Experience of a (Cinematic) Lifetime


Originally published July 29, 2020 on radiofodder.com


During a recent brief tryst with YouTube, I had an insatiable avarice for Toy Story clips. I was enamoured with the thought of re-experiencing childhood through an “adult” perspective. In the face of a second lockdown, it’s made me reflect on the nature of reminiscing and not living in the moment. I know deep down that most of my most treasured memories were not as enjoyable at the time. These moments were also brief. But the memories of these moments are a joy I can fall back on at any time, and have caused me more pleasantness in the mind than they ever did as an experience. How much easier it is to battle lockdown and slog through essays if I can simultaneously think about halcyon times.  

Not only can we live vicariously in the past, but we can also live in anticipation for the future. Battling lockdown, I’m not convinced living in anticipation is completely effective—though I think it certainly has a place in moderation. Often, it brings me more contentment than I otherwise would have had, and sometimes I feel even more content in the present day than the event ends up being in the future. This was best demonstrated at my graduation last year as I sat, lathered in thick fabric, hearing name after name being read out in a monotonous and seemingly endless manner while a bit of sweat hung on the tips of my hairs and I became convinced I’d entered a psychology experiment where my weary expression was being watched on the monitors by a sadistic PhD student who was giggling and scribbling observations about my patience and attention span into her notebook. But I digress. I mention ‘anticipation’ because I want to talk about promotional trailers for films, which are often released an absurd amount of time before the actual film comes out. If we consider the anticipation before a film’s release and account for all the joy we get reflecting on the film, what percent of our fulfilment comes from actually watching the film? 

Films often tell stories about characters. By watching these characters’ lives, films can become a detached version of “experiencing a lifetime”. It’s fun to regard them as little lives we can watch over with a comfortable God-like mentality. We can even watch them and associate them with ‘eras’ of our own lives. And while we fill our lives with these fictional ‘lifetimes’, it’s simultaneously tempting to believe our own lifetime will be like the lifetimes we’re watching. There’s a comfort here—our issues will resolve, and when our lifetime reaches its end we’ll be able to reminisce and reflect the way we do when a film ends. Honestly, I think this is healthy. Who’s to say what life “is” anyway? We’ve been “watching lives” since the beginning of recorded history, with the Epic of Gilgamesh and the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. It seems to me that a lot of “entertainment”, beyond satisfying and comforting our minds, plays a huge role in defining our lives. Indeed, Toy Story, like many films, is less of a film, and more of a cultural movement that many people have grown up with. It’s grown old with people, and provided us with memories and hope for the future, provided us with a sense of community, of shared emotion, and of bonding. We can quote it to each other and make Toy Story “idiots everywhere” memes. It’s not overly clear the extent to which Toy Story is a distraction from life or a part of life. There’s perhaps a complex overlap, but what is consistent is that it frees us from having to think about the uncertainty of the present or the eventuality of death. The characters bring us a sense of security in the face of the stories ending, because they never really end for us until we do. When we identify as the characters in the film (and if we watch them die), we can lessen the seriousness of our own lives ending—we can shrug it off like the ‘endings’ we see on TV.

Of course there’s a level of empathy when we watch these characters live their lives (and possibly die), but the effect of this cuts deeply in our own lives too. We’ve all attended Hogwarts in a weird and roundabout way by identifying as the characters. I don’t even like Harry Potter, but I feel like I’ve been into the world just from hearing people talk about it. I’ve never seen the films or read the books and yet I know which House I belong to (Ravenclaw?). In this way, I feel like I relate to the characters more than true Potter fans. It takes so little for us to relate to a character. Half the appeal of action movies is to identify as the characters and pretend we’re actually fighting bad guys, and this works even if, like me, you know you can’t “do the moves” like the characters can. You just forget you can’t run for more than 100 metres without sputtering and wanting a lie down. You just enjoy the illusion. Surely, half the appeal of rom-coms is to identify as the characters and live in hope that we might one day be as beautifully infatuated as they are (or, if we’re already in love, that we can relive those first exciting months). None of this is “real living”, and a lot of it involves reminiscing and hope—but it works. We get to experience life in a watered down and less scary way. Who cares if this all sounds problematic on paper if it brings us contentment? Seize not living in the moment, but carpe whatever gets you through lockdown.

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