“Society is afraid of alonedom, like lonely hearts are wasting away in basements, like people must have problems if, after a while, nobody is dating them. but lonely is a freedom that breaths easy and weightless and lonely is healing if you make it.” - Tanya Davis, from the lovely video poem “How to Be Alone.”
I’m not good at being alone. My work is solitary work, writing or watching films, writing about watching films. As such, I tend to miss out on the daily basics of human interaction, and once calculated a three day period, a year or two ago, where I spoke to no one at all using my voice and felt overwhelmed by the kindness of a parking attendant who told me to have a good day. I’ve spent a lot of time alone but I will always choose to be with other people if given the opportunity, and it can be hard to understand when others express a desire to be alone.
Sleeping in the same bed as someone you used to love while not being sure of what you now mean to one another, this feels like the kind of loneliness that has killed the marriages of people I know. I want to say something about the future out loud, but I’m not sure how it sounds. Being scared to say something is a sign. Being somewhere you know in your heart you shouldn’t be, is another one. You have to know what you want before you can get it, and I’m not good at that either. I only know what it is that I do not want.
I stood under a tree as it rained some weeks ago, talking with someone who said his father had three children by the time he was as old as he was. I said my mother had been married for six years by the time she was as old as I am now. We didn’t understand how our parents could be so sure, marriage and the children seem almost impossible to comprehend. I already knew that being with someone else you can be just as alone as you were without them, but lessons are repeated until they are learned. I realized once I was out of college and still unmarried, that I was unlikely to be someone’s first wife. As I get older, that seems to hold the potential to be more true. It’s okay, I’m fine with ghosts, on the whole.
So many of my favorite films deal with time spent alone, and there’s a kind of cheerful constructiveness that can occur, you can work on your projects, clean your home and read your books. So much time is spent wastefully though, and I am just as guilty, having written more than a few novel’s worth of words in IM conversations over the past 14 years of a life lived on the Internet. I think waste belongs best to the very young, for whom life feels endless and infinite. There just doesn’t seem to be as much time anymore.
This movie gets dragged around for being “twee” and “magical” and everyone feels smug about being over it, but it really felt like a bold new vision when it came out, a film so different that it encouraged creativity and explored a kind of story I’d never seen put to film before. Imaginative and robust, this is the story of a French woman who lives alone and somewhat within the confines of her mind, as she attempts to work things for the good for her co-workers and for herself. Beautiful imagery coupled with a fascinating voice over, this film is a bit twee and magical and perfect all the same, an exploration into a kind of aloneness that turns itself inside out.
Into the Wild
When I was much younger, a boy I liked gave me this book and told me about how it had changed his life, changed the way he saw things. The movie is pretty powerful too, directed by Sean Penn, relating the tale of a man (Emile Hirsch) who leaves his life, his money and his privilege and heads out to discover the world for himself. Somehow the story felt better when it was confined to the page, seeing it writ large felt like it gave away power. It’s easy to argue that Christopher McCandless was unprepared and isn’t inspirational at all, but there’s something incredibly moving about his attempts to strike out on his own, and when faced with the ultimate opportunity to be alone, his wish for community and his inability to access it can sometimes mirror our own feeble attempts to connect with others.
This became the ultimate dream of every child after seeing this movie. There seemed to be something so wondrous about being alone in your own home with your parents and siblings gone, you could eat whatever you wanted, watch whatever you wanted on TV. While this movie borders on annoying, the first one is also… Sorry, I just fell down an Internet rabbit hole and found myself reading the entire Wikipedia plot of the fourth Home Alone movie. A movie for those of us who know that being alone doesn’t mean being bored at all.
A cautionary tale in being alone! The dangers of being alone! You will cut off your arm from boredom if you are left alone for one damn minute! A movie to make extroverts and introverts cringe alike, James Franco is trapped on a hiking expedition and must cut himself free in order to survive. When I first read about this story so many years ago, I came across a bit that said when a family found him after his ordeal, they gave him some Oreos to eat. I liked that a lot.
Lost in Translation
The loneliness you can feel when you’re with other people is often the worst sort, when this other person should be making you feel less alone and somehow it simply isn’t. How many times I have imagined myself to be staring out at a Tokyo skyline in my pink underwear, just like Scarlett Johansson. Bill Murray is much worse in his solitude perhaps, and I think I didn’t understand this movie the first time I saw it, hadn’t been alone enough for long enough. A country where you don’t speak the language, and an emptiness you can’t seem to fill.
Wings of Desire
One of the most gentle and beautiful films I’ve ever seen, they turned this Wim Wenders masterpiece into that deplorable romance “City of Angels.” An angel wanders through the world keeping an eye on the thoughts of humans everywhere, invisible to them. What an entirely different kind of being alone! Entirely invisible to the world around you. Sometimes being in a city can feel like this, that we are the only living boy in New York. This movie emanates peace and solitude in comforting waves, as the angel decides he wishes to be among the living and leave his angelic life behind.
Rowdy and rude, this feature from director Andrea Arnold revolves around the life of one teenage girl living in semi-poverty in England. She likes to dance and she likes to drink and get into trouble, and there’s a kind of loneliness in having your back to the wall, clawing your way out of every situation with no one really on your side.
The solitude of existence in a place where you’re unsure if anyone else exists. This is a sprawling work exploring questions of human existence and a strange force that preys upon the human mind and causes one man to see his long-deceased wife, seemingly brought back to life. Probably the very definition of an art house flick, this Andrei Tarkovsky directed film remains one of my very favorite movies, a slow, methodical and gorgeous rumination on space and the solitude of the mind.
Lars and the Real Girl
A charming story of someone who chooses to be alone in his very own unique way. Ryan Gosling stars as a socially distant man who wants to be left alone by his brother and sister in law. When he orders a Real Doll (you know, those creepy realistic looking sex dolls) everyone becomes concerned and mortified, but he begins to treat the doll as a person, bringing her to outings and acting as if she was his girlfriend (albeit in a very chaste way!). This film is absolutely charming, and a very sweet look at the manifestations of one person’s loneliness and their slow migration back into the fullness of life.
Tom Hanks stars, alongside Wilson the volleyball, as a man stranded on a desert island for years. This may in fact be the ultimate film about being alone, since he can’t escape, can’t do anything except adapt and learn to be alone without any means of contacting the outside world. As he struggles to make due with finding food and shelter, he faces the unknown with nothing left to lose, and must struggle through it all, essentially alone.
Sam Rockwell stars as a man on a solitary mission on the Moon, eager to return to his life on Earth when things begin to go wrong on the space station. Absolutely spell-binding as the man meditates on his solitude and begins to attribute hallucinations and more problems to being left alone. Riveting sci-fi that absolutely must be seen to be believed.
Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Paralyzed and confined by an accident, Mathieu Almaric stars as a man with locked-in syndrome who must learn to cope with communicating only by blinking one eye. Director Julian Schnabel absolutely captures first person perspective as we see out through an eyelid, and truly experience what life is like without mobility or the ability to speak to those around us. He loses his place in the world, even though he remains the same inside.