Representing Humanity

Sam Fragoso at Duke & the Movies hosted a blogathon on Sunday. The premise:

Extraterrestrial forces land on Earth. Unknowing of our planet and society, you can pick five films from the history of cinema that represent humanity. What titles would you choose and why?

This is an intriguing idea. Movies represent the best and worst of humanity – our hopes, dreams and aspirations, our capacity for hatred and evil. They show reality and fantasy and reflect their times. But how to choose only five films?

The selection process was difficult and I changed my mind numerous times. Initially I considered films that would reflect five great emotions representative of humanity. Plenty of scope there for war films, great romances, sweeping epics and science fiction fantasies. However I reconsidered this approach. Most people don’t experience the world, or humanity for that matter, as great, sweeping, operatic movements. For most, the world is shaped through individual experience. Taking this as my perspective, my choices are films that represent five typical experiences in the lives of modern-day people. My first three choices represent childhood, the transition to adulthood and love, respectively. The fourth is a helplessly positive celluloid dream that charms despite the fact we know that people like this don’t exist and the world is not nearly as innocent as the film would have us believe. The final choice represents a depressingly realistic snapshot of the world of work, the nature of business and possibly even relationships today.

The films I chose are surprisingly recent but I make no apologies for that. For me they represent my feelings on the modern human experience. So far, so grand. Here are the films:

1. The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Childhood is a traumatic experience for both parent and child. Chaplin channels his own childhood traumas to spectacular effect in The Kid. The young Jackie Coogan plays his part perfectly, eliciting laughter, concern and even the odd tear or two. The endearing kid character and Chaplin’s tramp are an unlikely pairing but they charm us. Traumatic as childhood is it is also about simple pleasures, about love and the pleasure and pain that a parent can feel in their love for their child. Coogan isn’t the tramp’s son but Chaplin becomes a father to him and the scenes in which the authorities attempt to separate them are masterful juxtapositions of moments of comedy and genuinely affecting emotional turmoil. It is all hopelessly sentimental but, in this film, that’s fitting.

Alternatives: Les 400 coups, My Neighbor Totoro, The Fall

2. Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

The transition from child to adult is a frightening, exhilarating and confusing time for anyone. However, no one ever had it as bad a Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) the hopelessly shy, friendless, bullied, loner, victim of a fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie). Spacek gives a wonderfully understated performance that allows the audience to both sympathise with Carrie the victim and, to an extent, with the bullies that target her. In addition to being rife with metaphorical meanings, Carrie’s telekinesis further alienates her but also provides her with the means for her gloriously cathartic revenge. Carrie’s brief moment of triumphant acceptance is perfectly captured and makes her inevitable humiliation all the more painful. As exaggerated as it is, Carrie perfectly captures the pain, heartbreak and triumph of being a teenager.

Alternatives: Deep End, The Breakfast Club, Super 8

3. Elizabethtown (Cameron Crowe, 2005)

Cameron Crowe’s much maligned Elizabethtown is, for me, a near-perfect romance. Its premise is unpromising – Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) a suicidally depressed young man travels to Elizabethtown, Kentucky to collect his father’s body. Through becoming acquainted with his large, estranged family and with the guidance of the angelic Claire (Kirsten Dunst) Drew begins to come to terms with both his father’s death and his own failings. The film is full of eccentric, larger than life southerners and has a quirky charm all of its own. That said it also finds time for quietly moving scenes. The central sequence in which Drew and Claire conduct the beginnings of their courtship in one epic phone call which lays both characters bare is marvellous. Elizabethtown is a film about love, loss, hope and forgiveness; about remembering the past while looking to the future and not letting past mistakes, regrets and grudges hold you back. In short it is about being human.

Alternatives: Punch Drunk Love, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Before Sunrise

4. Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

In Amélie one woman (Audrey Tautou) vows to bring happiness to others in her own unique style. This is the premise of the film, so simple it could be a children’s book. What unfolds, however, is a quirky masterpiece – a romantic fantasy that shows the relentlessly hopeful side of human nature. None of this is true, of course. People are really not like Amélie and the world is not the gold-green tinted paradise of the film but that is irrelevant. We like to dream like this and that is what makes us human. Cinema, at its best, never lets reality get in the way of a good story.

Alternatives: Edward Scissorhands, Pan’s Labyrinth, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

5. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Modern business, perhaps even modern life is a grey world of anonymous hotel rooms, faceless disloyal colleagues and superficial relationships. It is a world where everyone lies, where people avoid commitment, family ties and emotional attachment. It is a world where a stranger might be hired for the unpleasant but necessary task of making you redundant. A world where innocence and youth are sneered at and seen as a threat. This is the world of Up in the Air and while it is not my world I see aspects of it all around me. The film may be designed to show a stylised version of corporate America but it does, I fear, step rather close to the truth.

Alternatives: American Beauty, Little Children, Fight Club

© Calum Campbell 2012

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