The Reel Dad looks at isolation in film
These days, it can be easy to feel alone. No matter how we manage our isolation from each other, we spend more time away from others than we did in the routines that abruptly ended.
Over the years, movies have looked for the lessons that we can learn people who face periods of isolation.
Here are seven of my favorites that offer some enriching lessons for today. Enjoy the movies.
Rear Window (1954)
As James Stewart recovers from a broken leg, in his West Village apartment in New York City, he addresses boredom by watching how his neighbors live. Soon this man begins to imagine the stories behind their actions, a practice that gets him in a bit of trouble when he becomes convinced that a man living across the courtyard has committed a serious crime. Alfred Hitchcock makes the most of his fears that isolation can bring in one of the most thrilling films of the director’s legendary career.
The Spirit of St. Louis (1957)
A few years later we find Stewart, now as Charles A. Lindbergh, flying an airplane across the Atlantic in search of a new record for long distance travel. Following the excitement of his departure from New York, this pilot settles into a routine for the next 33-plus hours. But boredom quickly approaches, followed by exhaustion, panic and hallucinations. Stewart and director Billy Wilder turn this one-man show into a breathtaking demonstration of acting talent as we totally forget that we already know how this familiar story will end.
Cast Away (2000)
Every man - who finds himself trapped on a deserted island - needs a volleyball as a pet. That lesson sums up the moral of this uplifting drama that leaves Tom Hanks on his own, on that island, for most of the film. As a FedEx analyst on his way to problem solve in Malaysia, Hanks seems the last person able to withstand the horrors of an isolated life. But once he finds that volleyball, and begins to create a new life for the two of them, we begin to believe in anyone’s capacity to overcome adversity and discover real joy.
Not all stories about isolation require characters to be human. As we learn in this Oscar winner from Pixar, even animated heroes can feel lonely. And overwhelmed. This magical film takes us to a version of our world that is overwhelmed by trash. It is everywhere and controls everything and has taken much of the joy away from a world too consumed. Still this magical character - despite the insecurities that emerge from isolation - begins to symbolize how waste claims innocent victims. Thanks to him, we may never look at trash the same way again.
All is Lost (2013)
The film begins with a voice, that distinctive, natural, unassuming sound that has filled movie theaters for almost 50 years. Little do we realize, as the story begins, that we will only hear this character speak a handful of words. Instead, relying on an actor we knew had at least one more superlative performance yet to give, the film tells us everything we need to know about a man trying to save his life after a sailing accident in the middle of the sea. Robert Redford stars in a breathtaking lesson of how isolation can prompt someone to hope.
Along with other films that celebrate isolation by taking characters on journeys to far-away places, this Oscar winner from director Alfonso Cuarón goes to space. Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut - ultimately alone in space - who is forced to deal with the rush of memories and emotions that plague her ability to safely return to earth. Bullock’s no-nonsense approach to the role makes this lady’s journey feel universal, especially at a time when so many people are simply trying to keep their lives together.
The Martian (2015)
As Matt Damon tries to figure out how to survive - as an astronaut left behind on Mars - he conducts a lesson for the living that magically transcends the exaggeration of the premise. Suddenly he is not a man in outer space; he is, simply, someone forced to be “socially distant” from his colleagues and neighbors by more than a hundred million miles. As this man battles the realities of isolation, and conquers the details of mere existence, he reminds us that resilience may not be something we acquire. It may simply be something we adapt.
Thankfully, for us, we have immediate ways to address isolation, and ways to connect, even if only through electronic devices.
Still the lessons of isolation may be with us long after this situation ends. And what we learn from the movies can help.
Please stay safe. And connected.