Sunday, July 29, 2012

Three Main Themes of Human Experience

Movies, outside of arguably experimental films, have content.  They are not just sheer "movieness."  They are about something.  If the medium is to transcend itself, which it increasingly isn't doing, it needs themes that transcend it and are more primordial than it.  What are the primordial themes of the human experience that will be related by and for humans?  A friend of mine says that life is "relationship."  Our meaning and happiness is in being relational.  This leads to the three major themes of the human experience that are often present in some form in movies.  These are spirituality, sexuality and fraternity.

The three themes of spirituality, sexuality, and fraternity, which very much precede film,  can be dealt with in different ways.  They can be dealt with directly or intellectually, exploring a subject itself.  They can show up in a more superficial way, being mere meaningless elements of a wider story in which no statements are made or implied.  They can be mingled together as a homogeneous mixture or placed together separately as a heterogeneous mixture.  In the history of cinema, these themes tend to be looked at through a male perspective.  For numerous reasons, male is normative.

National Geographic magazine recently ran an article on an archeological find, Göbekli Tepe, an early religious temple dating from hunter-gatherer times.  Previously, it had been thought that agriculture and cities had preceded religion and that religion came about through the rise of human leisure.  It has been most likely proven by this find that religion predates agriculture.  This is important.  Spirituality and the search for meaning beyond our material existence is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, longings of man.  Spirituality thus involves man's search for meaning, his search for his source, the search for his final end and a means of escaping death.  Spirituality can be expressed along the lines of pantheism, but its highest form is a relationship with a personal deity.  Religion can also be explored overtly and covertly; either shown literally or treated allegorically.  When pantheism is present, it is usually at the forefront and interpreted as its own system, whereas, say, Christianity is more often just a detail.  This is attributable in America to the fact that Christianity is more a mainstream part of everyday life whereas different forms of cinematic pantheism are usually unique to their universe.  Pantheism also leaves more room for the writer to take liberties whereas Christianity usually follows some pre-existent denominational bent.  Religious doubt is also a common theme in movies.

Sexuality is the second theme of the human existence.  Up until science recently screwed things up, there has only been one way to make a baby, the whole world over for all time.  This alone demonstrates the universality of sexuality.  All human beings are born with gender.  Over time, we grow into different attractions and desires.  The sexual can include lustful, shallow physicality or truer, romantic conjugal love, some in-between area or even just romantic companionship for the purposes here.  This theme, perhaps most of all, but at least more so than spirituality is dominated by the male perspective.  Sexuality is so pervasive in it's lower forms, it leads to a number of characteristics.  All actors and especially actresses in virtually any movie ever are good looking.  Even the most highbrow, outside-the-box, art-house movies always involve good-looking people.  No one wants to explore the existential angst of ugly people.  I know of no movie genre that eschews good-looking people, or at least good-looking women.  Many movies, regardless of the main plot, have a romantic subplot, usually involving a flat, but good-looking female character who only exists in relation to the male main character.  Women are often portrayed as weak and to be saved, as hard but ultimately naive shrews to be tamed, or more recently, superwomen of male fantasy who fall for a complete beta-male for no reason.  Although there is a double standard, objectifying men would not be a proper way to solve the problem.  Much as in life, it is easier to throw in a scene of physical passion than it is to show real chemistry between two people.  Also as in life, this is a "shortcut" and a replacement.  A movie only has two hours to tell us that two people are passionately in love.  Often, the only difference between shallow, meaningless sex and deep, meaningful "love making" is the sentimentality on the music track.

The last major theme of human existence is fraternity.  While fraternity can also be applied to sisterhood, historically, culturally and also in film and its era, it has been more followed with men.  All human beings need friendship and brotherhood.  While the spiritual life, at least for those who believe in a personal deity, is vertical, fraternity is horizontal.  In movies, fraternity can be explored in many ways, but due to the action-oriented nature of the medium, it usually involves a team of men performing some task.  As already noted under sexuality, women are usually objectified and secondary, with male friendships often portrayed as playing a higher role than even marital relationships.  I've heard this is often actually true of men who have been in the military or some other intense situation with each other.  Women's relationships can also be explored, but this is usually relegated to a "women's picture" niche.  These movies are more often about exploring feelings or relationships rather than completing epic tasks.

Movies must show the larger, transcendent themes of life just on the fact that they are too pervasive to avoid, but beyond this, they will hopefully be explored in ways that are meaningful and contribute to our lives beyond the screen.

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