Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Art, Films and Togetherness

Is art properly enjoyed and appreciated in a solitary manner?

Let us see.  A book is read alone.  Most music these days is listened to using headphones.  Museums often have solitary individuals looking at a sculpture or a painting.  Photographers usually work alone.

But when it comes to films, quite a few people find it odd to go see a movie by themselves.

It is not hard to see why.  Cinema is more like theater than a painting.  Going to a movie theater is usually less about the movie and more about spending time together with someone.  Two or more people go through an experience, a roller-coaster of emotions, together.  They munch popcorn together.  They go for dinner after the film.  It is a shared experience.

But cinema is without a doubt an art form as well.

A movie therefore can be understood to serve two distinct purposes: it is a work of art, and it is a way to spend time together.  It goes without saying that not all films are art-works, just like not all books are literature.

Now of course, these two can overlap to some extent.  It is possible that two friends or lovers find that they enjoy similar books and similar films.  That their appreciation of a work of art is a shared feeling.  Unlike a book, a film can be enjoyed together in front of a large screen, so why not experience it together!

Many people, women especially, are loath to go watch a movie by themselves.  They have no problem watching a TV episode on their own at home.  But to go to a movie is more about socializing, and it is as "weird" to them as planning a dinner outing, going out to a good restaurant and eating by themselves.  Women, moreover, may find it is a an admission of social failure that they weren't able to find a man, or a girlfriend, to spend time with them.

But, and but, I do hold that a great film or a serious work of art is properly enjoyed in solitude, or on one's own.  To go a bit further, even stars and the moon and an awe-inspiring vista in nature is capable of piercing the soul more intensely when experienced alone.

The experience of an intense work of art, or of great beauty in nature, is diminished by distraction.  And it is impossible to not be aware of another, known, human presence when you are with someone.  When you watch a film with someone, a part of you is aware of and is attending to the other person.  How he or she is responding, if they have to go take a break, if they are asking you a question or making a comment.  Full immersion in the film is not easy in such circumstances.

Would you find it easy to be immersed in a book, and do justice to the imagination and intensity it demands, if you and your friend were reading it together?  If, heart pounding to know what happens next, or to finish an exquisite detail in a paragraph, you wanted to turn the page but your friend asked you to wait till he/she finished reading?

Similarly, when in nature, I have found that I experience inward silence and an existential intensity when nature and I are, so to speak, in undivided communion.  It is a different kind of experience, not less joyous, to interact with nature together with someone.  Say, to bathe together in a lake or to climb a mountain together.  But when it comes to a deep appreciation and cognitive immersion in nature, it seems obvious to me that that can happen only in solitude.

Reinhold Messner, one of the great modern alpine-style mountaineers, once said: "I climb higher to go deeper into myself."

To even have one's own mind verbalize and whisper "How beautiful" is a pebble thrown in the lake of stillness of that experience.

This also perhaps illustrates the difference between entertainment and an existential reflection.  Entertainment is heightened by togetherness, while reflection is enhanced with solitude.  Entertainment is more about "fun" or flowing in similar feelings, while reflection is more about a sense of wonder, insight, a meditative stillness, a contemplative dive into oneself.  When alone with an experience, one can cry without self-consciousness, or lose a sense of time, or go far and deep within oneself.

So, do not be self-pitying about watching a film alone, even if in a theater.  You are not there to prove your social desirability, but to undertake a journey into yourself.  If you feel an awkward shame to tell someone the next day that you went to the theater on your own, ask yourself if you would feel ashamed to tell someone that you read a book alone.  This shame is due to the conflation between cinema as an act of togetherness and social proof, versus as a medium of art.  If someone tells you that they "never go to the movie theater alone", tell them they are missing something.  Perhaps they are more fragile to social perception and convention than to an intense experiencing of life.

A great work of art, or a great experience in nature, gets you deeper in touch with yourself and existence.  It is a form of meditation.  Meditation has always been a act in solitude.  And for good reason.  Films are the modern world's most accessible and easily immersive art form.  And a serious, thought-provoking, artistic film deserves to be experienced without distraction, with full immersion, and alone.

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