Few words fit together quite as nicely as loneliness and longing. They are both profoundly sad states of being, they evoke melancholy and desire. It is difficult to feel a true and deep sense of loneliness without longing; it is not a state of simply being alone, there is nearly always a sense wanting and waiting. And that is longing. Longing is by nature, a state of dissatisfaction and unhappiness; it is something that is needed and desired to the point of affecting the way we feel the world.
Somehow, there is a kind of unifying factor in films that explore loneliness and longing. It is perhaps, that sense of commonality that it evokes, this sudden sense that so many of us are reaching for impossible dreams and loves. It is a kind of acceptance, and I suppose many people long for that as well.
Some films are purposefully alienating though. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver comes to mind; I think to a certain extent, many can empathize with Travis Bickle’s otherness, perhaps even his social awkwardness. He is so far gone though that his loneliness become frightening and compulsive. Travis is not without longing either, and it motivates him to commit acts of great violence. How far removed is alienation from loneliness?
1 : a withdrawing or separation of a person or a person’s affections from an object or position of former attachment : estrangement
Does this mean that alienation is a kind of wilful loneliness? Separation implies some kind of lack of control, but withdrawal is something else entirely. Is it still loneliness when it is wilful estrangement? Is Travis’ loneliness willing; he is psychotic, he is broken from war, does he have enough control over his state of mind to really wilfully withdraw from society. He has strong hate for many social structures, institutions and groups, but which came first? Hatred or loneliness? Impossible to say.
Why do we hate or fear characters like Bickle, even the ones that are seemingly harmless like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I remember reading the book in high school, and I was shocked by how many people hated it. The reasons were often quite shallow, some related the “impossible” writing structure, but most seemed aimed at Holden. He was self-absorbed, deluded, violent, disgusting, unsympathetic… he lied, he hurt… he was a coward, and well… a phony. It’s an evaluation of his character that completely ignores the real suffering that Holden is experiencing; his psychological and emotional issues, and yet even when some of my classmates acknowledged these realities, their hatred persisted. Is it because he ought to be happy? His parents are wealthy; he lives in the “greatest” city in the world, and is sent to all the best schools. He is also apparently good looking and seemingly, quite intelligent. He should be happy, even with the loss of his brother; he should learn to manage his pain. Do we hate him because he has everything? Or because he has nothing and everything at the same time? Is it simply a case of not understanding? I’m not quite sure, it’s pure speculation, I always felt deeply for Holden.
Back to cinema, it’s been too long since I’ve read the Catcher in the Rye.
Aside from general personal feelings of loneliness, what spurred this outburst of emotion, speculation and self-reflection? A bit of music: Yumeji’s theme from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. It almost seems as loneliness and longing were conceived to describe the atmosphere of that film. There is so much wanting and waiting in that film; so much despair. It seems impossible that you could fear love so much. Then again, the fear in this case comes from a displaced sense of loyalty and a fear of conflating lust with love. Even if they consummate their relationship and desires, they are lost, and alone. Maybe we are all islands. Then again, maybe not, Chungking Express gives me hope.
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps
At this moment, I almost wonder how many individual films that touch on what I’m feeling I could name before I falling asleep (which would be a blessing at this point). To talk about certain films seems redundant, or at least uninteresting. The Machinist is about loneliness or alienation… let’s settle on alienation in this case, but it’s of no interest to me. Probably because it’s a bad movie.
Also, listening to Leonard Cohen consistently has an inspiring effect; it reminds me of how alone I am.
Is Bright Star a film about longing, but not loneliness? It certainly covers both ideas, both aspects, but is heavily leaned towards the former. The strength of the character’s affections seems to greatly undermine any feelings of loneliness that they may feel: at least for most of the running length. Or am I disremembering? I probably am.
In one of my favourite films, Band of Outsiders, the relationship between alienation, loneliness and longing is fascinating. Loneliness seems to the route that leads to the other two. Being alone exists first, absent of any strong desire to escape or longing for affection. It is only when Odile feels wanted that she becomes aware of her loneliness, and is brought into a new self-awareness where longing exists. When all three come to understand their mutual loneliness and otherness, they seek to alienate and distance themselves from society. They are never truly bonded though; there is too much conflict and fear. As much as they are constantly searching to connect and impress upon each other, they are never quite together. I think this is exemplified in the Madison sequence. They dance together, in a sense… they follow the same patterns, but the togetherness is really an illusion of the dance. They are not co-existing on the dance floor, they merely mimic familiar dance moves, nothing would really be lost if one or two of them were removed, unlike a dance like the tango where togetherness is essential. Their voice-overs interrupt the music, and we are given insights into their thought process. They are desperate and excited, they’ve discovered something new, and they’ve discovered sex, themselves. There isn’t anything real about the world they’re living however. It’s only the movies. Except when it is real, but they are not living in reality.
Adolescent loneliness is the most confusing kind. Perhaps because you have millions of hormones fucking with your brain, and the fact that you have so little experience and understanding of the world that you can’t quite cope with these new “adult” feelings. I still feel like I’m caught in a perpetual state of adolescence that I can’t escape. For every day I feel like a driven, maniacal Laurie Starr there are about a year’s worth of days that I am your frumpy season 1, episode 1 Willow Rosenberg.
Band of Outsiders is probably the first film about teenaged years to come to mind, as relating to loneliness, second up is easily Smooth Talk. What is so fascinating about that film is that the loneliness and longing that the protagonist is experiencing are ones she is simultaneously completely unaware of. Connie is a very beautiful fifteen year old girl who looks far older then she is. She enjoys the attention she gets from men, and dresses and behaves in order to attract it. She often finds herself overwhelmed though when things get too serious. She is isolated because of the strength of her biology and physicality, and not because she is strange or ugly or somehow deformed. It is this disparity between identification (she is identified as a mature and therefore, sexual being) and reality (she is a teenager with needs and wants, but who is still as close to being a child as she is to being an adult). She is both pulled and repulsed by her loneliness, as it pushes her to get attention, but she then wilfully withdraws herself from the same situations because she is unequipped to handle them. The final confrontation with Arnold Friend, inspires a wide range of seemingly contradictory emotions in Connie. Ultimately, she wishes for loneliness, for otherness, and cannot find it because she is surrounded; bombarded by “companionship”. This is momentary though, because ultimately, we wonder if she can have healthy relationships due to her experience.
Loneliness can lead to anxiety and paranoia. I’ve touched on this briefly with Taxi Driver and The Catcher in the Rye, but it’s most obvious manifestation is in the horror genre. Perhaps the strongest incarnation of this kind of paranoid, anxious alienation is in Roman Polanski’s Apartment trilogy. How terrible is it to relate so completely to a character like Carole in Repulsion. For so long, I felt like I was watching my worst day ever unfolding on the screen. This terrible fear, and repulsion of sex, motivated… in a way, by the desire for sex or something like it. In horror, loneliness almost always leads to death or at least, madness.
Why is that? We all feel a certain degree of loneliness. How far must we fall from feeling alone to leaving rotting rabbit corpses in our purse? I have a sensitive sense of smell, I’d like to be able to prepare to these kinds of leaps in psychology. Obviously, I am not talking medically, but cinematically. I don’t know anything about medicine or illnesses, psychological or biological. It is often presented as one thing leads to another, though perhaps, it is the development of certain symptoms of loneliness that lead to serious problems. Alienation is one. The further you alienate yourself from society, the further disconnected you are from concepts of living, life and values. Paranoia is also crucial, perhaps because it is so uncontrollable. One must remember, true paranoia is not the fear that your boss it out to get you, its’ the fear that everyone and everything is out to get you. You probably think this post is out to get you. It is a symptom that tends to get worse and worse, and can also lead to a disconnect that can potentially lead to the perceived physical threat against one’s person.
I feel like I’m falling far from what I was initially talking about. Now I’m talking about my greatest fears, my worst doubts. I’m not truly afraid of madness, though I am afraid of being accused of being mad when I’m not. That is truly frightening.
I want simple loneliness and longing. Something removed from death, if it’s possible. The Apartment? Suicide. A different kind of death, one that is so far from all the others I’ve talked about. I almost don’t know what to say, I’ve never reached that point of despair, though I can understand it. For Fran, her loneliness is incredibly confused because on one hand, she feels as though she is needed and loved. That perhaps she should be grateful for that, even though she is dissatisfied, and well lonely. The Apartment is very much about being alone in the crowd. What about those offices? Those seemingly endless rows of people going about their business, each one of them completely alone, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people. It’s disconcerting on so many levels. It’s such a machinated view of our existence.
Reminds me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Not writing about it though.
I love those movies where you have characters who feel so alone, and long for something… like Sunrise, how Janet Gaynor longs for the happiness and innocence of the early years of her marriage, and though she suffers greatly… in the end she finds that happiness again. I’m not even sure if there is a film out there that handles that whole transition with more grace, beauty and conviction. It gives you hope.
I can only imagine how terrible and lonely veterans from any war must feel. Especially a long one, most wars seem endless though. I remember reading those stories by Ernest Heminway for class, about men who return home and can’t re-integrate, at least not emotionally. They try and try, but they can never truly overcome their experience, especially since no one understands it. I don’t remember what it was called, but there is one about a returning soldier, who lives at home, and his mother is getting him to do and try all these things to be normal again, and there is this final confrontation between them where he tells her that he doesn’t believe in God anymore. It’s a profound statement. I never believed in God, but the core idea of that kind of declaration is that your entire value system has been turned upside down and nothing has taken its place. You are left with essentially nothing. God doesn’t exist, but the soldier hasn’t found anything to put there. So he is consumed by his feelings of otherness and loneliness. Many films touch on this, Film Noir probably does it best, but films like The Best Years of Our Lives also explore the issue with great sensitivity and open-endedness. I find war terribly horrific and I honestly acknowledge that I could never understand what that experience must be like. I think the true effects that soldiering has on the individual can never truly be measured; it’s such an unnatural existence.
Somehow this whole “thing”, whatever you want to call it, has been an extremely therapeutic experience. I feel like I’ve purged a huge amount of anxiety, and though I’m not sure what exactly to make of this document, I think it might contain some value. I’m filled with a bit of hope, not necessarily the kind that you’d find in Sunrise. I’m not like those characters at all, I probably never can be. There are other films where loneliness is “cured” though, even In the Mood for Love. Chungking Express at least! It’s all coming back together. I should listen to the Eagles… or the Mama’s and the Papa’s, whatever.