Irrevocably Alone: The Cinematic Expression of the Human Need for Connection
I get lonely at night, in the place between sunset and sleep. It feels like the longest, most desolate distance in the dark. Loneliness hurts and it haunts. It can feel like it will never go away. A gnawing of quiet brutality that ravages you on the inside. The irony of loneliness though, is that we are not alone in it. Each and every one of us has felt it at some point in our lives, whether we want to admit it or not. Whether we know its name or not. For some it can be a passing feeling. For others, a chronic persistence of existence. We long for relief from the amorphous, ever-swelling balloon inside that keeps growing but never pops. And so we give in to the urgent cry that calls out for a cure, seeking and searching for amelioration in the company of warm bodies and understanding souls. The need to connect with others is a struggle and a driving force. It pulls the strings, motivating one’s desires, decisions, and actions. ‘Til the need for human connection quickly becomes the obsession we don’t know we have. But it is not like other obsessions. It arises not from bad habits, not from addictions, fixations, or exposure to external stimuli. It arises from deep within us like the beating of a heart. It arises because we are alive.
The only consolation of loneliness may be in realizing it is the defining thread of the human condition. The lamentation of poets and writers for centuries, filmmakers have now taken up the pen, transforming it into a lens, and continuing on with the meditation; elevating to art this most universal struggle. For the taste of loneliness is in every human emotion, from grief to loss to heartbreak to boredom. There are so many movies about loneliness, and even the ones that aren't about loneliness, still are. The recent Mary Shelley (2017) is one of them.
Depicting the life of writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, or Mary Shelley after she married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she is the author of one of the greatest tomes on loneliness: Frankenstein. The film is undoubtedly historically inaccurate but nonetheless gorgeously entertaining in a non-despairing and uplifting way. Its primary concern is in showing how each moment of her life and times influenced her artistic process of writing Frankenstein. But intertwined in that is also seeing how each moment of her life made her realize how alone she was.
Running away at the age of 17 to live with Percy who was a married man, she embraced love and passion at the cost of scandal. While she accepted the soiling of her reputation, this did not equal an automatic acceptance of Percy’s repeated infidelities. Sometimes love, though beautiful and consuming, does not come with connection. By the young age of 19, Mary's life had already been filled with tragedy. Living in the neverending wake of the death of her mother when she was born, Mary also suffered the death of her own infant child.
The sense of aloneness that Victor Frankenstein’s creation felt in her novel, was birthed from the truth that Mary felt in her own life. “Wanting for my ‘happily ever after,’ I lowered my defenses forgetting the first lesson I was taught: that I was brought into this world to be abandoned. That I am irrevocably alone.” The more life you experience, the more alone you may realize you are. Life can ravage you this way. And the only thing more painful than loneliness is the feeling that you are alone. Because loneliness still promises a cure through the company of other people. But the feeling that you are alone is terminal, a despairing of the spirit that is irreparable. While this may have been the doomed eternal state of Frankenstein’s creation, by the end of the movie, Mary's acceptance of the distances between people seems to strengthen her into resilience. Or so the story goes.
Over 200 years later, what began back then with Frankenstein was a tradition of monsters as metaphor for loneliness. In contemporary fiction, author Anne Rice has always said that her vampire stories were more about people than they were about vampires. The 1994 film Interview with the Vampire based on her bestselling novel shows us what happens when a reaching out for others goes terribly awry. There is no real plot to the movie other than the imagining of what it might be like to live as a vampire in the 18th century. Contextually speaking, the film was made during a time when vampires were mostly peripheral genre fare and not the subject of every book, movie, and TV show. While told from the point of view of Louis (Brad Pitt), the star of Rice’s Vampire Chronicles is Lestat (Tom Cruise).
Ushering Louis into immortality, Lestat is possessed of the God syndrome, creating companions who he then manipulates to never leave him. The paradox of Lestat's character is that he isn't necessarily lonely, he just doesn't want to be alone. Especially for all time. After he turns Louis into a vampire he fears that Louis will leave him. And like a woman entrapping a man into staying in a relationship, Lestat then “births” a child, who is Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The brat prince cannot bear to be by himself even though he is an insufferable and unbearable character. This makes for much supernatural dysfunctional family dynamics. As Claudia “grows up” she realizes that both her and Louis are held captive by Lestat, or as she puts it “locked together in hatred.”
Each vampire is alone in their own struggle to connect despite their common condition of a forever-life which is symbolic of ultimate isolation. Louis can no longer truly connect with humans anymore and as he grieves this he spends much of the movie literally and figuratively looking in windows at people from a voyeuristic distance. Claudia faces the discordant disconnection of being a woman trapped in a child's body. And later when we meet Armand we see his soul-death boredom in the company of unsophisticated and uncouth companions who are incapable of the kind of connection that he craves. The inability to find true connection can have tragic and devastating effects. Because of our obsessive, driving need for it we may end up forcing others into a communal misery because we cannot face the unbearableness of being alone. Interview with the Vampire shows us what happens when we condemn others to a life (or death) of our own loneliness.
Perhaps it is because we resist it and constantly struggle against it that loneliness causes us so much pain. Accepting it as a part of change and a part of life provides a different perspective in being able to deal with it and still be okay. In Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), loneliness is the returning pause between all other moments. In the two vignettes the policemen keep themselves company with the ghosts of memories and holding on to habits of previous relationships. He Zhiwu/Cop 223 (Takashi Kaneshiro) exists in the haze of desperate hope to find new connection that will make him forget past pains and feel like life is wondrous again. On the other hand, Cop 663 (Tony Chiu Wai Leung) is a bit blind to see the changes that are happening in front of him because of the hurt of lost love. Change takes time. Forging a connection with another takes time.
The continual condition of trying to connect is what life is all about and it renders us all in a near constant state of brokenheartedness. We search and seek. We connect and feel. And then we move on. We hear this sentiment spoken in the opening line of the movie: “Every day we brush past so many people. People we may never meet or people who may become close friends.” Chungking Express resonates with the profound concept that loneliness does not have a beginning or end. It is not a problem to resolve. Loneliness simply is. There is a sense of resignation to it, not in defeat, but in acceptance.
The visual extrapolation of characters in slow reverie against a continuously moving background of the frantic scatter of life is Wong Kar Wai’s technique to show what is happening within a person. Our moments of loneliness and disconnection are powerful personal experiences and yet life still moves forward around us. Loneliness is also felt in the recurrence of songs and objects. The faraway sound of California Dreamin that suggests another time and place. The small toy airplane speaks a language of distances.
Chungking Express is filled with moments of connection that are true and real. The shared exhaustion of the Woman in the Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin) and He Zhiwu in the hotel room is more intimate than intercourse. When he polishes her shoes as she sleeps, the gesture of making one's journey through life a little easier is filled with such care. The way Faye (Faye Wong) tends to Cop 663’s apartment while he is at lunch is her way of being close to him and helping him to see his life differently. Planting small changes in his life ultimately changes her life too. But just because a moment of connection is genuine does not mean it will last forever. Feelings are fleeting. As the Woman in the Blonde Wig says: “Knowing someone doesn't mean keeping them. People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow.” Life is a continual dance of meeting and parting.
Moments of connection can change the course of our lives just like at the end of Chungking Express when Faye returns to find that Cop 663 has now become the new owner of the takeout place. Moments of connection can also change the narrative of the next moment. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night an unexpected moment of tenderness and connection breaks a pattern of brutality.
One of my favorite vampire movies, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s films are self-professed mood pieces that are less about plot and more about capturing certain feelings. Flipping the horror trope on its head of a girl who walks home alone at night and becomes the victim of a predator, the girl in this film IS the predator. Living a savage yet quiet existence, The Girl is a killer who prowls the street at night and doles out death to men who victimize and hurt women. Arash is a gentle soul who takes care of his drug-addicted father though faces a somewhat powerless existence in the larger world.
One night after taking ecstasy at a costume party where he is dressed as Dracula, Arash distractedly wanders home, his path crossing with The Girl’s. She approaches Arash who stands mesmerized under a streetlamp. In a short but existentially deep conversation he says: “Why are you here? Both of us are here.” Then taking her hand in his he notices how cold it is and throws his cape and his arms around her and holds her to him. There is so much beauty in this moment that it literally takes my breath away. The warm-heartedness of Arash, his openness and human vulnerability in not knowing that The Girl is a vampire, is the most endearing thing and even she cannot escape the tenderness of the gesture. Taken aback and touched by the unexpected moment of connection in which he is unafraid to reach out to her, it changes the brutal narrative of what would have happened next.
We are social creatures and we are not meant to be alone. Loneliness is a death. Or rather, the feeling of loneliness is our warning system that we are at risk of danger from predator attack if we continue to remain alone. During our origins we were safer in groups so we evolved to feel connected. The deep need for connection is in our biological makeup. While we live in vastly different environmental circumstances than our ancestors, we are stuck with the relic of loneliness. We live in an era of rampant personal disconnection guised under the fallacy that we are more connected than ever. But what we are more connected to is not other people, but gadgets. No more is this apparent than in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013).
Set in a not so distant future of tall skyscrapers and gleaming easy technology, it is a world where people strangely still dress in the watered down colors of a 1960s magazine ad. Getting over a painful divorce, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a writer of handwritten letters that help hold people’s personal relationships together. It is a future where sincerity can be manufactured and bought. While he writes letters for people he doesn’t know, there is truth in them because they come from a place of deep longing within himself to connect with others and to again have the love he once felt.
The fumbling awkward way in which we seek sex as solace from loneliness is palpably true in one of the funniest scenes. At the end of another lonely day as Theodore is having phone sex with a woman he meets on a chat line (Kristen Wiig), she suddenly demands to be choked with a dead cat. His attempt to try to play along, while hilarious, only furthers a sense of baffled disconnection. The misalignment with another person can be even more discomforting and isolating than the feeling of loneliness itself.
Theodore eventually finds a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an operating system he acquires. Initially assisting in organizing his life, reminding him of appointments and keeping him on track with his work, she begins to play an even bigger role, fulfilling the lack of emotional connection in his life. Like a genie in a bottle, Samantha becomes his therapist, girlfriend, and constant companion. Yet the reality is that Samantha exists only as a voice in his head. While he shares an intimacy with her, opening his heart to life and love, the fact of the matter is that he spends the entire movie physically alone as he ever was. Objectively he is a guy who is alone with an earpiece in his ear talking to himself.
Many people develop romantic relationships with OSs in this imagined future. But the strangeness of it cannot be overcome. This can be seen when Theodore introduces Samantha to his goddaughter who questions what his girlfriend is doing living in his computer. The oddity of the situation is undeniable and his goddaughter who is a child shines a light on this unavoidable reality. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha works because she’s not a real person and this makes it easy. Real life connections with real people are so much harder to establish. People are messy and complicated as seen in Theodore’s blind date in which expectations and personal histories are an impediment to connection.
As Samantha grows and evolves, her technological capabilities expand, but what is more salient is that she takes on more and more human characteristics. She is no longer solely Theodore’s and this causes a growing rift between them with her eventually leaving. Her shows us that despite the messiness of emotion, we are wired only for these human complexities. We are made for warm bodies and touch. For hands and fingers that can interlace with our own. There will never be a substitute that can replace these very human things.
When a true connection is made between two people it can be an ultimate moment of transformative and transcendent beauty that overcomes all shadows in life. That however brief or fleeting the moment is, while it may not be able to fully erase a lifetime of pain, it can eclipse suffering with grace. Filmmakers have invented such unique and creative ways to express through subtle yet powerful gesture, the meeting of two souls in becoming one.
Secretary’s foray into dominant/submissive power dynamics holds one of my favorite moments of ultimate connection in film. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a sensitive woman who feels the pain of life so deeply that she finds it difficult to even function, using self-harm as a way to cope with and release her overwhelming emotions. Long before C. Grey (or Christian, played by Jamie Dornan in the film adaptation of the 50 Shades trilogy) there was E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who hires Lee to be his secretary. He is a stoic lawyer with a symbolic hobby of tending to precious, but fragile orchids. Both Lee and Mr. Grey suffer from their own intricate internal worlds of pain and shame that leave them as islands of isolation. Secretary is their journey of finding peace and love in their uncommon connection.
Piecing together the kind of woman Lee is, Mr. Grey witnesses an incident of her secretive self-harm after he gets upset with her for a clerical mistake. Seeing the unhealthy way she releases her pain, he knows that his own desires to inflict pain, though it brings him guilt, can provide her relief from her self-harm. Calling her into his office, he instructs her to bend down on his desk and administers a spanking as she reads a mundane business letter. Initially confused, she doesn't know the purpose of the instructions. “There is nothing to understand,” he replies. But she gives in and so does he and there is a softening and suppleness of bodies that melt into the increasing intensity of the experience. It is a release and an ecstasy that she never knew could exist. There are no words that can be spoken in that moment. But the gentle gesture of her pinky finger sliding across his hand on the desk when it is done, says everything. Of understanding, of seeing and being seen, of hope and possibility in discovery, and of relief that everything will be okay in the grace of connection.
In Park Chan-wook’s genre-defying Thirst (2009), there is another eloquent and beautiful moment of connection that has always stayed with me. After volunteering for a medical experiment and contracting a vampiric condition, a Catholic priest named Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) returns to Korea where he meets again a childhood friend who takes him into his home. Sang-hyun begins to become sexually obsessed with his friend’s wife, Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin), who he eventually turns into a vampire. Unable to live in the loneliness of his condition, he cannot overcome his obsession for the lasciviously alluring and manipulative Tae-ju. It is a decision that causes Sang-hyun a multitude of problems and he spends the rest of the film in a dual with her over their conflicting views of vampire existence.
But before all of the bruised, bloody sex and death of the cyclone of their relationship, there exists a moment between Sang-hyun and Tae-ju that is sheltered from the fury of the rest of the film. Stuck in the disconnection of her own life of deadened senses and lacking excitement, Tae-ju runs barefoot through the city streets at night. She runs with a ferality of restlessness to escape the things she cannot escape: unhappiness. The wild within her is trapped by the misery and circumstances of her marriage. From a distance Sang-hyun sees her running one night. She is stopped by the figure standing in the shadows watching her. She turns in the other direction and we see only her bare feet on the concrete, running faster till suddenly with preternatural speed Sang-hyun is upon her from behind. He snatches her up in his arms, her legs dangling limply. The tension of potential murder quickly melts into a moment of tender and erotic beauty as Sang-hyun steps out of his own shoes and places Tae-ju in them. While the rest of the film has the two vampires at each other's throats, this one moment of connection is so powerful that the last frames of the film visually harken back to it. As they sit on the hood of the car facing death by sunrise, we again see the image of Tae-ju’s small feet in Sang-hyun’s large shoes. A strange and torturous, yet unbroken connection.
What happens when people fall away from each other? That despite all of our desperate grasping and groping not to be alone, we find that relationships fall apart. If given the chance would we choose to do it all again despite the inevitability of a painful separation? Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) explores this idea. It is a surreal journey through the powerful role of memory in defining us as humans.
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski share a colorfully joyful yet rocky relationship. But it isn't the first time they've been together. They discover that they were previously in a relationship that became so unbearable they decided to have their memories of each other erased. They are confronted with hearing recordings in which they say the meanest, ugliest things about one another. Relationships fray and unravel from the immutable complexities within people. Joel implores Clementine not to go and she rehashes all of the things that went wrong between them. To which Joel shrugs his shoulders and smiles, simply saying “okay.” In the end a shared connection may be so life-giving, so vital, that the bad times are worth it. Joel and Clementine decide that whatever happened between them and whatever may happen again, it is still worth a try. It is always worth a try.
The need for connection is the obsession that we will never be able to truly rid ourselves of because it is part of who we are as humans. All of these films are so diverse in subject and approach, yet they all speak the same universal language of loneliness and following the obsessive need to find another soul to connect with. If life is that desolate road like in the ending of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, then we must all face a choice just like Arash did. Do we accept the endless complexities, the fallible, ever-changing nature of imperfect people? Do we accept our own fear of failures and fear of the unknown? Or would we rather face life all alone? If you want a chance to find pieces of heaven on earth that lie in the grace and beauty of connection, then the choice is clear. You bring your best mixtape for the cassette player, and with someone you care about by your side, you set out and hope for the longest ride.