I’ve been thinking a lot about Dunkirk. I’ve been remembering how loud it was, the visceral intensity of the film that often found me gripping my arm rest; I’ve been remembering the images of young men huddled underwater, desperately holding their breath, or crouched together on the beach, wordless, their eyes offering a silent prayer that the next bullet isn’t the one that finds them. I’ve been thinking how impressed I was that Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker I genuinely like but also find deeply flawed, pulled off this kind of picture. But mostly I was thinking about how I knew almost nothing about the characters stranded on that French beach, waiting for salvation. I didn’t know what kind of men they were; didn’t know if they had families or loves back home. I didn’t know if they thought the war was noble or were hoping to be a martyr or were, in their core, good or bad people. Dunkirk reduced the entire genre of the war film for me, and offered a simple question: here is a human being you know nothing about, how will you instinctively react to his possible destruction? The answer was a relief. I didn’t need to know anything. I saw a fellow human (a character performing, to be certain, but still) and desperately hoped for their survival.
For those of us who make or discuss and analyze creative works, there is something of an onanistic idea that art can save the world. An idea that the high marks of our cultural creativity—books, paintings, songs, films, plays, etc.—will somehow be enough to restore our collective humanity and prevent us from annihilating ourselves. It is a quintessential “we’re better than this” idea, a wish-upon-a-star that what we create will somehow redeem all that we destroy. It’s bullshit. As long as the means have existed to preserve art—from the spoken word to the film-camera—we’ve had access to beautiful work, but here we are. We have our highs and our brutal, reprehensible lows. Picasso presented Guernica in 1937; it remains one of humanity’s most enduring and arresting pleas against the horror of war, and rightly, is recognized as one of the most important paintings ever produced. Still, war has been a near-constant activity across the globe regardless of the painting’s existence. The point is that being moved by a piece of art is not enough. We need to take that feeling and do something with it, and maybe then, only then, things will change.
I wrestle with this idea often, because I never know how to explain the ultimate purpose of film, or for that matter, art as a whole. I struggle to understand how it can be so affecting on a personal level, yet unable to transcend the individual and affect transformative change on a large scale. There are exceptions here and there—Lincoln’s famous comment about Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin being responsible for the Civil War is a great historical anecdote, though almost certainly a tremendous simplification—but even when something does seem to seep into our greater cultural consciousness and make a real wave, the wave crashes too quickly, and things return to their original state. When we do witness tremendous change in our society or world, it’s more likely that it stems from news coverage, images of the real. Think of horror inspired by footage of civil rights demonstrators being beaten by police, or the children of Vietnam bathed in napalm. When we can’t dismiss it as interpretation or fiction, as a people, we tend to start listening (though still far less often then we should). Art, and film especially, do not offer or inspire that kind of change. Perhaps the problem is that it’s a question with no answer. I would like to believe that film, or art, can permanently change the world, but more likely that’s probably just not the case.
Undoubtedly this feeling is stirred by the present state of things. Not just Donald Trump’s daily clown car of an administration (which has conveniently allowed us to forget the great crimes and greed of past administrations and nearly every member of congress, who would, if we’re being really honest, let us starve if it got them a campaign donation), but the general numbness and lack of caring about those in need, the seeming indomitability of globalized hyper-capitalism that sucks the life out of entire countries so we can buy cheap shoes (or own the computer I’m typing this on right now). I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but we do seem to be living in a moment of inescapability from the forces that control the world around us. Whether those forces will collapse inward on themselves (as they often do) or if they will continue to push the most vulnerable down into the soil remains to be seen, but whatever happens, I’m fairly confident that film won’t have anything to do with it. Same with fiction, poetry, music, and our other excuses to pretend we’re culturally innocent. Just because we weep with a movie as beautiful and human as Moonlight doesn’t absolve us of anything unless we get up and actually do something. Empathy alone is not action, and it will not save us.
The change, then, that we hope for from art must happen on the individual level. If we wait for a movie to infect millions of minds and change the world on its own, we’ll be waiting forever. If we allow it to change us and then take that change out into our daily actions—by donating what we can, supporting noble causes, giving what time we have—then maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll see that change ripple outward. We all have different films or directors that speak to our innate humanness. I turn to Bergman and Kieślowski, ever-awed by how they both seemed so able to reach the unnamable bits of beauty and loneliness of humanity. Their films make me feel more like a person, and make me more sympathetic towards my fellow man because they remind me that all people have whirlwinds of good and bad, hope and sadness, inside of them. They make me want to reach out and acknowledge that we’re all in this together, whatever “this” is. Film, like all art, can be a starting point. It can’t save the world, but it can help us save ourselves.
Perhaps what I’m arguing isn’t that art isn’t unable to change the world, but more that it cannot change the world alone. Guernica hangs, the bombs still fall. We must change ourselves first. We need to look, absorb, and allow that transformation to take place within us. This is why it is so crucial to seek out films by filmmakers of color, by women, by international directors—because they allow us to see our common traits as well as the differences and difficulties that our own position in life may (however inadvertently) have allowed us to ignore. Shedding a tear over Fruitvale Station does nothing; being moved by the film and getting involved on a community level does. Praying that the soldiers of Dunkirk can hold their breath just a second longer achieves nothing if that sense of horror and hope doesn’t transform how we see the refugee crisis or wars around the globe. We can’t confuse appreciation and absorption of art with activism itself. Film can’t save the world on its own. That job is still on us.