A woman in grayscale with long dark hair holds hands with a blue creature wearing a fedora and white glasses.
Design by Abby Schreck.

I love walking out of movie theaters, mainly when the movie feels like it has changed my life. I stand up, coming back into a body I’ve forgotten for the past two hours, and step down the stairs while the end music plays. The film’s atmosphere — a world of excitement and drama and loss, all arcing and sucked free of mundanity — is still thick in the air. I will never be closer to that world. I walk outside, look out at the world in the afterglow of the film, with everything it told me held inside my chest, and things look different. The feeling usually fades by the time I’m home, lasting until the next day at best. Never as long as I expected from a film that at first felt life-changing.

I rewatched Pixar’s “Soul” recently, wherein Joe (Jamie Foxx, “Django Unchained”), an aspiring jazz musician, must help an unborn soul find her “spark” in life or die before his music career begins. Joe, who believes his passion for music is his spark, doesn’t understand that a spark is not a particular purpose, but a love of life itself. That is what the soul, named 22 (Tina Fey, “30 Rock”), must find. This is expressed in a scene where Joe’s idol tells him a fable about a fish in search of the ocean. When told that he is already in the ocean, the fish says, “This is water. What I want is the ocean.” It’s an easily decipherable metaphor for underappreciating the life you’re already living.

I liked directing duo Daniels’s (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” even though it told me nothing new. It’s a different story from “Soul,” but the films share their most obvious message: Life is beautiful just because it is life, despite how difficult or bland it often seems. Both films have more to them than this message — “Soul” is more specifically about appreciating life as a whole rather than losing sight of all but one particular goal or passion. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” leans into the meaninglessness of life and addresses familial conflicts and generational trauma — but the elusive beauty of normal life is the main takeaway.

I dislike movies whose messages I’ve heard before, but this type of life-affirming film is an exception. When my mom told me she liked Wim Wenders’s 1987 film “Wings of Desire” because it made her feel “happy to be alive,” that was the draw for me. In the film, an angel, Damien (Bruno Ganz, “The House that Jack Built”), gives up immortality to return to ordinary life, partly in order to be with the living woman he falls in love with, but also to experience “at each step, each gust of wind, to be able to say, ‘now’ … and no longer ‘forever’ and ‘for eternity.’”

In “Soul,” 22 watches a man and his daughter walk by on a sidewalk, the wind blow through a tree and a seed pod spiral to the ground — basic life things, but in this scene, they are enough to make her want to live. In “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians”) realizes that life in her universe is worthwhile, despite being “meaningless” because of the love she has for her family. When Damien sees Marion (Solveig Dommartin, “Until the End of the World”) for the first time in “Wings of Desire,” his black and white eternal world is thrown into washes of color. That is life. 

Far from tiring of films telling me not to take things for granted, I crave media that will heighten the appreciation for life I sometimes lack. Many of us probably do. 

Still, why haven’t I gotten bored? Haven’t I been told that life is beautiful enough times? Why, when so many films cannot get away with repeating a message that has been done over and over, does this message still feel impactful?

Any film’s message and emotional impact will fade. Why else would we rewatch? But it’s different for films whose primary draw, at least for me, is the way they make me feel afterward — that happiness is to be alive. Rewatching a film for a revelation doesn’t quite work. I find myself not trusting that the same film will be able to convince me how wonderful life is a second time. I want a new film, one that will find a new way of making me look up and be profoundly excited by a seed pod. Maybe one that will more fundamentally change the way I see things, thereby lasting longer. 

This is wishful thinking because not only does the feeling fade, but it never really belongs to me, the viewer. It starts fading the minute it’s passed from the characters on screen into my hands. The idea that yes, life is beautiful is most present while I watch it be realized, before I try to adopt it myself. I am, at the time, in a space where I care mainly for the fictional world on the screen before me — a world fundamentally different from my own, no matter how realistically drawn. I am told to appreciate life by seeing characters learn to do so, but it isn’t the life I return to when the film ends.

The unavoidable difference between a life-affirming movie and the life it reveres is that it is a story. Life is not. I continue to enjoy movies that tell me to appreciate life because the feeling they give me slips away as soon as I try to fit them into my life outside the theater. That moment of realization, appreciation, sacrifice of anything for life is just that — a single moment. In a film, that moment can be the end — what I am left with. But then my life continues. There is an after, where the message doesn’t so seamlessly fit. 

For a time, this felt like an unsolvable crack in my ability to appreciate both life and the films that confirmed its worth. But stories are how we make sense of the world. It holds no meaning without them. Despite how concerning it feels that I sometimes prefer interacting with art about life than interacting with life outside of art, I no longer think that’s a problem. A movie will never permanently convince me to live every second as my last or to look upon every unfortunate moment like something nonetheless remarkable for being a part of my life, but it might make me feel that way for a day, or occasionally, when I think about it. And then another film will come along to tell me the same thing in a slightly different way, and I will have a new way of looking at the world because there are endless ways of looking at something, like life, that has no true, straightforward story. We can construct them infinitely within it, and that isn’t a bad thing. That isn’t a lie. That’s the power of art. When it wants to be, it’s life-affirming. It assures us that there is something to hold onto, and it is able to do this because it is split from reality. We make meaning of life with stories, so why not use them to give us moments of appreciation? That joy is as real as any derived from the real world. 

Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at erinev@umich.edu.