Movies and the Mind

A front row ticket to human drama as seen through popular film

Finding Cinematic Inspiration in New Movies

Meaningful recent films, from "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Into the Wild"

Poster for Into the Wild
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When I bring up the topic of movies that have been particularly important to viewers, film buffs immediately think of movies that have been culturally and historically important—The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Searchers (1956), The Graduate (1967), Star Wars (1977), etc. Indeed, these movies do turn up with some regularity when I interview people about personally significant movies.

However, I am also struck by the frequency with which recent films are mentioned by viewers, particularly younger viewers. As a middle-aged college professor who doesn’t watch as many current movies as I once did, these are films that are completely off my radar or films that I had never thought of as important. These films have not had time enough to become classics (and perhaps many of them never will be), but for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, they come into contact with a particular viewers life experience at a particular time and create a meaningful experience.

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I saw examples of how recent movies have been “equipment for living” in the personal accounts of undergraduate students in a Psychology of Film course I recently taught at Hanover College. For their final project, students interviewed people about meaningful movies. Some of these students choose to use their own accounts and that is where the following examples are drawn from (used with permission).

While it is possible for Caucasians to identify with movies about Asians (or even Earthlings identifying with movies about aliens), it is clear that viewers have the easiest time identifying with movies that have characters and settings that are similar to their own life. This phenomenon may be exaggerated in younger viewers who have had relatively fewer life experiences. For example, one student discussed the strong connection she made with Sweet Home Alabama (2002). In that film Reese Witherspoon plays a young woman from a small town who goes to New York City to become famous and then experiences culture shock when she returns home to announce her engagement. This student sees a parallel between the ficitional story and her own dilemma of having to choose between pursuing employment in a bigger city and taking a position in her home town—“I grew up in a small town that I couldn’t wait to get out of, but now that I’m gone I would give anything to go back.”

It is also important to remember the power of immediacy and currency to many viewers. Professors tend to think that a description like, “This is one of the most critically acclaimed films of the past 50 years,” should be more compelling than, “Here’s the latest romantic comedy by the Hollywood star of the moment.” They are often wrong. Not only do new movies represent unlimited possibility, they also invite generational identification. This phenomena is nothing new. Past generations continue to be very possessive of certain movies. For example, The Breakfast Club (1985) is a movie that captures the X Generation for many viewers. It shouldn’t be surprising that adolescents of today are claiming films as their own. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) is already being mentioned by many students in this regard. Even fantasy films can play this role. One of my 20-year-old students took her viewing of Spiderman (2002) when she was ten as her initiation into the modern world of films for her rising generation.

Sometimes, movies do not just reflect the viewer’s current state, but they provide clues for how to progress into the future. One student found such a map in the Adam Sandler movie Click (2006) where the main character develops the ability to fast forward and rewind time. His abuse of this ability leads to a loss of control and to him being fast-forwarded into a grim future. As this student is contemplating her post-collegiate future, she takes the film as a message to appreciate the present and to not “neglect what is most important to us.” Another student took Into the Wild (2007) (based on John Kracauer’s non-fictional account of a young man who gives away all his belongings and ends up perishing in the Alaskan wilderness) as an encouragement to live a simpler life. This student did not take the film literally and pack up to go to Alaska. In fact she was living and working in a city at the time she first saw the film. She wasn’t compelled to extremes, but she did step back and reflect on the material goods in her life that were important and those that were not.

Many of the qualities that drew my students to these films (situations that are parochial and contemporary) are in direct contrast to qualities that tend to impress film scholars (situations that are exotic and timeless). Moreover, the straightforward messages these viewers took from the movies are at odds for with a preference for ambiguity common among academic approaches to film. These examples bring home the point that even in a confusing, unstable post-modern world viewers still sometimes look to movies for the kind of life-affirming “morals” that have always been a part of storytelling.

(Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770)

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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