A recent movie depicts a protagonist who finds his life the subject of a book. As the author writes, so he experiences. When this comes to light, the solution is not for the book to be scrapped so that he may live his life, which is finally becoming meaningful, but for the book to have a good ending, even if it’s at his expense.
Seem like a departure from the typical happy ending? It’s not sold as such. To our generation, this is a happy ending. We keep diaries not in private for ourselves, but in public for others, because the events of our lives are not meaningful in themselves, only in their retelling. We may even catch ourselves converting our own memories into story format, to enjoy them as we would a good movie.
When life finally does get the rare chance to hold a candle to the magnificent, devastating situations crafted by the best dramatists, it’s viewed through that lens. What good is a memory if, after careful reshaping, it couldn’t be made into an episode of one’s favorite show? More worryingly, what if something so fantastic transpires that it wouldn’t be considered believable in the context of a movie? Is the memory cast away like a poorly directed movie that proposed too many successive coincidences?
Is it that our experiences can’t compete with the perfect drama and safety of TV series and movies? Do we hide from a life that could potentially crush us — that we can’t withdraw from at a moment’s notice of emotional danger? That may be the force at work with TV series, but today’s movies offer something else entirely.
Being part of a story reframes one’s life. Without a central theme, life’s moments, regardless of how astounding or dire, are only that, moments. What we seek is a tapestry — a single thread to validate all our random success as part of something greater, and more importantly, romanticize our failures. Woven together with theme, every bullying, firing, and dumping are noble sufferings which only make our tragic hero’s triumphs sweeter.
Reframing one’s life must’ve had its allure since the first epics told around the fire. It’s nothing new. However, if catalyzed properly, a timeless desire like validation through story could resurface and deeply affect the way we think and respond. All we need is a reason to believe it possible. Befittingly, this reason can also be found in our movies.
TV and movies, by design, are escapism. Our TV series remain primarily escapist, the most successful creating entire artificial worlds while keeping our attention with many simultaneous stories. Movies lately, however, have been quite different. They spill over into the real world. You don’t leave the real world and return two hours later. You never return, forever changing your expectation of what life can be.
How many of your favorites involve either the protagonist being discovered (other characters get him to buy into the movie’s reality) or awakening (he buys into but overcomes the movie’s reality)? The Matrix is the preeminent example of both, to which it likely owes its success. A computer nerd is discovered in the fake world and finds he’s god in the real world. To achieve his destiny (awaken), he must suspend disbelief and play along with the seeming crazies who discover him.
Wait, isn’t suspension of disbelief our job? If these movies truly fell into the category of escapism, we’d be dropped right into their fully formed fantasy world, complete with characters ready to act out their given plot. Instead, they begin in what looks like our world. In no time at all, a deep disillusionment with life resembling our own encroaches and they either awaken or are saved. This creates a deeply personal experience shared with the main character which makes us wonder if the fantasy world they awake into could be achievable.
It’s easy to see how awakening (often from a mundane job as shown in Office Space, Fight Club, and American Beauty) and discovery (Amélie) are the central theme of an entire genre of our generation’s favorites. The distinction between the two is largely irrelevant; whether the character spends the movie being discovered or discovering himself makes little difference. If we see enough of this genre, do we start to wonder if we can awake from our own lives?
Is it possible an entire generation of movies has socialized us to prepare to be discovered? Do we sit around waiting to receive a letter from a future lover (The Lake House), or be rescued by Natalie Portman after waking from an antidepressant haze (Garden State)? Unlike the characters, we’re not going to make the plot-delaying mistake of being skeptical. This could be life-changing. We’re going to play along wholeheartedly and see where the stranger takes us, just like the characters in our favorite movies.
Borat was that stranger. He exploited a loophole placed in us by our movies of discovery and their personal journey of shared suspended belief and promise of validation. Filmed a generation ago, he likely would’ve received blank stares and cold shoulders rather than camraderous bigotry. All the quirky Kazakh reporter offered was to make us part of a story. You’ve always wanted to reframe your life. Maybe this is your chance. Your favorite characters knew better than to turn away being discovered, regardless of how preposterous it seemed at the time, and look at their reward. Every triumph and failure in their lives was a required scene, validating their existence. Your life can be like that, too. Just play along.