When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you see the same self that you’ve seen on past mornings, going all the way back to your very first awareness of morning? Do you wonder, “What is the ‘I’ behind my eyeballs?”
Is this “I”a private and persistent possession, a “thisness” that distinguishes me from every other being? Is it my “soul?” Or, is the ‘I’ merely an illusion?
In recent years, serious responses have been piling up on all sides. But agreements remain elusive. What is to be done?
The plan here is to step outside the scientific and philosophical arenas in which the question is conventionally debated. I will turn instead to movies and movie characters.
I will ask some simple questions: What do reflections tell characters about their selves…their personal identities? How do characters react to their reflections? And what might their reactions tell us about our own ways of conceiving the self?
These are questions that are prompted by movie-moments that play with different conceptions of the self. In Silvered Screens, I explore and extend these playful cinematic thought-experiments.
The good doctor of the mind in Suture (1993) tells us that we never wonder who we are:
But we do wonder. We scratch our heads when reminded of the Delphic mandate to “know thyself,” or when we hear Shakespeare’s Polonius says, “To thine own self be true.” What are we supposed to know? What are we supposed to be true to? What is the self?
Movies regularly prompt these very questions, often on occasions when characters gaze into their mirrors.
Intrigued by the complexity of these scenes, I’ve gone on to examine mirror-moments in over 600 films, considering them in the light of the literature of philosophy, psychology, history, and anthropology. The result is Silvered Screens: Self in Cinema, the aim of which is to provide an answer to this simple question: Who do movies say that I am?
A Brief Introduction
This book explores and interprets wondrous mirror-moments in movies.
Let me explain, starting with “mirror-moments.” These are occasions during which on-screen characters gaze at their reflections, often reacting to what they see, thereby giving us hints about their understanding of the self. Mirror-moments are central to this project.
Such moments are, I say, wondrous. And, by that, I mean that they are experiences that stop us viewers in our tracks by interrupting the knowledge we take for granted. A wonder stands out and apart from everyday knowledge. It is ecstatic just in the sense that it defies our ordinary conception of the world. As result, it provokes debate, turning us “wonderers” into contenders and even into antagonists. Uncertainty, confusion, and frustration will do that.
A black hole is a very big wonder. Particle entanglement is a very small wonder. Interpretations of each fly this way and that, but nowhere can one find a consensus. At our own middling level of wonders, we have the self. Again, no consensus. We continue to ask “Who am I?” “What am I?”
The human wonder that is the self defies description. It is not yet explained by evidence and propositions. It is not yet tamed by words. We see and we hear, but we don’t yet know the self. In the face of its ineffability, we are discomfitted, but also somehow uplifted.
Such is the wonder that is presented to us daily in our mirrors. We see our eyes seeing, but we can’t seem to wrap our arms around the person that stands behind those eyes. As a result, in the glass, the self remains a wonder. It is close at hand but still very far away. We confront it when we shave in the morning and put on our makeup, but we still cannot make sense of it, especially as it changes over time.
As any cinema buff could predict, it’s this very wonder that gets replayed in movies, big screen and small, with stunning exaggerations that can roil our innards. Consider, for example, Gone with the Wind and Scarlett’s fraught cultivation of her already haughty self; or Persona with its mind-bending identity-confusion; or Divergent with its stunning self-scape; or Taxi Driver, with its scene of Travis threatening his own reflection; or Paris, Texas, with its scene of Travis doubling up as Jane.
So it goes. Our movies pester us with wondrous self-questioning moments, and, in so doing, they respond to our constant—but often backgrounded—search for self-knowledge. If you doubt the importance of this issue, just consider the hundreds of books that have been published about the self. Our libraries overflow with discussions of the self from different points of view, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, history, art, and religion. The self, it seems, is an unknowable experience, one that is well suited to cinema’s own wonder-generating capacity.
So here, I will present more than six hundred cinematic wonders that turn attention to the self. They are wonders that prompt us moviegoers to rethink our conventional conceptualization of the self. As we watch any one of them, we—or at least I—can almost feel the movie-screen turn into a mirror that returns us to the self. The movie becomes a “silvered screen” for what it tells us—or refuses to tell us—about the self that we are.
Regarding the organization of this project, it is presented in three interrelated sections. The primary text is light in tone. It is accompanied by citation-rich Endnotes. The third component, the Movie Sampler, offers brief descriptions and captured images of more than six-hundred wondrous mirror-moments.
These three components operate together to make this an unusual work. It is, at once, an argument about the self, and also an interpretation of mirror-moments, which, when compared and contrasted, can generate fresh discussions of the self.
The pivot for these discussions is the cinematic mirror-moment and what it can tell us about personal identity. My intention in turning to such moments is to liberate the issue of the self from its philosophical enclosure, and to bring abstract debates down to earth. Mirror-moments, as I see them, are visual metaphors that prompt moviegoers to examine the self from fresh angles.
About the author:
On this Website (see Curriculum Vitae) you can see more about that research that I have undertaken over the past fifty years on Creole languages, Sign languages, sport fishing, and flamenco artistry.
What should be emphasized is that all these past projects pertain to expressions of identity in one way or another. Silvered Screens is therefore a logical next step for me.
William Washabaugh reflecting on Mungo Thompson‘s How the Universe Will End, March 6, 1995; When Did the Universe Begin?, 2012.