In Whiplash, aspiring drummer Bob Ellis confirms his future desire: “I wanna be one of the greats.” But his mentor and teacher pounds it into Bob’s head the reality of who he is now: “You are a worthless pansy-ass.”
In Boyhood, little Mason struggles with growing up and a father who asks, “What do you want to be, Mason? What do you want to do?”
Still Alice, although not Best Picture-nominated but includes Julianna Moore’s Best Actress nomination performance, centers on a woman with Alzheimer’s whose past identity must define her future’s: “I must stay connected to who I once was. To live in the moment … is all I can do.”
And in Birdman, a struggling ex-megastar suddenly reprises the role that flew him to stardom. “You were a movie star, remember? You’re Birdman!” as if to say, “That’s who you are now and always will be.”
Films are visual expression about one’s identity. The film-making process itself lends itself to questioning who you are even more, or it did for me.
“Quiet on the set. Roll tape. Mike Andberg’s ‘Hollywood Express’ documentary. Take one. Action.”
About to graduate film school, my biggest question at the time was, “Do I stay or do I go? Do I move to Hollywood to make films or not?”
I was filled with wonder making the documentary on my first trip to Hollywood. Constrained by a student budget, I packed only twelve minutes of 16 mm film stock for the entire project (from which making an intelligent four-minute film deserves an Oscar for something). I had no agenda but to capture what I thought was interesting about Hollywood.
Rolling ever westward by car from Santa Fe, New Mexico, I asked many questions along the way. “Doesn’t moving ahead to something new mean the loss of something else? Didn’t the people who ventured to Movie Town leave a life behind just to pursue their art? What am I willing to leave behind? Am I even going to Hollywood to make film? – Oh, don’t think so much. Just go.”
Cue the beautiful palm trees, sleek Jaguars and huge billboards driving through Hollywood. “Oh my gosh, this place is amazing. But isn’t it just a fantasy world here?”
Cue downtown Hollywood and Vine. “Oh, come on. Look around. People here are just like regular people walking along the street anywhere. We’re all the same, aren’t we?”
Cue all the people approaching me because I have a movie camera in my hands. “Yeah, but isn’t fame what most people here really want? Is that what I’m after? What do I want to be? What do I want to do?”
It’s funny, isn’t it? I had any subject to choose from in creating my little Hollywood documentary and it wound up being a personal essay about me and what I wanted – or didn’t want – to be.
As it turned out, I never moved to Hollywood. I never pursued film-making. But I learned a lot about myself in the process of deciding I didn’t want to dedicate my life to it, and why.
So, I can’t help it. I hope this years’ Oscars go to films about identity.