Many of the themes explored in this site have also been touched upon in Hollywood films. Here is an annotated list of some of them that have particular relevance to material covered in my book. I found all these films enjoyable, even if in some cases I am critical of their premises Please let me know if you have others to recommend.
Language, Mind, and Perception
Arrival (2016) — A science fiction film illustrating the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf idea that the reality we experience is determined by the language we speak. In this film aliens come to earth to teach us a new language that contains concepts that will permit us to travel in time (and save the universe).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) — Explores the nightmare fantasy of neuroscientists erasing unwanted memories from the minds of disappointed lovers. This isn’t far off from the common advice to those suffering from intimate loss to throw out all artifacts of the failed relationship — to cauterize memory. As I argue in my book, that idea is not realistic given the nature of mind, and I suspect it does more harm than good. Healing from trauma is best accomplished with integration; that is, in dialogue with others who can help to reframe damaged ideas of self. In the book I cite an example from Judith Herman’s seminal work on trauma in which she quotes a childhood rape victim disclosing to her friend: “I said ‘I’m fourteen years old and I’m not a virgin any more.’ He said, ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with being a virgin. Some day you’ll fall in love and you’ll make love and that will be losing your virginity. Not the act of what happened. That doesn’t have anything to do with it.'” This is an excellent example of how talk with a skillful and trusted friend can reframe the meaning of trauma, reducing its impact. My recommendation is to find a smart talk-oriented therapist (or a great and able friend) and begin the process of integrating the trauma or loss. I would predict that if it ever became possible, painful though some memories may be, psychological cauterization, would result in chronic anxiety and an eerie sense of self-mystification related to odd gaps in your self system, something like holes in the web of associated meaning that comprises the mind.
Inside Out (2015) — A cute but incoherent cartoon conceptualization of how consciousness and emotion work. Best understood as a demonstration of what film makers can come up with when they have no idea at all of how language and mind work.
Before We Vanish (2017) — Alien scouts come to modern Japan ahead of the alien invasion and exercise a method of learning about us by sampling key concepts from the minds of people they meet. They literally remove the concept and place it in their own minds. This is a novel take on linguistic determinism akin to Sapir-Whorf. Interesting demonstration about how a mind is affected by the removal of a pivotal concept around which a life has been constructed.
History of Modernity
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) — Film adaptation of the 1960 Broadway musical treating the role of tradition and its erosion in the early twentieth century in rural Eastern Europe. Principal character Tevye’s opening song “Tradition” is an excellent summary of just what tradition does for us (or used to do): “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. … I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”
Our Town (1940) — Film adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play about life in late nineteenth century small town America (fictional Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire). No privacy there. Everyone leaves their doors unlocked, neighbors walk in and out of each other’s houses, and everyone knows each other’s business.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — Iconic science fiction film that proposes that all human progress is accountable in terms of technological innovation. A mysterious technology appears in the midst of a troop of pacifist primates, transforms them into killers, and the next thing we see is that they have evolved into human beings who have colonized the moon and are traveling in spaceships. The message is clear: technology drives human cultural evolution.
Downton Abbey (2010) Six season TV drama about an aristocratic English family adjusting to social changes as modernity gains force in the early twentieth century. Followed by the 2019 film of the same name. Themes include movement from hierarchical society to egalitarianism and consequences for gender identity and family life.
Pleasantville (1998) — Represents 1950s America as a signal-like, black and white TV society bereft of personal meaning, but then transformed by the arrival of two teenagers from our era. The teens teach Pleasantville’s one dimensional residents about freedom of meaning, autonomy, and freedom of decision. The result of this transformation to modernity is moral turmoil, divorce, sexual ambiguity, and psychological distress. The film is an allegory of modernity’s impacts in the United States in the twentieth century.
A Room with a View (1985) — Screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel. Explores changes in ideas about intimacy as modernity gains force at the turn of the twentieth century. Companionate love is beginning to serve as a basis for couple formation, a change welcomed by some and resisted by others.
Kinsey (2004) — Docudrama chronicles the publication of the Kinsey Reports, which, published in 1948, were the first comprehensive scientific surveys of American sexual practices, which in their national sweep and wide-spread dissemination in popular media, signaled the beginning of the mid-twentieth century sexual revolution in America, and also fueled it. The Kinsey Reports provide an excellent example of how in the high-speed information flows that characterize highly modern societies, information has a tendency to loop back upon itself, contaminating that which it may have only been intended to describe. When Kinsey reported that more Americans than anyone had imagined were engaging in risque sexual practices, it became infinitely easier for people to think they might like to do so too. And so the report amplified the phenomena it simply intended to describe.
The Last Picture Show (1971) — Depicts a small town movie audience in 1950s Texas singing together before the feature film. Here is an index of how far we are socially and psychologically from that period, which was not so long ago. Can you imagine going to a multiplex movie theater and, before the show starts, belting out a song with others (e.g., “Happy days are here again!”) , following the bouncing ball on the screen? I have shown video of these old sing-along movie shorts in many of my classes, and asked students to join me in singing along. Students would rather crawl out the windows. They won’t do it. These days we are far less communal, and, in consequence, more self-involved and anxious about self presentation. Psychologically and socially, people are not the same the world over or throughout history. Our forebears did not think as we do, or have the same psychological needs, or the same concerns over self. They were not as fragile as we have become. They didn’t laugh at the same things, or experience relationships with the same emotions. Hollywood films that depict the past (or future) as being populated by people who are just like us but wear different clothing and use different technologies perform a major disservice. I would add that social scientists who don’t situate their findings within the context of unfolding of historical change are equally guilty of fogging the lens of understanding. Their conclusions will be short lived as the circumstances of society and mind evolve out from underneath them.
The Madness of King George (1994) — Illustrates the state of medical and psychiatric science in late eighteenth century Europe in all its bizarre ignorance.
Koyaanisqatsi (1982) — Stunning visual exploration of the social, spiritual, and psychological impacts of modern life in urban America. Groundbreaking use of high speed and slow speed photography to dramatic effect.
Zootopia (2016) — A morality tale for children purveying the modern dogma about the importance of individualism, autonomy, and moral grit. Very interesting in comparison with Babe (1995), the sweet film about a little pig who decides to take on the role of sheep dog. Both films tell stories of animals pursuing non-traditional roles, but in contrasting cultural circumstances. In Babe Hoggett’s farm is a bucolic, rural, stable, gendered, hierarchical social system that functions according to nature’s rhythms and is populated by animals who behave in terms of the deeply rooted traditions of their species. Hoggett’s farm is an integrated and mutually supportive community. Every animal has a sense of purpose and knows the limitations and constraints of their role, and all is routine, secure, and happy. The city named Zootopia, a megalopolis, is ultra modern, high speed, colorful, diverse, multicultural, egalitarian, atomized, gender-neutral, bureaucratic, and highly fluid, depicting modernity in its fullest, and offering endless freedom of opportunity. But for ambitious bunnies like Judy Hopps from rural Bunnyburrow who go to Zootopia to pursue their ambitions of self, without exceptional moral grit and good luck, life in urban Zootopia risks social isolation, depression, and other psycho-emotional disorders. As Judy’s friend the fox Nick Wilde puts it to Judy: “… and that dream of becoming a big city cop? Double woopsie! She’s a meter maid! And no one cares about her or her dreams and soon enough those dreams die and our bunny sinks into emotional and literal squalor living in a box under a bridge”. Babe the pig only succeeds in her efforts to be a sheep herder by honoring the existing codes of the traditional hierarchy of the farm and enlisting the help of the other animals. In the be-all-you-can-be of autonomous life in the modern big city, bunny Hopps risks psychological disintegration.
Role Complexity, Role Distance, and Multiplicity of Self
The Truman Show (1998) — Science fiction story about Truman Burbank, who doesn’t know it, but is actually the principal character in a staged 24/7 reality television show about him. Without his awareness, every aspect of his life is contrived and filmed by hidden cameras, for broadcast to a hidden audience. Everyone he interacts with is aware of this; they are all actors. But he isn’t. According to the Gold brothers in their 2014 book Suspicious minds: How culture shapes madness, the Truman Burbank character has become a common referent for people with psychiatric problems tinged with paranoia who suspect that those around them aren’t exactly who they are pretending to be. Of course, in modernity, people aren’t ever quite who they seem to be. I’m a professor, but, most certainly, that isn’t all. In modernity it is common for the self to be so complexly constituted that no single role could ever comprise the whole person (the sense of role distance this fosters is ironically expressed in that oft-quoted line from the old TV ad, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.”).
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) — A film that famously dramatized issues in marriage, individualism, and conformity in post World War 2 American middle class life
Persona (1966). Ingmar Bergman directed this exploration of the psychological consequences of living without a strongly anchored core sense of self. Explores “the hopeless dream of being” given “the chasm between what you are to others and what you are to yourself”. Philosopher Charles Taylor wrote of a “terrifying emptiness” that befalls those who fail to construct an adequate structure of self. Well illustrated in this film.
Scenes from a Marriage (1974). One might expect a psychologist and a divorce lawyer to be able to represent all we know about emotions and marriage and be masters at intimacy, but Johann (psychologist) and Marianne (lawyer) are as mystified by their experience together as any of us might be. The film explores a 20 year span of their fraught relationship. The relationship is painfully dysfunctional yet the couple remain primary to each other, even after their divorce. Marianne speaks of this as “attachment”, using the language psychologists today so often use as well. However, the psychological concept of “attachment” is just a kind of descriptive term. Proponents of attachment theory never explain how attachments form or what they are made of. But Marianne’s attachment is explained by the film as a bond of shared meaning established with her husband that is critical to her sense of personal being: Marianne’s sense of self was formed in her interaction with her husband. She does not have a sense of self outside of that. To continue to exist as a person, she needs the relationship where she can replenish her core meanings about who she is. Without that confirmation she faces what philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as the “terrifying emptiness” of selflessness. Marianne says “our great failure was that we remain within the sphere for the family like inmates in a prison, never try to escape, to get out somehow and create something better on our own conditions.” This speech occurs at the end of her recounting of her childhood. She turned away from establishing a more robustly anchored sense of self, to establish a self in meanings created exclusively in her interactions with Johann. It is in such interactions with our relationship partners that we become human. They sustain our sense of being throughout our lives. No one escapes this. We are all constructed of meanings established in relationship to others, and our great problem now is that in conditions of modernity it is extremely difficult to keep those relationships intact. Those, like Marianne, who have no other source of confirmation for core ideas of self will likely suffer much more severely in the circumstances of partner loss or relationship dissolution.
Three Faces of Eve (1957). — Early depiction of dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder.
Sybil (1976) — Another depiction of dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder. Note that there are no accounts of DID/MPD prior to the 20th century, though numbers of cases rose steadily through the later years of the 20th century, especially in the U.S. (which is ground zero for modernity).
The Mikado (1982) — Stratford Festival film of the classic Gilbert and Sullivan satirical farce provides a comic take on role multiplicity, as, due to the Mikado’s excessive zeal for decapitating public officials, principal character Pooh-Bah must take on every vacant function of government, simultaneously becoming First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chamberlain, Attorney General, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Privy Purse, Private Secretary, Lord High Auditor, Lord Chief Justice, Paymaster General, and First Commissioner of Police — negotiating with himself, suing himself, granting himself privileges, etc.
Galaxy Quest (1999) — Comedy explores the social nature of personal identity, as a threatened band of aliens who, picking up Earth’s TV signals in outer space, have watched many episodes of Galaxy Quest (Star Trek) thinking that they were seeing accounts of actual space heroes from Earth. The aliens come to a Galaxy Quest fan convention to enlist the help of the cranky, cynical, and jaded actors who at this point in their careers have become fairly sick of forever being associated with their roles, to save them from other evil aliens. In modernity it’s not who we are, but who others take us to be.
Hero (1992) — Explores the social nature of personal identity. Similar theme to Galaxy Quest though here the principal character is made into a media hero for heroics that he actually didn’t perform during an evacuation after an airplane crash.
Full Metal Jacket (1987) — Stanley Kubrick’s scorching indictment of the mechanisms of depersonalization of U.S. Marine Corps recruits, who are forced to give up all symbols of individuality and adopt an entirely new self identity as a killer.
Growing Difficulties of Heterosexual Intimacy in Modernity
Metropolis (1927) — Science fiction exploration of social upheaval caused by the onset of modernity and the first female robot.
Her (2013). A fantasy about female robots who become perfect partners for males, and then leave them.
The Stepford Wives (1972). Another fantasy about female robots who become perfect partners for males, once their conscious minds are eliminated.
Ex Machina (2014) — Another fantasy about female robots who become perfect partners for males, and then kill them.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) — Fantasy about human-robot relationships and possibility of consciousness in mechanical devices.
Blade Runner (1982) — Another fantasy about robot consciousness.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) — Sequel that introduces a new twist on artificial female perfection: holographic female partners.
Annie Hall (1977) — The penultimate examination of the complexities of identity in modern urban middle class romance. No robots here, just people with complicated modern minds, motives, and self-structures, trying to connect with each other in the difficult circumstances of twentieth century urban culture, and uncertainty. Exhausted by the difficulties of relationship in our time, Woody Allen’s character describes why he stays in the game: “It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, ‘Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken.’ Then the doc says, ‘Why don’t you turn him in?’ Then the guy says, ‘I would but I need the eggs.’ I guess that’s how I feel about relationships.”