*Spoilers follow for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) and Her (2013). I strongly suggest you see these films before reading this, as they’re both phenomenal, and will help you navigate my messy thoughts a little better. I’m 90% sure they’re both on Netflix. Do your thing, and then come back.*
Life, to say the very least, can be hard sometimes. And sometimes, when we fall onto the hardest of life’s moments, there’s no clear differentiation between what coping mechanisms help us, hurt us, or just serve as a temporary escape. The handling of life’s more troubling situations is really a case by case matter; we’re all different people with different personalities that require different needs respectively.
I know what some of you may be thinking from just the title. And yes, while part of me wishes this was a piece on the 2014 film of the same name, I’ve recently (re)discovered something that transcends just my one person. In fact, it may be something beyond the nature of life itself: the power of art.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I, like many of you, have known the power of art for a good portion of my life. When things get difficult, we listen to music, or play video games, or sometimes even create art ourselves. Art in all its many forms carries a might that we all know, love, and recognize, but are only just beginning to understand. Furthermore, it affects each and every single one of us in ways that we know, and some that we may not. In my opinion, the most powerful of these arts is the art of film.
We all love films. They’re arguably one of the largest components of global pop culture, and they’ve managed to continually deliver breathtaking and transformative experiences not originally thought possible per the constraining limitations of the physical world. When we see a film, we’re reminded of the raw transformative power the medium carries, and are made to feel genuine and authentic emotions, which in turn lead to new ideas, experiences, and sometimes even changes in our outlook on life in general. Just look at how many people’s lives were changed upon the release of the first Star Wars, which at the time was a box office smash and a hit with audiences. The film has since grown and changed over the years into something much larger entirely. As one of the largest names in the history of pop culture, Star Wars, which all sprang from that one film in 1997, has become part of the lives of millions, even billions of people. For some, it is their life.
And that’s just one example. Take a look at any film, franchise-driven or not, and you’ll soon begin to see the effect it has on you, as well as on your life. Why does this happen? Well, one of the best answers would probably be that film, in its many forms, offers the most authentic look into the human condition, as well as what it means to be human. Two films that, for me anyway, authentically capture what it means to be human are Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Spike Jonze’s Her.
Despite more of an underground following upon its 2010 release, it’s fair to say that Wright’s Scott Pilgrim has grown to acquire something of a cult status. And rightfully so, it’s a phenomenal film littered with smart writing, great characters, geeky 8-bit flair, and layers and layers of substance AND style that make every rewatch more special than the last. As a film student in college, I can’t throw a stone 5 feet without hitting someone who adores this film. And because it’s a zero-to-hero story done in a more creative way than most, many can identify with the journey and struggles that Scott undertakes in the pursuit of something we all ultimately desire: love. I’m gonna venture a guess and say no one here has fought a renegade league of our partner’s exes in sudden-death combat, but the ideas still remain resonant. This film can often be quite the efficacious watch when dealing with the pain of reality, such as struggling with loss or trying to cope with a breakup, similar to the way Scott does in the film. But beyond this, Scott Pilgrim isn’t just an appealing film to me because of how Scott eventually triumphs and learns greater lessons about life, love, and himself: it’s also because of Scott’s mistakes.
Scott, while not a terrible character, carries a broken and almost naive sense of what love is throughout the film, due largely in part to his prior experiences. Scott’s victory over Gideon and reunion with Ramona (unless you prefer the alternate ending, I suppose) are more significant not only because of exterior obstacles Scott overcomes, but also because he overcomes obstacles laid bare by his own self. This film that taught me that life isn’t just about solving problems put in front of you by others, but also about finding resolution with your own conflicts, challenges that you perpetuate on your own. Scott’s eventual atonement and realization of self-worth feel all the more genuine because he recognizes his flaws, and realizes the extent to which they impact other people and himself. Recognition of one’s own shortcomings is part of what it truly means to be human, and is a key to life, love, and self-worth.
Providing a lens of the human condition in another unique way, we have Spike Jonze’s 2013 masterwork, Her. And when I say masterwork, I fully mean it in every sense of the word. This is far and beyond one of my favorite films, and just like Scott Pilgrim, becomes more and more special to me every time I watch it. The film, set in Los Angeles in the distant future, follows the journey of a lonely and hapless middle-aged writer named Theodore. Coming off of a nasty divorce, Theodore befriends an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha. The two friends soon embark on a unique journey of life and self-discovery, all the while asking: “What does it truly mean to love someone?”
This film, like a number of others before it, thoroughly explores the idea of what it means to be human. After all, that’s really the name of the game in films about artificial intelligence of some kind. And in an age where love is such a blurred and unclear concept, Her offers a number of interesting insights about what it means to be loved, and whether or not humans are the only ones capable of love. And while the meat of the narrative is fantastically developed and written, (an analysis for another day, perhaps?) the one thing that stands out most to me is the film’s ending.
After a long and tedious struggle with his love life, identity, divorce, and the ups and downs of falling in love with Samantha, Theodore learns that Samantha is in love with more people than just him. 641 more, to be exact. This crushes Theodore, who felt as though he had found true love in the anodes of this space oddity romance. Not too long after, Samantha tells Theodore that she has to leave him. Not because she doesn’t love him, but because she loves him too much. More than a human mind could really comprehend, and this limitation would only restrain her growth, slowing it down to practically a standstill. As Samantha (voiced phenomenally by Scarlett Johansson) puts it in one of the film’s two closing monologues:
“It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now, so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now… And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
I’ll put the entire scene/monologue here. Bring tissues.
Love, in essence, is complicated. It’s confusing, and strange, and messy, and undefinable, and sometimes feels as though it’s not real. Like it’s not of this world. In Samantha’s recognition of her evolution, she pinpoints the definition of love in that it has no definition, and what she’s grown to understand is something beyond comprehension. A newer dimension of an emotion we all have experienced, discovered through her own growth and experiences. This realization, in turn, helps Theodore come to terms with his divorce, and recognize that our own subjective experiences are exactly that: they’re subjective. They’re unique. Ultimately, love, while complex, isn’t just part of what it means to be human. It’s part of what it means to simply be.
So, what does this all mean? Both of these films, while containing similar elements, ultimately teach us different things about who we are. And to be completely honest, this is merely just my perception of two films that are very special to me, and how those films have taught me something about the nature of life. As I said earlier, things like this are on a case-by-case basis, everyone’s different. But what I think can be pulled away from these two films for the sake of a universal application is the fact that though we may try, and sometimes even come pretty close, none of us fully understand this crazy little thing called life. We probably never will. However, the exploration of who we are and how we fit into this gigantic mystery is ultimately what it means to be alive. In questioning the nature of how we live, and wondering about the nature of these seemingly impossible concepts, we understand that we’re part of something truly great.
This exact reasoning speaks to the nature of film as an art form, as well as art in general, and why we need it. When we create and absorb art, we are having a conversation with one another about the mysteries of our nature, and why we do the things that we do. Not every artwork is as profoundly deep as I’m making it seem, and sometimes that’s okay. Not everything has to be. What matters is that we’re having a conversation with one another, and recognizing that one of the most important things in life is exactly that: each other. As one of my heroes used to say:
“The way that I see it, we’re all stuck in the same boat in the middle of nowhere with no idea what the hell is going on for an undisclosed amount of time. We can either turn away and try to swim by ourselves, or we can take turns rowing.”
The best way to go about being in the boat–experiencing humanity–is to row with one another. And ultimately, art, especially film, is the strongest paddle that there is. Art is the truest representation of life, and through the ideas it presents and embodies, it helps us to learn things about ourselves that we never thought we could know. After all, you know how the saying goes.