Engage in any casual theoretical discussion about the medium of film and chances are you’ll at least touch on some variation of: Why is cinema the most influential art and entertainment form of our time? What’s so special about it? What can movies do uniquely and effectively that other forms of art can’t?
They’re difficult questions to answer in broad terms. Most discussions I’ve had surrounding the essence of film, including the ever-riveting academic subject of medium specificity that grad school types love to beat to death, prove ultimately unsatisfying when they morph into prescription (movies should be such and such), or sweeping generalization (all movies are/do yada yada). What I do find useful and interesting is discussing trends, topics, and types of expression that movies are able to capture in a way that other art forms are less capable of achieving either by limitations in their very nature or by the culture that dictates them. There are, for example, things movies can’t do as well as other media: literature can convey a subjective experience more deeply by putting the reader as close to the inside of another person’s head and language as is humanly possible; music can possess a listener with the perhaps greatest emotional pureness; theatre features potential for immediate audience interaction that film is incapable of offering; and still visual art like painting and photography allow a person to experience a work of art in their own time, at their own pace, without the duration of their experience dictated by the motion of a picture or forward progress of successive frames.
Even these examples are fairly broad, but they offer a glimpse of the kinds of interesting ways a person can get different artistic effects out of different artistic media. I’d like to get a little more specific. Film has this really cool advantage of being able to combine music, dramatic performance, photography and digital animation and manipulation, and edit them all together to make something cohesive. This allows it to play around with numerous realms of human experience, and as its audience, we get to go back and forth between observing and immersing ourselves in the world films create for us in an immediate way, the way we tend to experience the actual world around us, with our eyes and ears.
I said I’d like to get more specific, and so I’m going to focus in on one category of human experience that I think film can capture in a fascinating way: introversion. I have to disclaim right off the bat that I’m not a fan of this term even though (maybe because?) I identify with it; it’s a term that has attained this cultural status rather recently which has illuminated aspects of it but also revealed the diverse range of personality types and motivations that its umbrella covers, failing to acknowledge this range. As I proceed my assumption/hope is that people will understand through context what I mean when I use the term, and understand that I use it in a flexible manner, and why that is.
Movies seem like they shouldn’t be the natural residing place for introverts. Typically, books are considered their domain, both in writing and reading them. JD Salinger and Dr. Seuss are two famous examples of writers who fiercely kept to themselves. Susan Cain’s widely viewed TED talk places a great emphasis on, as a self-identified introvert, her love of books. It’s a quiet activity often associated with introverts in contrast to the loud social interaction associated with extroverts. As characters, introverts tend to thrive in first person narratives, for at long last, someone gets to hear their side of things. They are able to tell their story and share their perspective with no fear of being interrupted by someone who speaks more loudly and commands people’s attention with far more skill and natural charisma. An introverted protagonist will provide a look inside the mind that tends to keep thoughts to itself rather than bother others by sharing them. Understandably, this medium can offer a more thorough and clear subjective portrayal of an individual than a visual medium like movies.
But what film lacks in subjective detail it makes up for in objective realism. In fact, you could say it places us all in the position of the introvert—we are unable to express ourselves in this act of engagement with the screen; all we can do is sit quietly, observe, think, and react internally. As I alluded to earlier, film’s great strength comes in this fusion of various elements, an ability to be two things at once, including the subjective and the objective. And so, it can present before our eyes and ears a world as seen by an introverted protagonist, and even provide a narrative voice to guide us through their thoughts as we experience the world they inhabit with them. This is the case with The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Based on a book written entirely in the epistolary style, which puts us square in the mind of our protagonist, Charlie, the film version of Perks makes a noble attempt to give us a balance between how Charlie sees the world and, inevitably, because we are able to look at him, how the world sees Charlie. Call me a weirdo, but I find this wonderful. We have this unique opportunity to be both inside and outside observers, witnesses to the thoughts that are hidden from Charlie’s friends and colleagues, those that he keeps mostly to himself (well, I guess technically he’s writing them to one other person), but we also get to observe that which is obscured to Charlie, the way he presents himself to other people, and the way he ultimately comes off as a person.
The result is, at times, a feeling of disconnect. Part of this is because, in my viewing, the movie’s outward portrayal of Charlie as played by Logan Lerman (who just seemed old to me, among other things) didn’t always do justice to the internal struggle he was facing. My sense was that his behaviour was intended to be more meek but I’m not sure this was achieved. He seemed to hold his own against the noise that introverts in my experience tend to shy away from. Nevertheless, disconnect in cases like this, where we have firsthand exposure to the introvert’s innermost motivations and impressions, reflects the same disconnect people often have when reading something a quieter person has written (believe me). There’s a personality that gets lost in the shuffle or drowned out by the noise. When our primary exposure is to this side of a character’s personality, it can be surprising when we see them among people and they’re awkward or soft spoken. This is a side of Charlie we are able to imagine in the book, though I would assume it’s not considered too carefully by most readers, whereas the movie makes this immediately real to us. We see for ourselves the posture he assumes when he slowly and painfully ventures out onto the dance floor to make contact with his only real shot at potential friendship. Because of the narrational context, we see him, and we understand. The contrast is one example of film’s ability to express this truth about introversion with a realness that I suspect is impossible to express in any other way.
There’s another method of portraying an introvert, or perhaps more suitable labels would be the introspective person, the character of careful thought before action. It is realized in the tremendous work of Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Daniel Day-Lewis in the newly released Lincoln. Here, we have the historical context of a figure we all know a thing or two about; we’ve heard his lofty speeches and we are familiar with his political accomplishments and importance. Many will even be familiar with the man as he is understood in the contemporary cultural ethos, known for his ‘melancholy’ and for his willingness, eagerness even, to listen to and work with those who held opposing views to his own. He’s also a big figure in the introvert community (is there an introvert community? Of course there is) for his reputedly quiet demeanor and preference for solitude rather than social engagements, similar to the current president.
Watching Lincoln, I was fascinated by the historical drama but frankly most intrigued by the depiction of the character of Lincoln. The most iconic images that feature the character in the film consist of him not saying anything: reflecting on meeting with Civil War soldiers, hearing out advisors on legislative strategy, quietly reading with his young son while he waits for the results of the House vote, even silently listening to the impassioned counsel of his wife. The trajectory of these scenes and the film as a whole consists of a beautifully conceived and executed philosophy of listen first, then respond. We’re left with the impression that in most cases, though not all, this is a character who puts great value in the words he chooses and the timing with which he delivers his messages.
This is also an example of the contrast between a film’s portrayal of character, particularly an introverted character, and that within literature. While a novel can use literally thousands of words to describe an individual’s mannerisms and appearance and demeanor and perhaps thoughts and motivations, film relies on a picture, albeit a moving one. In a medium often disparaged for excess, spectacle, a lack of subtlety (where usually the accusation of spectacle is meant to imply, unfoundedly, a lack of subtlety), the fact that movies like Lincoln force us to glean only what we can deduce from observation of a character from the outside, as we must do in everyday reality, supports the assertion that this is the pinnacle of a subtle yet tremendously expressive presentation of a person. We are left with the imposing stature, reserved smile, soft-spoken storytelling, and mild mannered speech of a man who is at the same time clothed in immense power. Try as we might to get inside his head, in the end he walks away in his casual but laboured gait, alone with his thoughts.
I know I’m biased, but I happen to think there’s tremendous beauty in the way cinema captures people who don’t make themselves known as much in words as in action, presence, and demeanor. It’s a medium that thrives on the voyeuristic impulse and a desire to analyze character, with the most intriguing cases being characters who protect, intentionally or unintentionally, an air of mystery. I hope to share more celebrations of the introverted in film in future writings. Verbose characters are great fun too, but these mysterious figures—those who simply prefer to keep to themselves or those who would love to express themselves but simply can’t for one reason or another—these folks are, well, beyond words for me. Or maybe I just find them to be thinly veiled versions of myself. Narcissist.
- Darren Ruecker