When will films take place in a world that looks like ours?

Caroline Morrissey

Growing up passionate about the arts, I developed a definite idea of what art meant to me and what it should look like. For me, art — particularly film — represents the intersection of relatability, representation, and escapism. As I made my way through adolescence and young adulthood, movies like Inside Out and Lady Bird, among many others, helped me both live through characters to experience something fantastical as well as relate my real-life coming of age difficulties to characters living in a world that looked so much like my own — until our world changed. 

As I reached the spring of my junior year of high school in March 2020, all of the typical high school ups and downs I so closely identified with or looked forward to faded away. I spent the rest of that school year and much of the next in virtual classrooms. I sat inside the entire summer before my senior year and attended virtual or socially distant versions of homecoming, prom, and finally, graduation. All of those awkward yet necessary first stumbles through life experiences — relationships, high school dances, house parties — were reduced to interactions through my computer screen or anxiety-inducing masked meetups. 

Now, almost two years later, I am still not looking at a world even close to the one that existed before the pandemic. Even here at Williams, masks are still required in all classrooms, vaccines are mandatory, and PCR testing is a part of the majority of students’ weekly agendas. As a first-year still navigating my way through life beyond high school, I find myself continuing to turn to film as both an outlet and a sort of mentor. Earlier in the pandemic, it was easy to accept that the world on screen did not resemble my own anymore, but after two years, it has started to feel more and more difficult to take what films had to say about the human experience and apply it to my worldview. And so, I’ve started to ask myself: Should the events in upcoming films take place in a post-pandemic world like our own? 

I began reflecting on this question after going to see Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car at Images back in January. Set a few years ago, the film tells the story of a theatre director’s struggle with control, trust, and grief — all pillars of humanity anyone can connect with. My interest was particularly piqued, however, during the final scene of the film in which we see one of the main characters, Misaki, some years into the future.  As she makes her way through a grocery store, everyone, including her, is wearing masks, and gloves — a scene which critics are labeling a “Covid-era coda.” What can we learn from this film’s representation of our changed world, and should this kind of filmmaking become standard?

This is a question that plagued me for weeks after leaving Images and still takes over my brain when I avoid class readings or settle into bed. I ask myself over and over: Should film be a space to relate to the life experiences of fictitious characters and leave with an understanding of yourself and the world around you on a deeper level, or is it a chance for liberation from the stressors of everyday life, like those brought about by the pandemic? I keep coming back to my immediate visceral reaction to the scene — first bewilderment, then comfort. For the first time, I saw what would have previously seemed like an off-putting and maybe even dystopian experience be portrayed as just a fact of this character’s life, completely separate from the story and inconsequential to its message, yet present nonetheless. It drew no attention to the masks or other health precautions; it made no commentary on the strangeness of it all. I stared back at Misaki wearing a mask almost exactly like the one I wore to the theater. I watched her peel it off after returning to the safety of her car and let out a deep exhale, just as I had done while unmasking after countless essential errands during the most uncertain moments of the pandemic. 

Hamaguchi has his own thoughts on the nature and purpose of realism in film. In a Vanity Fair article where the film is described as a “meta-statement on the power of storytelling of art imitating life,” Hamaguchi says that “fiction is a very important part of living.” This portion of the article and the subtext of this quote evokes that undeniable warm, comforting feeling of seeing a difficult, downright bizarre situation like living through a modern-day plague on a screen, with characters you have only known for only a couple of hours but who are navigating through it the same way you did. 

From this film watching experience, I feel that I have a deeper understanding of whether or not films today should take place in our universe one that is still slowly crawling out of that terrible chasm of loss, excessive political dissension, and isolation. While the comfort of watching fantasy films so far removed from our own will always be there, I believe there is a particular value in placing new stories in the context of the current state of the world, not to center stories around it, but to show that new experiences and unique adventures can still thrive in spite of it.

Caroline Morrissey ’25 is from Delray Beach, Fla.