, Copies of each other, in everything that we create? Cinema as an art form is merely a repetition of this. That spare moment where we pay with our time, our money, and effort to watch and entertain ourselves, to immerse ourselves in an experience. To submerge in the story and escape, to feel how others feel, to connect and empathize with another experience. In this process, we discover a form of recognition towards ourselves.

Often, when the world gets a little bit too much, there’s a tendency to lean into an escape route. There are a lot of them, and there are paths that lead toward that route. Not a rope but more of a lifeline. A line that brings you all the way back to the things that matter. A safe zone. A soft place to land. It could be a field of flowers, a small bed with the smell of the rain outside your window, the sound of waves crashing. Ultimately, whatever and wherever it is, we take ourselves to it. And after, the call back arrives and demands us to return to the world—the real one. But like all the stories we escape into, we take away bits of ourselves from it and come back whole.

Cinema has constantly been a lifeline to such stories; it has always been a privilege to sit back and allow ourselves to discover pieces of us in it. A constant pursuit of identity, empathy towards sublimity. Just as we are what we are, we can only strive to be, and that is to be a better human being.

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