Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.-Andrew K, Encore’s World of Film & TV
When I picked the theme “appreciation of life” as part of this year’s Motifs in Cinema blogathon it was at least partially because it struck me that there was, in Gravity, a perfect candidate for the theme that was also one of my favorite films of 2013, and was furthermore something that just about everyone has seen and would thus make good discussing fodder. It was so perfect, in fact, that I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. So off I went to look for other candidates, starting with the slate of Best Picture Oscar nominees, since any attempt to talk about film in America from a cultural perspective needs to be aware that the Oscars exist, and to my surprise I found that just about every one of the nine films found there fit rather well into to this theme, which suddenly snapped a disparate collection of stories and styles into a focused collection of movies. The obvious, Gravity, with its literal “she has learned to appreciate life” climax; and almost as obvious, Dallas Buyers Club and Her, in which, respectively, a physically sick and an emotionally sick man find ways to give shape and meaning to their lives again. There is the grave 12 Years a Slave, in which we in the audience, watching unbridled suffering, are made acutely aware of ho much better our lives are than the ones onscreen; the light Philomena and the melancholic Nebraska are both parables of finding ways to appreciate life even in its fading years, whether from the perspective of an old woman gaining closure and finding that even the most arbitrary events in her past have built up to something meaningful in its way, or the perspective of a son realising that this is the life we’ve got with our loved ones, and it needs to be spent well. Even The Wolf of Wall Street espouses a cockeyed sort of appreciation for life: life in a very wanton, warped register, to be sure, but a life lived hard and enthusiastically (I’ve got nothing for American Hustle).
But the film I decided to to focus on is the one that presents this theme in a strictly negative sense: Captain Phillips, a military procedural slash maritime thriller slash political essay which would not seem to have much to say about life at all, unless as a much reduced version of Gravity‘s theme: once you’ve been through hell, you appreciate everything else in life a great deal more. And that’s not absent, but it’s not the thing I have in mind. I am chiefly thinking about the film’s already-iconic final sequence, so if you haven’t seen the film – and I recommend that you do – skip head to the next paragraph, because here there are spoilers. Everyone ready? Okay, so I’m of course referring to Richard Phillips’s film-ending bout of shock, so memorably played by Tom Hanks in a career-peak scene. It’s a moment that the whole film has been building to, but it’s chiefly triggered by two stimuli: first, the rescue itself, and the massive drop in adrenaline that naturally occurs when any of us are removed from a stressful situation; second, the excessive violence with which that rescue is enacted. The film has been accused in some circles of rah-rah American boosterism, which I find to be a frankly bizarre misreading (now I know what it feels like to have been on the other side of the Zero Dark Thirty torture debate, I guess), because the whole point of the sequence in which most of the pirates are shot is that it’s profoundly useless and upsetting: to us and to Phillips alike, who spends literally the rest of the film rattled as hell, to the point of incoherence, and not least because he just saw people killed right in front of him. Screenwriter Billy Ray and director Paul Greengrass have played a game throughout the film of exploring the human side of Somali pirates (a phrase second only to “Arab terrorist” in its signification of immoral, inhuman Otherness to an American viewer, at least), explaining without necessarily justifying or rationalising what can lead to their behavior, and by the end of the film we are quite comfortable with regarding them as humans just as desperate and worn out as their victim. Their sudden death hits with one clear message: there is no value in ending any human life, and these people had aspirations and desires just like anyone, and now that’s snuffed out. It leads us to the appreciation of life by demonstrating how brutally it can be ended; it’s genuinely horrifying, with Hanks’s meltdown making it clear that the movie itself expects and encourages us to be thoroughly knocked off-kilter by this moment.
That’s a big ol’ block of text, so let’s move beyond the usual suspects of the Best Picture slate to find an Appreciation of Life in someplace complete different: noisy, generic, CGI-addled popcorn cinema. I refer to Iron Man 3, a film that seems to have evaporated from the cultural conversation with remarkable speed for the fifth highest-grossing movie in the history of the world-wide box office. And I’m not here to call that a sin against the art, though it is, by the corporatised standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the more complex and thoughtful and psychologically alive films in its franchise.
Now, certainly, one doesn’t go about willy-nilly accusing PG-13 blockbusters of undue appreciation for life; their very stock in trade is gleefully “fun” mass death (recall – or don’t, it’ll make you live a longer, happier life – the “Superman is a city-destroying psychopath” debate around Man of Steel). And to be sure, Iron Man 3 has its fair share of wanton, amoral destruction. But think of where it ends, won’t you? After having saved the world (yawn) again, Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark finds that what he values and wants out of live is to live simply with the person he loves most, away from the high-pressure needs of superheroics and destruction. It is a summer action movie whose ultimate message is “embrace quiet domesticity”, and that clear-cut admission that there is more joy to be gotten from eschewing the glamor and “cool” factor of superhero movies and their wish fulfillment is striking and rare. Of course, they’re going to find a way to fuck it all up when the next round of sequels happens, but for one year, that was the emotional territory being staked out, and for one year, it is pleasing to think that there might be room for quiet appreciation in among all the booming and shooting.
“Appreciation of life” is something of a cornerstone theme of drama, so it’s no surprise to see it popping up in all kind of random places in between the opposing poles of Oscar-nominated drama and glossy popcorn flick. It’s the beating heart beneath the year’s most ebullient, Zeitgeisty fad, for one thing: what else is “Let It Go” from Frozen if not anthem for being appreciative of what you’ve got? The obvious answer to that rhetorical question is that it’s mostly about being true to your inner self, but I suppose my argument is that in the context of Frozen, they’re the same thing. The film’s first act depicts a claustrophobic, literally lifeless castle, all loneliness and hiding and trying to symbolically die away so that nobody knows you ever existed; the song that launched a thousand memes is about specifically repudiating that, embracing what’s around you, and engaging with the world – none of which is, to be fair, entirely borne out by subsequent developments in the narrative, but that owes to Frozen‘s fuzzy script more than a song whose climax involves the singer greeting the rising sun, the hoariest and most noble symbol for refreshed and reborn life and vitality in the whole of human culture.
Since I’ve mostly paid attention here to some tremendously prominent films, let me wrap up with something small, low-key, and intimate. Set in the woods in the aftermath of a fire, David Gordon Green’s return to pastoral filmmaking, Prince Avalanche, would have every excuse to ladle the “rebirth after destruction” metaphors pretty heavily, so let’s be very thankful that it doesn’t. It is, however, a film that’s literally all about life; it is maybe the most open and complete embodiment of the “appreciation of life” motif in any film I saw in 2013. It is about one thing and only that: two men with complicated, messy, fast lives are put in a position where they must relax, open up, and listen: to each other, to themselves, to the natural world. It is specifically, but never explicitly, about the act of re-learning how to appreciate everything in life – not just one’s own life, but life as a concept, life as the thing that is all around at every moment. It’s not exceptionally sophisticated or even, perhaps, successful, but in drawing our attention to how we live every moment of our lives, it’s the film that does the most thorough job of reminding us in the audience to slow down and breathe as much as it forces the characters to. And that process – slowing down, eyes wide open, paying attention – is the heart and soul of appreciating what it means to be alive.