What makes a film “meaningful?”

I met Jacques Thelemaque in 1992 when we were both making films on Hi-8 and Super-8. His films have screened at the Sundance Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Festival, but he is best known for founding the filmmaking collective Filmmakers Alliance. He and I have been writing together in coffee shops and talking about movies and filmmaking for almost thirty years. Here is a snippet of our most recent conversation.

Sean Hood: So, we have been talking about movies that have “meaning,” that have a purpose beyond being just another product for consumption. Can you elaborate on that? What makes a cinematic experience meaningful for you?

Jacques Thelemaque: It has be more than a temporary distraction, and by “distraction” I mean getting emotionally invested in something that is safe but that doesn’t resonate on a deeper level and something that’s pleasurable but not really relevant to viewers’ lives. 

So, “meaningful” for me has these two primary things: relevance and resonance

If a movie or piece of art resonates, it doesn’t necessarily have to have a transformational impact right away, but it lingers in your consciousness, in your thoughts, in your unconsciousness. As it lingers within you, it provides an opportunity to open up to the world.

Sean Hood: So you’re saying even if they don’t spark metamorphosis right then and there, meaningful films push you towards changing in some fundamental or some important way?

Jacques Thelemaque: Yes, changing… or perhaps just opening because sometimes a meaningful film can be purely aesthetic. It doesn’t have any intellectual impact on you, but it opens up the way you see the world, opens up the way you think about yourself, and opens up your own art. If you’re an artist.

Sean Hood: By “open up” do you mean transcend your own boundaries?

Jacques Thelemaque:  Yes, your perspective opens, giving you the freedom to act, to think, and to experience in new ways. It resonates within you, either emotionally or intellectually, and you carry that resonance with you beyond the experience. It keeps on playing with you in some way – perhaps you just feel uncomfortable or disturbed for the rest of the day, but something is happening. Something is changing within you, and that’s always a good thing, in my opinion, as long as you are a fairly healthy person, emotionally, intellectually, it’s a good thing. Something’s happening. New possibilities are opening up. 

Sean Hood: So that’s resonance. What do you mean by relevance?

Jacques Thelemaque: Just that it means something to you personally – it pertains to stuff that you care about, that holds value for you, emotionally or intellectually. It has some impact on your sense of purpose in this life.

Sean Hood: Can you give me an example of a film that has affected you in this way?

Jacques Thelemaque: Well, the example I like to use a lot is Alien, because it’s NOT an “Art” film. It was a very successful, very commercial movie. It hit all the traditional story beats of a Hollywood film. It’s a well-crafted film in the mainstream sense, but it’s also a “beautiful” film. It resonates with depth, themes, mythology, and metaphor. It’s not just entertainment. It’s deeply disturbing and strangely, unexpectedly beautiful in a way that transcends entertainment.

Sean Hood: Yes. That movie utilizes lots of dark space and sort of strobe effects where images are flashed and the creature is only seen in glimpses and fragments. In those blank spots, those ellipses, we project our own anxieties and fears to try to fill the gap and try to make sense of what we’re seeing. The movie becomes more personal for every individual who watches it. You sort of work through your private anxieties and fears by surviving the experience.

Jacques Thelemaque: And then another commercial film that has resonance and relevance is The Godfather

It’s a gangster film, but also a family drama. It’s not rooted necessarily in reality, but it plays on a lot of myths about gangsters in order to play with myths about family and honor, about ways of being in the world, and the way the world really works. It’s an exploration of our own family structures and more generally on our social structures.

Sean Hood: I agree.

Jacques Thelemaque: And then The Exorcist – same thing. It taps into very raw, deep, and irrational fears in order to make us think more deeply about our own religious beliefs. It was terrifying, but it also makes us wonder about religious myths – what’s real, what isn’t real, and what do we really believe in?

Sean Hood: So if part of what makes a movie meaningful is its capacity to do something to you, do something that you carry with you afterward, something that could possibly change you, that means that part of the movie is going to be challenging… or in some way NOT pleasant. So, it makes sense to me that the films that you chose were a gangster and two horror films because in these genres people expect to be scared or disturbed as part of the “entertainment.” Filmmakers can slip in meaningful or challenging things in the guise of a “thrill” or “scare.” 

It’s interesting that more “serious dramas” can actually end up just reaffirming the ideas and beliefs the audience brought with them.

Jacques Thelemaque: Hallmark films and Lifetime often deal with challenging subjects, but they deal with them in the most superficial – sometimes flat out stupid – ways that don’t challenge us in any way whatsoever. They just make us feel safe.

They are not rooted in any real-life complexities and darkness. Everybody walks away, unchallenged in their feelings, their beliefs; they are just made to make us feel safe and comfortable.

Let’s face it, most audiences don’t want an unpleasant experience because they’re already dealing with so much shit in their personal lives. So these movies are all about hiding you from your own feelings so that you can walk out of the theater feeling pleasant.

So again, the movies that are meaningful for me have those two things: resonance and relevance.

(Feel free to join in this conversation in the comments section below…)