Life as a Movie

As has become evident in the class’s studies of transmedia phenomena, when new forms of media are introduced, the old forms do not die. Instead, they change, overlap, or fuse with the new forms. Media formats adapt and transcend their original purposes. The American public may buy fewer comics than it did in the 1960s, but now we have comic book-inspired movies (Sin City, 300, Persepolis). We also have movie-inspired comic books (Star Wars, Star Trek, The Matrix). We adapt books into screenplays into movies; we use popular songs for the basis of music videos; we base stage productions on novels. Yet, at times, art forms not only mimic each other, blurring the line between the two media, but also leak into our own lives. Yes, art can remind us of life, but the opposite is also true. This essay, grounded in three of my own experiences, seeks to show how dramatic moments in our lives can remind us of cinema.

I. Opening credits

Have you ever woken up, showered, breakfasted, and left for work or class on foot while listening to an mp3 player and, mind sucked up in one of your favorite songs, felt separated from the real world, as if you were not a participant but a spectator, observing others as characters and thinking of yourself in third person? You walk down the sidewalk and have a kind of knowing feeling: you have just started your day and you feel on top of the world. You glance to your left and right, taking in the sights, breeze blowing around you and leaves scuttling across the concrete, but you can’t hear them. Maybe you see two people in conversation, but all you hear is your music. You blink. You see someone jogging with a dog. You blink again. You see construction workers yakking it up, chewing the fat during a smoke break, and all the while the same song plays. In your cased-in musical world, they are only images in your opening montage movie sequence. The moment becomes even more surreal when you notice objects seeming to move along with your music, as if you, the auteur filmmaker, coordinated the soundtrack with visual cues.

Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like this sensation of morning walks as cinematic must be common. In the scenario, as in a movie, you see people but do not interact with them directly. The music blasting through your headphones, drowning out most ambient sound, is the nondiegetic music playing in the place of diegetic sound. Hollywood films often use opening scene montages such as these, flashing from shot to shot just to allow the audience to take in the setting and get a feel for the world of the movie. People don’t often think about introductory and transitional moments such as these when they recollect movie plots because they have absorbed and normalized the convention. Thanks to the power of cinematic art, I have internalized the opening credit montage convention and feel reminded of it when experiencing a similar moment in real life.

II. Movie magic

Mainstream Hollywood features have a habit of showcasing improbable coincidences —the kind of magical “it just so happened” moments where directors felt the need to skip a couple steps, sacrificing realism for the sake of time and interest. Movie characters never have to wait in long grocery store lines; it always “just so happened” that they found the empty aisle. Movie characters rarely have to wait seven rings to get a response over the phone or have to leave voicemails; it always “just so happened” that the person on the other end of the line had their phone with them and was ready to answer. Movies don’t show great basketball players miss crazy shots after bragging about their talent; it always “just so happened” that they could perform a double-handed backflip-dunk on the first try. The moviegoing public doesn’t want to pay $8 to see a reflection of everyday reality: it wants to see a more dramatic, more impressive, larger-than-life version of the world. Nevertheless, actual events can sometimes seem unbelievable — only possible on the silver screen.

I experienced one such movie magic moment on the Mississippi Riverfront. The summer sun had set and the palpable St. Louis humidity gave way to a dewy nighttime cool. It was a weekend night, with no particular responsibility to work the next day, but my friend Mark and I still couldn’t find anything to do. It happens in Southern Illinois. So we drove to St. Louis, navigated our way through the city and to the riverfront just east of the Arch, and rooted around for flat rocks on the stone ramp leading down to the water. We skipped rocks for awhile, reminiscing about old times. And then, after our arms already hurt from sidearm pitching a few dozen times, admiring our ten-hops and poking fun at throws failing to produce even one skip, there it was: an innocuous beer bottle floated downstream with only the neck exposed. I watched as Mark skipped rocks after it, then tossed them in a big arcing curve, then hurled big rocks in hope of hitting the small target. I laughed.

“Watch this!” I said.

And then, to my own surprise, I nailed the target on my first toss without hardly trying. Clink! We looked at each other, eyes and mouth wide open in shock. Instantly, I felt as if I were part of a movie. National landmark and impressive graphical feature: check. Two good buddies hanging out, cracking jokes and kidding each other like guys do (character development): check. Extremely unlikely achievement, performed on the first try: check. Not like I broke a Guinness record, but it was just surprising and too-convenient, like the magic “it just so happened” moments in a movie.

III. The devastating climax, followed by the calming resolution

Just as many movies begin with opening montages set to music and feature coincidences that make you scratch your head and think, Yeah, right, many reach a narrative climax by dealing a dramatic blow to the protagonist (e.g., even after all the good times you spent together, your first love doesn’t love you anymore), after which he/she must come to terms with devastation and learn to cope.

I remember a moment in my early teen years similar to this type of climax/resolution pairing. I’ll spare you the details because we’ve all been there, but the point is I was very upset about a recent breakup. I hung up the phone and decided that day was one of the worst days in my life. I cried, I pounded my fists in my pillow — yada, yada, yada — I ran outside and decided there was only one thing to do: calm myself by walking through the woods next to my house that almost stand as a symbol of my childhood. Like a character in a movie, I returned to a special place to think things through and found solace. I laid down in the tall grass and stared at the cloudless, blue sky, its simple beauty almost mocking me for feeling sad. People change, relationships end, but life goes on, the theme of this common resolution states. The conclusion of Ozu Yasujiro’s Late Spring imparts this same emotion (as do many other films). The aging father must cope with the sense of loss he feels after the marriage of his daughter, upon whose care he had been largely dependent. Truly alone for possibly the first time in decades, he peels an apple and looks out the window. Cut to the Pacific Ocean hitting the Japanese shore: the tide rolling in and out as always — ancient, timeless, and indifferent to people’s problems. The cinematic trope uses natural imagery to put problems into perspective by evoking a sense of their own insignificance in the big scheme of things, and being in that situation made me feel as if I were in a movie.

Certain dramatic situations in life remind us of movies. So what? What does it mean that life can feel more like a movie than reality? I would argue that the implications of such phenomena are profoundly telling of the human condition. It proves that art is not just made for entertainment purposes. People don’t leave multiplexes the same people they were when they purchased their movie tickets. At the same time you munch popcorn, you store plot points and aesthetics in your memory. Over time, you learn conventions and become accustomed to certain tendencies in movies—so much so that life can remind us of movies instead of the other way around. For better or for worse, cinema changes our perceptions.