A while ago, I was studying Buddhist philosophy and practice, and beginning to explore some of the ideas of “impermanence.” There is a very existential thread to a lot of the thinking here, the idea that there is not a single thing in our lives that will ever remain constant. Everything is always changing.
What does this have to do with filmmaking? Again, one of my preoccupations with storytelling through film has a lot to do with the unpredictable aspects of life and people. I enjoy watching and creating stories that bend typical expectations, and explore characters that don’t fit neatly into categories or stereotypes.
We often watch movies for two contrasting reasons: we want to become part (safely) in a narrative in which we don’t know what’s going to happen next, but at the end of this ride, we want to be reassured by having our expectations of this film met, which usually means we want things to be nice and tidy. We want to know that the underdog will triumph, the earth will keep spinning on its axis, and love and goodness will prevail. One result of the expectations we come with as audience members is the way films can be classified into genres. (Or maybe, it can be argued, that our expectations are a result of the existence of film genres. It’s the classic “chicken-egg” idea.) We attend a love story, most of us expecting to explore the evolution of a relationship, expecting there will most likely be a fight or some disruption, but at the end, Boy WILL get Girl and the happy couple will be together ‘til death do they part. We go to action films expecting dramatic fight or chase sequences, explosions, and characters that magically defy gravity as they leap from rooftop to helicopter. We watch horror films to sense our primal fear of the dangerous unknown, appearing to us in the dark in some non-human form. And the list goes on...
There is certainly nothing wrong with watching a film and having expectations of the genre we have paid to watch. That is why it’s called “entertainment.” Films are entertaining. Part of the psychology of entertainment, in my experience, is getting what we paid for, meaning, we go with expectations and anticipate they will be met. If you paid for front row tickets to “A Chorus Line” and ended up watching a clown juggle fish for an hour, you might soon find yourself angrily demanding your money back.
But here is where I bring in the aspect of Buddhism. Buddhism expresses the idea of constant change in life. We may easily have a set of expectations for how our day, and even our lives, should go, but when expectations and reality don’t agree with one another, we tend to become grumpy. Sadly, most of us fight reality our entire lives.
Let’s expand this a bit. Art is fed by and reflects life in all it various shades, rhythms, confusions, and manifestations. Yet, as filmgoers, we feed ourselves a pretty bland diet of predictable film stories and characters, despite the fact that life doesn’t follow this model. We are scared of real life in our movies. We gravitate towards escapist fare, vehicles of reassurance, distraction, and pacification. Sure. There is nothing wrong with watching a film to have mental distance from our daily stresses, but our film palette must be challenged, expanded, to include a deeper look at what life and people are about. We don’t eat ice cream and Cheetos everyday after all. Sometimes, we have to try that fried grub worm despite how scary it looks.
I state the obvious when I say that life is unpredictable and full of impermanent qualities. Film stories should not be exempt from this reality. This may mean the film cannot be classified into a genre. It may mean our main character suddenly does or says something that we never saw coming, just like people do in real life. It may mean that we do not know what the ending of the movie is going to be by watching the first fifteen minutes. It may mean that Boy does NOT get Girl and Girl ends up becoming a nun and Boy ends up selling popsicles for a living. I can’t remember who I heard this from or when, but I have a faint memory of someone telling me, “If you want to see a real horror film, open your eyes and take a look at real life.” Hmm...something to ponder.