If you’re a person who keeps up with the critical conversation about film— and if you’re reading this, there’s a nonzero chance that you are— you’ll have noticed that, in the last several years, we’ve been talking about identity a lot. The highly visible platform of film has made movies a lightning rod for discussions about whether and how groups of people see themselves represented. If movies are truly a populist art form—if movies are for everyone—then it’s important that we talk about how well they’re telling stories about us. Now that we pretty much all know about the Bechdel Test, we can start employing the DuVernay test, too. Many of the most clickable articles about film these days focus on identity politics in some form or another—on Zootopia as an allegory about race in America, or the weird outrage over the female-dominated Ghostbusters reboot, or whether the Star Wars series will get a queer character.
This is good. We’re having conversations that have been put off for far too long, and we’re honing our understanding of how to tell and talk about the stories of marginalized groups.
There’s more to identity than identity politics, though. Behind the broader external questions of identity (With what groups do I identify? How are those groups being represented in the films I watch?) lie the specific, internal, existential questions of identity (Who am I? What am I here for? What is it like to be alive in my body?).
It makes sense that watching movies can lead us into these questions. For one thing, movies are about people, and watching other people puts us reflexively into a kind of relationship with them. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey best describes this phenomenon in her seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”:
The conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world.
Mulvey compares the recognition we experience while watching a film to the “mirror stage” described by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan— the stage in infant development where a child recognizes its own image in the mirror. When we look at the images gliding across the screen, mirror-like, we see human figures and we look for our selves in them.
The medium of film itself tends to push us toward identification, too. The camera looks at things, and we look at things with it, and we forge a subconscious connection to the film’s protagonist—to the character doing the looking. This is the line of reasoning that led Mulvey to coin the term “the male gaze,” to describe the way the camera in a Hollywood film tends to adopt the look, or gaze, of the male protagonist. Filmmakers can direct us to identify with characters by letting us see things through their eyes. And when audience members can identify with a character in a film, they become emotionally invested.
It’s been debated whether identifying with a film is all that worthwhile a pursuit. In her New Yorker essay “The Scourge of Relatability,” Rebecca Mead bemoans the cultural slide from identifying with stories to asking that all stories be “somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experiences of the reader or viewer.” Earlier this year at The Walrus, Jason Guriel wrote a takedown of what he calls “confessional criticism,” in which critics “locate cultural objects in relation to their own lives” and “can’t seem to keep themselves out of their sentences.” The valid concern that runs through both these essays is that we will become so consumed with our image in art’s mirror that we will stop empathizing, stop looking at things for their own sake, unable to stop tripping over our pesky selves.
And yet ourselves we are, there in the theater: our bodies, our brains, our eyes, our hearts. It’s where we start, and in a certain sense it’s all we have. We can do our best to make sure we learn about the wide world outside ourselves, but we can only do that from inside our own skulls. Identification doesn’t get in the way of empathy and knowing others— it’s a prerequisite for it. Empathy is, after all, feeling with: it’s a relationship. Roger Ebert put it simply and tenderly in the introduction to his memoir, Life Itself:
We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said in his book I and Thou, “All real living is meeting.” So too would I contend that all real watching is meeting. We meet the people who made the film. We meet the characters in it. We meet the film itself, and that first meeting between it and us in the dark can change our lives.
On a certain level, every issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room has been an identity issue. A lot of the essays we’ve published have been stories of these meetings between a person and a film, and I think it’s safe to say that’s an essential project of the magazine. For this issue in particular, we’ve assembled an array of perspectives on film and identity that span the spectrum between the analytical and the personal. Katherine Murray considers the selves we keep on our DVD shelves and what it means to buy a physical copy of a movie in 2016. Karina Wolf and Arielle Greenberg consider the question of celebrity identity as presented in film, focusing on Purple Rain and Amy respectively. Kyle Meikle and Lindsey Romain offer us narratives of growing up alongside a beloved character—The Jungle Book’s Mowgli for him, The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy for her. Angelica Jade Bastién dives deep into The Apartment to talk about loneliness and home and how a movie can run parallel to a life, and Chad Perman and Sheila O’Malley talk about growing up and family identity in Running on Empty.
We think it’s worthwhile to talk about what it’s like to be ourselves watching movies. We hope you’ll meet us there.