Movies, Innocence, and Identity

(Warning. This is a confusing one. It started one way and ended another.)

There’s this cute little moment in The Office. It’s pretty simple; Michael has just moved back into his office as manager and Erin lists all the random comfort items he has—a humidifier, a dehumidifier, a foot fan (?), most importantly, a Casio keyboard. Erin turns on the keyboard and a dinky little tune comes out. Before they start wiggling to the music, Michael says, “It’s good to be home.” It’s silly; it’s small. It’s also one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen.

People tend to remember it for being deeply uncomfortable, but the driving force of The Office is truly in the innocence in this scene. It's what separates it from the more biting, unpleasant UK original. Most of this is visible in Michael, whose greatest virtues and flaws both come from his childlike demeanor. He is ignorant, inconsiderate, sensitive, selfish, yet he usually has good intentions, and, perhaps most endearingly, is incapable of deceit or tact, no matter how hard he may try. To be as blunt as possible: innocence is the key. Innocence here meaning, not just the dictionary definition, but also warmth, idealism without being naïve.

And I can’t stop thinking about it.

One afternoon, I found myself rewatching that scene with Michael and Erin over and over. It brought me a sense of warmth, of unconditional joy that has, frankly, been missing for a bit. Like any drug, though, the effect was temporary, any sense of resolution or comfort I got from it fleeting. All I was left with was the question. “Why do I care so much about such a small moment? Why does something so happy leave me so sad?” Sorry to get all emo on you, but the depressed reaction is important. It could show that there may be something present in The Office that isn’t found in many places, or it could show that I, personally, am in a bizarre place. We’re going to talk about both.

One fond memory I have from high school was going over a silly short story in English class. The story itself was weird, and honestly, kind of stupid. It was about a teacher, or a class, and the more the class progressed or the teacher taught, the more the teacher physically degraded or grew these abnormalities, eventually looking like a monster or surrealist painting yet not acknowledging it. The only possible explanation I could come up with was the story being a commentary on knowledge’s relationship with innocence. How, the more you know, the more you grow up from childhood, the less innocent you are. It’s a huge idea for humanity, and sexuality in particular. Adam and Eve, anyone? But here’s the key, the big caveat. This representation of innocence, is, in a way, naïve. It implies that once you grow up, once childhood is over and you have knowledge or Sin, there is no going back, no return to innocence, that innocence only comes from ignorance, that this is a fall from grace.

If I have a complaint with The Office, it is how it ties its innocence to childhood so tightly. Michael Scott is a manchild. Jim is a better manchild. It implies that some sort of regression is necessary, which helps no one. Slightly better examples, and uncoincidentally my favorite movies, Holiday and Say Anything, don’t fall into this trap. The latter actually makes a point of flying in the face of this logic, as Lloyd Dobbler is an idealist just when most people turn to cynicism—high school. In Holiday, we see our main characters Johnny Case and Linda Seton eschew their stuffy high class surroundings. They do acrobatics, watch puppet shows, ride around on little bikes—it’s not a coincidence that most of the film takes place in a playroom.

But all of this is at a remove, in a way. There’s a scene in Holiday that seems to acknowledge a distance between childhood joy and reality. Linda turns on a little music box just before she and Johnny start dancing in the playroom. The dance is graceful, yet their conversation about thwarted expectations is wry, sad. All the while the music in the background sounds frail, small, distant. And movies, at times, can be like that sad little music box. Beautiful, yet ineffectual as reality plays out in front of them.

I realize I am contradicting myself here, and in confusing matters. I say that innocence and warmth and idealism are not necessarily tied to childhood, go to all the trouble of giving examples, and then show how one of those examples actually shows the opposite at times. It only appears so confusing because A) I’m a bad writer in a bad mood and B) there’s a missing ingredient in there. Us. People. How we perceive things. Movies can say whatever the hell they like, if we don’t understand them, if we don’t meet them halfway, then they’re never going to make an impact. It’s part of why I started this blog, why I care so much about movies and how we talk about them. How we consider the world, and therefore everyone and everything in it, in my opinion, reflects greatly on how we consider ourselves. Movies can make a difference. They are emotional, powerful objects of substance. So why do the moments and movies that used to lift my spirits make me feel kind of like shit right now?

Some astute readers will already know the answer from my foreshadowed train of thought or my general demeanor. The problem is me. There’s a great essay that has been quoted to death called “The Death of the Author” that talks about how a piece of art is received is more important than the author’s intentions. Who cares if Far Cry 3 was intended as a satire of shallow game stories when such satire amounted to and was received as—well—a shallow game story? Just as innocence after childhood is an effort, movies are an effort too. It’s just that the best ones don’t feel like it. But if the audience isn’t willing to meet the film halfway, then it amounts to nothing.

The difference between Holiday as a life-changing movie and Holiday as that sad little music box is as simple as how the audience receives it. In this solipsistic case, moi. Which is a shame, because it represents everything I try to stand for. This is the power of film—simply feeling separated from a movie has the potential to make me feel separated from myself.

Unsurprisingly, I have also been thinking about Christopher Nolan in this sense, lately. How beautiful Dunkirk is for no longer trying to outsmart grief or pain. How it’s not an elaborate construction, but a simple representation. Somehow, by not trying to be as clever, Dunkirk becomes far less nihilistic than some of Nolan’s other work. There is forced catharsis in most of his other films, regardless of how he himself felt (remember the forced happy ending of The Dark Knight Rises despite his misgivings with the project and grief over Heath Ledger’s death?) By not forcing that, it works so much better on an emotional level. So allow me to take a cue from our friend Chrissy N and dismiss cleverness and catharsis for a second. The point of this piece will come across far better that way.

Innocence, warmth, idealism—striving for those virtues is probably one of the most important things we can have or hold onto as human beings, second only to love. Movies can show us this, and indeed my favorite movies do. Movies are powerful enough to not only show us this, but have us define these ideas by them. However, if we ever feel disconnected from these movies, these movies we set such store by, define ideas and ourselves by—like me and Holiday right now—it’s indicative of large changes. It’s pretty cool that movies can be that sort of barometer. I’m okay, I guess, but I’ve also just unintentionally proven in the essay format in public just how shaken up I am. Which is fun.

The end?