Life Imitating Cinema

My midshipmen’s (at the naval academy students are called midshipmen, not cadets) lives can be hectic and stressful. Not only do they have to fulfill the requirements of a regular university education they’re also subjected to the physical and mental rigors of military training. At the end of each semester, for my classes that haven’t been complete shit-birds, we have a movie and snack day. One of my sophomore students and I were talking about our common interest in Hong Kong cinema and the rest of the class happened to overhear. A group discussion followed about what movie would be a good introduction and Yang and I agreed on Kar Wai Wong’s In the Mood for Love.

Like all good art, the film pulls the viewer into its world and evokes emotion. I’d seen the film numerous times and thought I’d be immune to its spell. I was wrong, and, luckily, the film ran longer than my allotted lecture time. By the time the credits rolled I was alone in my classroom and was filled with a powerful, bittersweet longing. A tear defeated me and escaped from the corner of my eye. I quickly wicked it away and clicked the ‘off’ button on the remote. The comically large flat screen went dim and silent. I sat at my desk and tried to distill what exactly I loved about the film. Was it the poetry of the cinematography? The pervasive air of romantic melancholy? The slightly haunting and ethereal "Yumeji's Theme" by Shigeru Umebayashi that’s played in its entirety eight times throughout the movie? It was all of those things but it was something more. It let me vividly experience another time and place while forcing me to connect with my own experiences of loss and unrequited love. It also got me wondering how and to what extent cinema influences us as individuals and as a society.

In my forthcoming novel, Wine Tasting is Bullshit, I explore how our obsession with celebrity and cinema are transforming the American, and to some extent the human, experience. As we’re having experiences, we often times relate them to a movie we’ve seen or seek out certain experiences in order to recreate what we’ve seen on the big screen. How many of our expectations about life are tied into the movies we’ve watched? How similar are actual memories to memories of movies? Our past experiences are like lenses that filter and color what we see. Is that the same for films we’ve watched?  It becomes a feedback loop and I wonder if, in certain instances, it can lead to a hollowing of the human experience in the same way it can enrich it:  “Wait this doesn’t feel like I thought would! What’s wrong here? This isn’t like Fast and the Furious or Drumline!” While cinema can enrich our lives, does it also have the power to subtract from it and dumb us down?

South Korea, where I live, went from being a very poor, isolated country to an economic powerhouse in just a few decades. The rapid growth and sudden introduction of Western influence through cinema, television, and radio, created a cultural void, an uncertainty of how to act in certain situations and a deep desire to want to appear modern, which translates into Western. In many cases instead of actually experiencing and enjoying things, Koreans get wrapped up in the world media feedback loop. Weddings are a great example. Korean “Western” style weddings are nothing like weddings in the West. They’re cheesy, quick, soulless factory affairs, replete with smoke machines and fake flowers. One couple is ushered out of the wedding hall to the attached buffet area and another is ushered in. The same thing can be said about Christmas. It has no roots in tradition. It feels like something out of the movie Coneheads --  inorganic and awkward. It’s performed because it gives Koreans the feeling that they had a Western style wedding like they’ve seen in so many films.  The irony is in the attempt to make the experience more authentic, or what is perceived as authentic, it becomes less so. Traditional Korean wedding ceremonies, on the other hand, are the emotional, lively, heartfelt celebrations you would expect. The sad thing is many of Korea’s traditions are being replaced by an approximation of what they think Western traditions are and in many cases it is negatively affecting the country. My worry is if we as individuals, and a culture, get caught up with the wrong kind of media, the vapid, violent, or artistically hollow, then we’re in danger, like Korea, of losing our meaningful connections to our deeper selves and traditions.

"We can hope for peace. We must, however, prepare for war. We face an enemy that is not only well funded, but who believe they fight for freedom and justice. Those of us who know the truth and dare speak it, know that the enemy we face are indeed our brothers. ...To stop this oppression, I fear, can ... only be accomplished with bloodshed, ‘The dawn of a new day. May all of our coming sacrifices be worth it.’"

This sounds like a line from a b-list action movie but unfortunately it isn’t. It was a note left by Jerad and Amanda Miller who went on a shooting rampage recently in Las Vegas. The psychopath responsible for the Isla Vista shooting left behind a chilling video in which he also comes across as the villain in a b-list action movie. Is there a direct correlation between the type of media one consumes and how they view the world? How much are our reactions rooted in media we’ve consumed? Are we caught in a feedback loop of mindless violence and vapidity?

While we may not have concrete answers to those questions I do believe that too large a percentage of cinema and media holds no artistic value. It’s not to say that everything produced on the big or small screen has to be art-house, but something with some meaning would be nice. Graham Green once said he wrote two kinds of books; one to get a message and a point across and the other to entertain. He said that if he’d written a book correctly then there would be overlap. I think Hollywood needs to pay more attention to Graham Green. If it’s true that life imitates art then we need to start being more thoughtful and responsible with what we produce as a society not only for ourselves but for future generations that will judge us on the art we’ve left behind. I know I don’t want to be judged on the Tranformers or Rambo tetralogies.

Author Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist and English lecturer at the Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea where he lives with his wife and son. He is interested in evolutionary biology, the Cold War, international relations, existentialism, British roadsters, sailing, jujitsu, East Asian history and cultures, and literature. His first novel, Saving Bill Murray is available here, His second novel, Wine Tasting is Bullshit, is forthcoming.

Movie Reel image courtesy of Shutterstock

In the Mood for Love image provided by Joshua Newett

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