I’ve been feeling lonely.
Maybe you have, too. In the past, I’ve often looked to literature to understand human solitude. After all, one is almost always alone in the writing of a book, and in its reading.
Literature has long been the purview of the alone. A character in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 says that “loneliness becomes an acid that eats away at you.” Ruth, in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, believes that “once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery.”
Books can capture the isolation you feel even when surrounded by others, like in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or show the pursuit of a self-reliant independence, as in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
In his book Alone in America: The Stories That Matter, cultural critic Robert A. Ferguson says that loneliness is “an obsession” in American literature. This holds true in Canada, too: see the work of Alice Munro, David Adams Richards and Ann-Marie MacDonald, for starters. Literature, Ferguson argues, is the only place where we’re able to talk about the pressures and dissatisfactions that we face. “Books, mostly novels, thus become the source of what we will not meet or discuss in any other way.”
For a long time, I agreed with Ferguson. And yet, mired in isolation this year, I could barely focus on a book, and found myself yearning to see human faces instead. I wanted movies, and especially movies about loneliness.
This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, because film is such a fundamentally collaborative medium. It’s a Hollywood truism, after all, that movies bring us together. They’re typically considered a conduit between people: the filmmakers and the audience, the viewer and other people in the theatre, or you and the person watching next to you on the couch. But this togetherness has been destabilized this year, as we’re unable to gather in theatres, at film festivals, or in living rooms.
We’ve tried to fill that void with workarounds that allow us to watch together in new ways—sharing Netflix screens from a distance, for example. But ultimately, I can’t help but feel that these setups have only further underscored how isolated we are. Ironically, however, without the communal filmgoing experience, it’s become clearer than ever that film can uniquely convey the feeling of being utterly alone—the aura and ambience of the solitary.
We were lonely before the pandemic. A 2019 poll by the Angus Reid Institute found that 62 percent of Canadians wanted their friends and family to spend more time with them. Only 55 percent of those surveyed said they had a “good social life.” And 23 percent of respondents qualified as “the desolate”—a group that is both lonely and isolated, more likely to be lower-income, more likely to be single and to live alone, and more likely to be a member of a minority group.
In October, the institute published a follow-up survey which, unsurprisingly, found that the number of people who thought they had a good social life dropped to 33 percent, while the size of “the desolate” group increased by 10 percent. “The number of Canadians participating in community projects, going to live concerts or movies, or just visiting with their friends and family has decreased to a level we never would have foreseen last year when running this study for the first time,” says Dave Korzinski, the institute’s research director.
For a while now, films have followed suit in their themes. Alissa Wilkinson, a film critic for Vox, told me that “loneliness is a feature of contemporary life—movies were latching onto that long before the condition turned acute thanks to the pandemic.”
In recent years, we’ve become more reliant on technology and less likely to seek physical contact. The endless science-fiction tales that depict a lone survivor or astronaut confronting the emptiness of space or a post-apocalyptic landscape remind us of this. Will Smith roams a vacant New York City after a man-made virus wipes out most of humanity in I Am Legend. Joaquin Phoenix, shy and unable to connect with anyone in a highly technologized near future, can only find love with his operating system in Her. And in Gravity, spoiler alert, Sandra Bullock turns out to be alone after her shuttle is destroyed mid-orbit, having hallucinated the presence of George Clooney, her former commander. In one way or another, all of these films are about an individual coming to terms with being alone in the universe—regardless of, or perhaps precisely due to, the supposed progress promised by advanced technology.
Then there are the adventure and survival films with an earthier and more grounded flavour, where characters confront the wilderness alone, often to find themselves born anew. In the film Into the Wild, Emile Hirsch plays Christopher McCandless, an American hiker who famously renounced his connection with the modern world in favour of living in Alaskan isolation. Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, shows Reese Witherspoon as Strayed venturing the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to rediscover herself after a number of personal failures. James Franco’s character becomes trapped while hiking in 127 Hours and passes the time recording a video diary, reflecting on what led him to end up there alone.
But what really makes a film a lonely film? Is it just about showing lonely characters? Countless articles listing great flicks about isolation or telling you what to watch while social distancing have been published since the pandemic began. Some cultural sites even reposted old articles about movies for “when you’re feeling lonely” to appeal to those of us cooped up at home. Film fans, likewise, have been making their own libraries of lonely cinema. On Letterboxd, a social network for cinephiles, users have compiled hundreds of lists cataloguing their own personal lonely canons. Over the past four years, the site has seen a 37 percent increase in lists addressing “loneliness” or “isolation.” That includes a predictably large increase in 2020—a 227 percent jump from 2019—according to the website’s editor-in-chief, Gemma Gracewood.
It’s instructive to peruse these lists, made by film lovers located around the world. You quickly get a sense of the staples, the films that many users consider to be essential to their lonely lists: Cast Away, The Martian, Lost in Translation, Ingmar Bergman films like Persona and Winter Light. But you also see choices that seem completely out of left field: Joker, Inception, Gone Girl. Each inclusion is cause for curiosity: What’s so lonely about this? Could the person making the list even explain it?
At the outset, for example, the group of nature-quest type films—Into the Wild and 127 Hours, let’s say—might appear to explore more of an adventure theme: what we sometimes think of as “man versus nature.” But ultimately, they are tales of self-exploration and soul-searching (all of them based on true stories) that reflect our need to contemplate our place in the world. The characters realize, often through drastic measures, that embracing their aloneness is the surest path to self-actualization—to grapple with who they are and what matters to them.
As for us, sitting at home watching them do so, we can at least identify with the universal smallness of being human in the face of natural forces outside of our control (like, say, a pandemic). Maybe, these movies show us, we can reach some self-actualization in that sense of smallness, too.
It’s not always bad to be lonely, after all. Bianca Fox, editor of the book Emotions and Loneliness in a Networked Society, calls quiet time carved out for self-reflection “positive loneliness.” The loneliness we’ve had to endure this year doesn’t fall into that category—it’s not like we chose it. And Fox’s so-called positive loneliness is probably more likely to be found away from screens. But that doesn’t mean movies can’t still be comforting.
In recent months, I’ve watched many movies by myself. I’ve shared Netflix screens with friends, chatting as we all watched along from our respective homes. I’ve watched documentaries for a graduate course I’m taking and discussed them with my classmates over Zoom. I’ve caught up on things I’ve wanted to see for years, and I’ve reverted to comfort watches when I’m feeling particularly fragile, taking in chunks throughout the day as I try to get work done.
I’ve found myself especially absorbed by recent films that manage to embody the strange atmosphere and intense seclusion of the pandemic, despite being produced long before these circumstances began.
A new thriller from American director Amy Seimetz, She Dies Tomorrow, feels like an especially prophetic reflection on our current moment. In an American town, one woman’s fear that she will die the next day spreads among the population through a viral infection. They experience symptoms that are a rather literal depiction of anxiety and depression, which continue to spread until every character is consumed by the same virus.
It’s a visually chaotic film, despite the quietness of its score and characters. Placing characters in shadow or bathing them in neon light, Seimetz engages the senses with an uneasy barrage that can only be achieved in cinema, keying us into their intensely skewed personal perspective on the world around them. Seimetz’s film isolates characters within their misery by showing viewers how it transforms their perception, and yet also brings them together in their shared affliction. A strange solidarity is formed among the infected: they either directly seek help from one another or simply accept a ubiquitous situation together, casually discussing plans for what they’ll do and how they’ll reach their ends. This kind of resembles how I’ve felt talking to friends this year, seeking some semblance of harmony in our collective rupture.
In his latest film, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman, who wrote Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, takes a different approach. None of his characters try to reach out or connect with one another in the first place. The protagonist, a young woman played by Jessie Buckley, travels with her boyfriend to meet his parents at their farmhouse, right as she’s considering ending the relationship. Things quickly feel uneasy and somewhat surreal, as though we’re watching a nightmare. She struggles to communicate with her boyfriend, is relentlessly and unnaturally misunderstood or misinterpreted by him or his parents, and is frequently faced with nonsensical questions and absurd non sequiturs. Kaufman has a perverse knack for documenting the small humiliations of our lives. Here, he shows us a character unable to create a real connection with anyone around her, so consumed by her extraordinary aloneness and her own thoughts that there seems to be no way out.
With their frequently low budgets and accompanying degrees of forced simplicity, indie movies (whether they’re actually scrappy, innovative, lower-budget films or just that way in spirit, like Kaufman’s) are a natural place to explore gritty, day-to-day isolation. They demand more introspection from the audience. In many instances, the majority of the plot plays out on the protagonist’s face alone, whose psychological state is most likely to be the centre of the story. Indie movies don’t have a monopoly on loneliness, but they show it most viscerally.
I recently rewatched Tu dors Nicole, a 2014 film by the Québécois director Stéphane Lafleur, in which a young twenty-something named Nicole slowly drifts away from her best friend while working at a minimum-wage job. Embodying the aimlessness and ennui of working-to-middle-class youth in small-town Quebec, Nicole isn’t alone but she is trapped by her lack of purpose. She pulls away from her closest friend to express how she is sick of her circumstances. She’s stuck living a liminal existence full of interactions that are consistently dissatisfying or empty. Shot in stark black-and-white, the film often literally isolates Nicole within the frame.
We are currently, I thought after watching, yearning for a return to “normal life” and all its banal interactions with other people, but Lafleur’s film is a reminder that normal life can feel just as isolating.
Movies alone won’t cure loneliness. But people are still using them to try, in the most old-fashioned way. According to Playback, which tracks box office data, Canadians mostly returned to movie theatres in the summer and fall to see old favourites, from Back to the Future to Inception.
In part, this was because very few new films were going to theatres, and in part it was because distributors surely believed that screening familiar films was a way to bring people back. In effect, the approach worked, as these films regularly out-grossed anything new for months. I see it as a consolation for an isolated populace—a hesitant return to a public, communal activity through a series of films that make them feel warm and fuzzy, comfortable in a nostalgic glow that allows them to return to a past shared life.
And somehow, even for those of us watching alone at home, it’s reassuring to be reminded that no two experiences of loneliness are quite the same—be it film to film, or person to person. Films show us another truth, too: most of us share a determination, perhaps a naive one, that something can be done about our loneliness. It’s human to reach for connection, whether it works or not.
Jake Pitre is a PhD student at Concordia University. His writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Columbia Journalism Review, Xtra, VICE, Pitchfork and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @jakeadampitre.