Why We Go to Movies About 'Going it Alone'

This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

This year's most-honored films mostly are rather bleak. "If a movie-goer manages to see all the Oscar-nominated films, a generous dose of antidepressants will be in order," remarked Washington Post writer Robin Givhan.

With at least one survey finding 75 percent of Americans feeling that our country is on the wrong track, the trend toward gloomy movies may seem to be a case of art imitating life. Yet as the ideology of hyper-individualism runs its dangerous course through our politics and culture, the American public may be drawn to entertainment that depicts the future we're desperate to avoid.

In the 1932 film Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo uttered her most famous line, "I want to be alone!" Yet, despite her anguished pleas for solitude, in the end Garbo's once-suicidal misanthropic character seeks out love and companionship. The tragedy of the film is that the companion she now craves has been killed.

Many of this year's films follow an opposite path. When Best Picture nominee There Will Be Blood begins, Daniel Day-Lewis' character is part of a community -- trying to figure out together how to more efficiently extract oil from the earth. The film tells the dark tale of his descent into loneliness, as he pushes away -- or kills -- everyone around him. The tragedy is not that Day-Lewis' character ends up alone despite wanting community. The tragedy is that he chose isolation and then learned its consequence.

Films like No Country for Old Men, also up for Best Picture, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead similarly progress from being stories of community -- husband-wife, parent-child, sheriff-town -- to everyone being on his or her own, fighting in isolation, one against the other.

Thomas Hobbes' "war of all against all" leading to lives that are "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" is a popular story line in our culture today. From Survivor to American Idol, we enjoy watching people duke it out in mock struggles of life and death, or being voted off the show, which equals death in reality TV. But perhaps these films and shows are popular not because they reflect our lives but because they repulse us. For every Lone Ranger on the screen, there are thousands of families and communities pulling together and looking out for one another. Maybe we enjoy watching malnourished fashion models eliminate each other precisely because we can turn the TV off and turn to the people around us, safe in the knowledge that they help us when we're in need and help us achieve our dreams.

To be sure, individualism and community are not at odds. The Rabbi Hillel said, "If I am not for myself, who will be? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" Individual autonomy and expression are essential to a democratic society. Yet our increasingly high-tech, low-touch consumerist society has force-fed us the idea that we're nothing more than individuals.

This year's breakaway hit film was Juno, in which a high school student who got pregnant by "connecting" with a schoolmate, decides to give her baby to a suburban mother longing for connection herself. Throughout the film, Juno's family and friends support her. It's the kind of movie that makes us feel good because it captures the world we crave, where the ideology of individualism succumbs to a deeper sense of interconnectedness. The same hunger for positive change and unity is clearly transforming political discourse as well.

In a moment of self-reflection in There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis' character confesses, "I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people." But then, foreshadowing his descent into selfish isolation, he says, "I can't keep doing this on my own." None of us can. And the moral of this year's stories is that none of us want to.

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