In 2014, the search for identity never ends: Eleanor Rigby, Gone Girl, and Orphan Black.

About 2 weeks ago, I promised this essay “in a few days”. Oops. The truth is, I was trying to come up with the best way to articulate this, what films and TV shows I saw in 2014 resonated with me the most, and why. I wrote many, many versions, many different ways, but always got stuck at a certain point. Then, I was watching an excellent montage video of all the films from 2014, and came across a quote that’s in a film yet to be released in Australia:

We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

– Roger Ebert

When I think of my life, I realise how much of it I connect to films, associating emotions or events with something because of how it connected with me at that moment in my life. The Before films will forever remind me of my final year of high school, because of how much I watched them, reveling in the familiarity but also ever-present spontaneity and joy that they held and I needed at a lot of moments. I saw Never Let Me Go at a time where I was experiencing a lot of anxiety about life, Carey Mulligan’s beautifully understated performance telling me exactly what I needed to hear about living to the fullest. Sometimes I doubt An Education would resonate as much if I hadn’t revisited it about 2 months after graduating high school. Every year, there’s a handful of films that connect with me on a personal level. But in 2014, films and TV went beyond that, me identifying with them even more so than usual. They spoke something about my year, about fighting for a sense of ownership and identity, volumes of truth that made for plenty of food for thought after, making me not only understand others, but also myself better.

Truth be told, there’s a reason why I decided to forego a top 10 or 25. Living in Australia, where release dates are frequently long after their US counterparts, I’m somewhat excluded from the bulk of the year end conversation from not being able to see many of the films until January, February, or March of the next year. While 2014 was not a weak year, there were plenty of films to get excited about and celebrate, in comparison to 2013, there were vastly fewer films that I felt a strong attachment to. Last year, I had many an emotional viewing experience. Before Midnight continued the magic of the first two films that, as I said, will forever be associated with that year, still speaking universal truths. I wanted to cry from the sheer melancholic beauty and longing evident from the very first frame in Inside Llewyn Davis. Short Term 12 was a knock out of raw emotions, of humour, tragedy, and small moments, fearlessly showing imperfection. I continue to turn over Stories We Tell in my mind pretty much daily. What Maisie Knew was delicately beautiful, moving, and never manipulative. Blue is the Warmest Colour had me transfixed and exhilarated, falling in love for 3 hours. Further down the list, The Way, Way Back has become one of my go-to pick-me-up films. This year, while I admired plenty of things I saw, varying greatly from Pride to Birdman to Whiplash to Only Lovers Left Alive, I didn’t feel much of a lasting impact except to a select few.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

"I got pregnant", Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) says when asked why she abandoned a dissertation. A flash of recognition - "ah, that" - passes over Professor Friedman (Viola Davis)'s face.
“I got pregnant”, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) says when asked why she abandoned a dissertation. A flash of recognition – “ah, that” – passes over Professor Friedman (Viola Davis)’s face.

I saw Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby films in late November, after a long, long wait, and suffice to say, they were worth it. A three part (HimHer, and Them) portrait of reinvention in the face of tragedy in order to grieve, centering on a husband and wife – Eleanor (which, fun fact time, is my name), played by Jessica Chastain; and Conor, played by James McAvoy – my personal favourite portion of the trilogy was that about Eleanor’s experience. Abandoning a thesis upon finding out she was pregnant, Eleanor created a new, wife and mother version, of herself, only to lose it, leaving her with no idea of who her present self is, and no desire to return to her past self. Maybe it’s somewhat superficial, given the commencement of my own tertiary education, eagerly wanting a new beginning and having to work out how to make those around me realise the non-school version of myself, and it being the source of a lot of many a relisation about myself in 2014, but Eleanor’s seeking of herself through studying was something that resonated with me deeply. The university, where she meets Professor Friedman (a bitingly funny and melancholic Viola Davis), is the only place she can go to that is free of preconceptions and prior experiences and judgements, neither person knowing much about the other one, Eleanor indeed achieving her aim of disappearing and trying “some other version of (her)self” as a result. It’s a temporary utopia. The class, a time where her and Friedman can sit in empty, quiet spaces, or ones that are so bustling they blend in perfectly, a haven from the rest of their lives that is devoid of the past and the judgements it brings, is finite. Their friendship, like the film, is temporary, eventually being intruded by the real world and the need to yet again move on, but one that affects the other’s view on life profoundly.

Gone Girl

“AMY is breezing down the highway, picture of freedom, hair flowing in the wind. On the seat next to her, all the PENS from her DIARY entries wobble” – Extract from the Gone Girl screenplay by Gillian Flynn

Going into 2014, David Fincher’s Gone Girl was one of my most anticipated films, the counting down the days type. Fincher + a thriller + Rosamund Pike finally getting the breakout role she deserves? Where do I sign up? What I wasn’t expecting, however, was how deeply affecting it would be. Gillian Flynn’s novel about a type-A heiress, married to a midwestern man, disappearing on their fifth wedding anniversary, is a dissection of many things – the media, femininity, and identity, among many others – and somehow does them all perfectly, never feeling spread too thin or casting the net too far. To me, it resonated because of the sheer amount of truth it held in its observation, scary truths, truths that one doesn’t wish to acknowledge or try make sense of because of how ugly and unfavourable they are. I’m only 19 years old, went to an all girls school, and haven’t been in relationship, but I could write you an entire essay on how relevant, how important that infamous Cool Girl speech is, how often I’ve seen what it describes perpetuated. I’ve seen girls change themselves, being that “hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping” that Amy describes early in the second act, despite how different they are in any other situation.

For Amy Dunne, the search and creation for identity has been in a constant loop, a creation never feeling valuable, always able to be disposed of at a moment’s notice. The constant need to create a fictional life has made it only easier to set her plan, framing her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) for murder to punish him, not only by the law but also the media, easier. Amy’s life has constantly been an identity crisis, never being able to create a life that is hers, instead having every step dictated by a superior version of herself, Amazing Amy, a laundry list of expectations. As she speeds down a highway from North Carthage, Missouri, nondescript, disguised, we see a variety of pens, ones we recognise from her diary entries on the passenger seat – a pink feathery one, an Amazing Amy one, a New York souvenir one, to name a few – each representing a different Amy we’ve been privy to – Cool Girl, Amazing Amy, Midwestern Housewife. All identities, readings of herself, always perpetuated by others, be it her parents or Nick. One by one, she throws the pens out of the window, each version of herself discarded by the road. Herself and her identity are disposable and easily replaceable, each incarnation of herself not vivid, layered, complex, and sprawling, but instead easily itemised.

In an age where changing appearance is no longer even as difficult as changing clothes or hairstyle and is as simple as changing a profile picture, a 100 pixel square image speaking volumes about oneself instantly, Gone Girl‘s message about simple reinvention and deception hits too close to home. It’s a horror story of how little regard we have for authenticity, and how finite identity, a construction of ourselves, something so important yet so pliable, is.

Orphan Black

Despite the joy at just having all been together for the first time, Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)'s mortality is closer, more real than ever. In the early hours of the morning, Sarah (Maslany) wakes up to find Cosima, who obviously hasn't slept, staring at the ceiling, peaceful, still, in the bed. Cosima raises her arm and laces her fingers with Sarah's, perfectly in sync. But you can see that all of this, meeting their sisters, is still like looking in a slightly distorted mirror, still not quite believeable. "You're the wild type Sarah. You propagate against all odds. You're restless. You survive," Cosima says. The room is still, a calm in the middle of the storm. "I can't do this without you, Cosima" Sarah says, turning to look at her. "You'll be fine," Cosima says "you just have to keep moving forward." Their fingers stay laced together.
Despite the joy at just having all been together for the first time, Cosima (Tatiana Maslany)’s mortality is closer, more real than ever. In the early hours of the morning, Sarah (Maslany) wakes up to find Cosima, who obviously hasn’t slept, staring at the ceiling, peaceful, still, in the bed. Cosima raises her arm and laces her fingers with Sarah’s, perfectly in sync. But you can see that all of this, meeting their sisters, is still like looking in a slightly distorted mirror, still not quite believeable. “You’re the wild type Sarah. You propagate against all odds. You’re restless. You survive,” Cosima says. The room is still, a calm in the middle of the storm. “I can’t do this without you, Cosima” Sarah says, turning to look at her. “You’ll be fine,” Cosima says “you just have to keep moving forward.” Their fingers stay laced together.

Judging by the fact that I don’t mention any television on this blog, barring The Newsroom and this very show, you can probably tell by now that I am horrible with watching TV. I’d had Orphan Black on my watchlist since it began, having found out about it on Tumblr, where there is a large, incredibly wonderful fandom for the show, finally watching it in the middle of this year and immediately falling in love. The first season, where a young woman witnesses a suicide of someone who looks exactly like her, only to discover that she’s the product of a human cloning trial, was primarily focused on how the revelations fit into the lives of the four main characters – Sarah, Cosima, Alison, and Helena (all played by the mind blowing Tatiana Maslany) – acting independently to navigate the highly secretive nature of their origins. But after a pivotal moment at the end of season one, that mirrors the above scene at the end of season 2, the direction of the next chapter of their story began to take shape, weaving them closer together.

"Everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them" - Cosima in 1x10 'Endless Forms Most Beautiful'.
“Everything we are, everything we become, belongs to them” – Cosima in 1×10 ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’.

Realising the gravity of their situation, the identity crisis that they’ve faced so far – that there are an indetermined number of people that share their DNA – takes on another layer in the nature vs. nurture argument – how much of themselves is not a product of a science experiment nearly 30 years ago? Like my responses to Eleanor Rigby and Gone Girl, this is the part of Orphan Black that resonated with me the most, in a year where I frequently grappled with both internal and external expectation, wishes of others who had, seemingly, long ago worked out my path in life. Despite their creators’ desire to produce children without biological family history, they are still restrained with predispositions, ones that are even more artificial due to the circumstances of their conception. They have a seemingly inescapable predestiny, a feeling that their life has been cemented in their very basic biology, never completely theirs to create, always influenced by others.

It’s a horrifying notion that they unite over, creating a ramshackle, family unit, being drawn closer together in season 2 as they navigate a seemingly never ending trail of secrets. Having had every idea about themselves upset, they’re fighting for their identity, a sense of control over themselves and their destiny, not wanting their future to be at the whim of another, something that I can definitely relate to in 2014. Despite how they are viewed by their creators, as numbers, commodities of an experiment to be prodded and locked up like prizes, they could not be more different from the other, unwilling to let their status as ‘clone’, their predestiny, define them. They look at what has been set out for them, what’s expected of them, to be identical, and work even more to get away from it, to not let what they cannot control define them. Cosima is a highly ambitious scientist, while Sarah is a former grifter who just wanted to disappear to make a better life for her daughter. “God, we’re all so different, all of us” Sarah says as she lies in bed with Cosima. Their hands are in sync but not perfectly intertwined, never quite touching perfectly. They’re independent.

Roger Ebert couldn’t be more right when talking about the films that have the biggest effect on us, those that throw the empathy machine into overdrive. The most memorable films and TV shows, those that will go down as the best of the year, are those that help us better understand ourselves and others, the ones with characters that truly make life feel like a shared experience. They made me realise something in 2014 – the search for identity is never ending. There is no such thing as a final self, and daily we are battling expectations and influence to lead authentic existences, trying to be our true selves. We’re always learning more about ourselves, rethinking and realising, writing and erasing. But is there any such thing as an authentic experience, one, as those that believe in self-directed evolution (Neolution) on Orphan Black long for, “untouched by evolution”? If I learnt one thing in 2014, no, there isn’t. We’re always somewhat limited by what we’ve been rasied in, expected to be by others, what we’ve read and seen, just as Gone GirlThe Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and Orphan Black have helped me arrive at this conclusion. But it’s one that is definitely open to change.


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