Max Fattal / Associate Editor

April 10, 2024

Filming Loneliness, Watching Alone

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James Baldwin has a quote about the greatness of art that describes the experience of feeling alone in your depression and then realizing — through reading — that Dostoevsky felt that same depression. I like that quote, not only because it articulates the wonder of art for me, but also because I came to that same realization reading Crime and Punishment: Not only do I share the feelings with Dostoevsky, I share the realization of the shared feelings with Baldwin. Perhaps you too came to that in the context of Rasklnikov’s depression and Baldwin’s commentary… a third layer of shared experience. I think this conception — of art as this personal experience shared between an artist and an audience — has made me more comfortable engaging with art (and film in particular) on my own. I’ve always liked watching movies alone; I haven’t had trouble going to the theaters alone since before I turned 18. But for a time earlier this year, I’d never done it quite so much, or in quite such a specific way. I wasn’t just watching alone; I was seeking the cinema of loneliness, and watching alone. 

The domain of lonely cinema belongs largely to Tsai Ming-Liang, the great Taiwanese slow cinema master. His long, meditative and occasionally transgressive cinematic brushstrokes paint urban landscapes inextricable from the sense of total alienation. The Hole is a predictive pandemic film coming in 1998, complete with the painfully real social distancing procedures fully blocked out of my memory.  In What Time is it There?, two strangers share a chance encounter and in their desperation they each find themselves thinking of one another, entering each other’s milieus, trying their best to understand a person they saw or spoke to for a half-second. To the extent possible, there’s hope in Tsai’s lonely cinema: his characters long for connection. Every near miss is requited, if still missed. But the form remains so spare, so dramatically remote: crowds are isolating, conversations alienating, even sex scenes are lonely. Each and every shot draws attention to its own emptiness. 

Wong Kar Wai, the Hong Kong filmmaker best known for his step-printing style and neon-soaked cityscapes offers a more cynical view of loneliness: a self-imposed juxtaposition of longing and unwillingness to open. In In the Mood for Love, his opus, two characters connected by their spouses’ affair manage to find the bond they are after in each other. Yet, the sense of hurt in the betrayal — a fear of reproducing the pain that they’re experiencing — forces them to shut each other off. “We won’t be like them.” Contrasting Tsai’s glacial, often empty, wide shots of concrete jungles, Wong zooms in, and longingly paints the colors of beautiful men and women walking in stylized slow motion. They could, they should, be together, and yet they can’t or won’t. In Tsai’s world, perhaps we are broken because we are lonely; in Wong’s, we are lonely because we have broken. 

There’s a third, most terrifying style of lonely cinema that’s been on my mind, if less present in my watchlist. Sometimes the vibes get so rancid and the revelations so predictably terrifying that you can only end up in Lynch. Looping repetitions of thoughts, populated with other people who end up amounting to little more than specters. Lynch shows what it feels like to lose someone, to know that means everything is lost. And after all, sometimes things just feel like nightmares: words strung together to make that heart-dropping, stuck-in-quicksand feeling that’s necessarily subconscious. Or maybe the polarity is reversed; you rehearse the trauma in your head for so long that hearing it in reality just ends up feeling surreal. Regardless, it all ends up coalescing the way Lynch puts it — these uncomfortable put on smiles and phony feats of joy that begin to rot away and transform into a realization of total isolation. Lynch’s protagonists are trapped, completely alone, in dreamscape prisons of their own creation: static, staid, unending. If that’s not loneliness; if that’s not brokenness. 

I have no one to blame but myself. I was watching melancholic cinema alone because it was the only thing that felt right— or at least alright. Watching a rom-com alone feels perverse to me, bordering on pornographic. A lone figure seeking that orgasmic rush of serotonin in fantasy, projecting it on his past and future. I disgust myself. Not to mention the other, new fear: that creeping sense that the movie magic will fail and that you’ll end up identifying with the cast-aside boring choice instead of the protagonist or her eventual love interest. No, rom-coms — escapist movies — must be shared I think, with someone, anyone. But I couldn’t, can’t, keep indulging in that grittier cinema of loneliness. There’s only so much less alone it will make you feel. Eventually it too will find itself projected infinitely forward and back into a far less bearable, and no more true, fantasy. Watching alone, when lonely, proves to be a difficult prospect. 

And that overwhelming sense of permanence; I’ll admit, it got to me. I stopped watching: I haven’t seen movies this infrequently since high school. Who knows? I may have gone too far and watched too much and broken my brain so that I can never have that same relationship with film again. It might pass — frankly, it probably will. But maybe not, or maybe I’ll have moved on to some other interest by the time I’d be ready to engage again. Perhaps it all broke and I’m lost, unable to handle the films of loneliness and forced to retreat in some other medium, some other realm or mechanism of taste, just some other auteur at the very least. I suppose it takes a vomit-inducing level of brilliance to put a person off of cinema entirely — hats off.

Max Fattal is a third year in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].