Art has a tendency to reflect the world around us. Shakespeare’s plays reflected prominent issues in 17th century England, from the fickle nature of love in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to racial prejudice in Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Modern street artist Banksy has taken on topics like war crimes and poverty in his mysterious urban artwork.  

Film is not exempt from this notion of acting as a mirror; in fact it has probably evolved into the leading artistic medium in regard to significantly influencing our culture. Directors and writers in the film industry are constantly finding new and creative avenues to express a variety of topics– sometimes in ways that catch us off guard.

As Roger Ebert once wrote his famous essay Reflections After 25 Years at the Movies, “movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may seem.”

Del Toro at the Sitges Film Festival in 2017 (wikipedia)

A great film is one that you continue to think about after you’ve left the theater. When I ask myself about what films have stayed with me for one reason or another, they all have one thing in common– they surprised me. Guillermo Del Toro is a director that I (like many others) admire immensely. When it comes to films that challenge their audience, Del Toro’s work tops that list. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro utilizes the traditional fairy tale style in order to tell an incredibly dark and twisted, but ultimately beautiful story of a young girl navigating a violent world controlled by violent people. In The Shape of Water Del Toro again employs the fantasy genre to tell an all too real story of loneliness, discrimination, “the other,” and ultimately hope in the face of despair. Both films give us so much more than what we originally expected and bargained for.

Perhaps that is the reason why films that portray the profound, even in the simple things, are so necessary. In this day and age, it can seem as though big production companies churn out movies that have no trust in their audience. Everything is given and expected to be taken at face value.

It is important for filmmakers to trust their audiences to be critical of what they see on screen. But more importantly, it is crucial for filmmakers to respect their audiences, and their own work, enough to inject some nuance into their stories. Great films don’t encourage you to sit back and turn your brain off. They feed you something that you can chew on for hours, days, even a lifetime.

Director Sam Friedlander’s short film Internet Gangsters, written by Eddie Alfano, is a perfect example of using the unexpected to give a story depth and meaning. The film begins with a wide shot of the New York City skyline at night, accompanied by a symphony of distant sirens, car horns, and barking dogs. Cut to a car in an empty parking lot with two gangsters using terms like “whacked,” “getting made” and “the Boss,” and immediately films like Godfather and Goodfellas come to mind, leading the viewers to believe that they are about to get yet another lesson on the NYC mob lifestyle. However, when one of the mobsters realizes that his name doesn’t show up during a quick google search, we are instead shown something that is painfully familiar but not originally expected: the insecurity surrounding our own internet presence (or lack thereof).

Friedlander and Alfano cleverly use the setting of his short film as a red herring, and with the help of a little self-aware humor, the audience is treated to refreshing new take on egoism and overall human fragility. The writer of Internet Gangsters, Eddie Alfono, states that “I wanted the first few moments to look as cliche as possible. Your typical mob characters, mob car, mob location, etc. I wanted the audience to think, ‘oh, here we go again, we’ve seen this a million times.’ And then just when they think that, hit them with the line, ‘they googled him’ and take the film in a direction we haven’t seen before. I love the idea of gangsters using the internet and showing how even that world is getting ruined by technology!”

The gangsters of this film find their personal validity through infamy; infamy that they hope will be immortalized by the internet and accessible through a simple google search. If you boil it down, what they want is popularity– or at least for people to talk about them when they’re not around. Perhaps that’s why this aspect of the film hits home–maybe that is all we really want to achieve by having accounts on every social media platform. The actions of the gangsters in Friedlander’s film reflect an ugly aspect of humanity; there is an insatiable part of us that wants to cross as many minds and be the topic of as many conversations as possible.

While “Internet Gangsters” uses wise cracking mobsters in order to get its point across, Christoph Brehme’s short animated feature For Good utilizes a completely different environment to portray its story. When it comes to stop motion animation, box office hits like Wallace and Gromit, James and the Giant Peach, Coraline and the Tim Burton film Frankenweenie have paved the way for clay animation to widely be considered a genre that encaptures a certain childlike essence.

In For Good, this essence of innocence along with the scribbled backdrops and hand molded protagonist make the depiction of death and grief even more heartbreaking. That’s the wonderful thing about claymation, you can mold emotions into whatever the artist wants.

This short film reflects a vital universal truth– life goes on after loss. Or as the director Christoph Brehme puts it, “sometimes you have to stop in order to move forward.” A classic example of finding the profound in an unexpected place.

On that note, the skateboarding scene of Los Angeles is certainly a unique place to search for the profound. Yuhan Lin’s Hey, Girl! Teach Me How to Ollie is a brief look into the skateboarding culture of L.A., but more specifically the film delves into where women and girls fit (or don’t fit) into that scene. Skateboarding has a long history of male pop-cultural film influences, from the goofy antics of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the adventurous and influential actions of the Z-Boys skateboarding team in the 1970’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. Although the presence of women in the skateboarding scene has increased over the years, women are still struggling to be taken as seriously in the sport as their male counterparts.

Lin states that she, “grew up in a family that believed that girls should be careful, elegant, and sweet.” In the film, director Yuhan Lin makes it clear that her family, along with many others, do not view skateboarding as fitting this definition. This short documentary asks more than “why is it considered unusual for girls to skate?” It digs into of gender roles and cultural expectations. It challenges the idea that scraped knees, bruises, and risk taking is reserved for the boys. Further than that, it acknowledges the issue of representation, and that although the problem of improper representation was created by entertainment media like Film, it can be remedied by the creation of new and better films as well. It is and isn’t about skateboarding, and that’s what makes it worth watching.

Movies can depict the familiar in a new way and represent seemingly common aspects of our world with the help of originality– from setting to characters, to style. New and profound ideas are not dependent on a multimillion-dollar budget or feature-length runtime. Mobsters can be self-conscious and petty. A silent claymation short can tackle the topic of hope after a devastating loss. A woman standing on a skateboard is really standing up to so much more. A great film leaves you with more than you ever expected to gain.