In this week’s instalment, Jonnie Barrow speaks to us about the devastating loss of his mum when he was just 20 years old. He gives plenty of great examples of films that examine grief, and I’m sure it’ll be an essay that will resonate with many of you.
Thank you Jonnie for opening up about your experiences. You can follow Jonnie on Twitter.
TRIGGER WARNING(S): Grief
This October marked four years since my Mum died. I’m stuck on that sentence, trying to work out how to continue. I’ve written and rewritten this paragraph in the vain hope of communicating the depth of that loss; how 18 months of knowing her cancer was terminal wasn’t nearly enough time to prepare for losing a parent four days after turning 20.
Grief sticks and unsticks the mind like that; pausing you for an eternity, then rushing over months in the blink of an eye. It tricks the mind, warping time into unrecognisable shapes; my final conversation with Mum lasted mere minutes, but in my mind it occupies hours. When I delivered a eulogy at her funeral, I had to compress nearly two decades of formative experience into a side of A4. And just as the malformation of time is a key component of grief, it is also a key component of cinema.
Cinema, manipulating image and sound to unite individuals in a shared experience across the world, can mirror the experience of grief like no other art form. A judicious cut, an emotive music cue, or a close-up of a human face can provide a conciliatory window into grief that the lonely subjectivity of personal experience never could.
I don’t believe it’s possible for a single film to impart the whole spectrum of human responses to grief, or even a single genre. But tropes of genre, reinterpreted as signifiers of loss and heartbreak, assume a resonance which is often tough to shake.
Horror is an obvious starting point; in bleaker moments, it’s easy to gravitate toward the oppressive darkness of It Comes At Night, or even the hollow, sickening vengeance of Mandy. They dramatise the violent powerlessness of grief’s one-track mind with a potency that’s hard to shake. The chills of Don’t Look Now, Hereditary and Midsommar also run deep, touching on the haunt of longing for a loved one who will never return.
In a supernatural context, this haunting can become elegiacally cautionary. The Haunting of Hill House’s spectral elegance shines an important light on grief’s ability to inflict intergenerational trauma. The complexity of the show’s treatment of ghosts speaks volumes about the nuances of grief, as Steven Crain remarks that “A ghost can be a lot of things. A memory, a daydream, a secret. Grief, anger, guilt. But, in my experience, most times they’re just what we want to see. Most times, a ghost is a wish.” The show’s scares warn against a primal longing to be reunited with those who cannot come back as we remember them, but underneath, there is an odd comfort in remembering loved ones who’ve left us.
It’s also hard to deny the power of science fiction, where the black void of space stands in for the void left by those we’ve lost. Gravity, Solaris and especially Damien Chazelle’s dazzling Neil Armstrong biopic First Man make powerful use of this metaphor, fostering connections with their audience even as their central characters are denied connections themselves.
But the films that have resonated most with me are those that show grief from a child’s perspective. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, one of only a handful of films Mum and I saw together in the cinema when I was a kid, was a guiding light in the importance of banding together with those around you, to ensure you’re not grieving alone. The resourceful Baudelaire orphans, creating sanctuary and solidarity in heartbreaking circumstances, were a key model for me in the immediate weeks of grief, encouraging me to talk to friends and family when I otherwise might not have done. I didn’t realise that at the time. It took another film, one that absolutely shredded me to ribbons, to realise the full power of cinema as both mediator and balm of heartache.
“You will tell me your nightmare. That will be your truth.” So speaks Liam Neeson’s titular monster in J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, beginning a process of narrative exorcism for Connor O’Malley, a 13 year old boy struggling to come to terms with his mother’s terminal diagnosis. Seeing it just over a year after Mum died, having looked so similar to Felicity Jones’ character in her final months, devastated and uplifted me in equal measure. I saw myself in Connor: his destructive tendencies, his inability to escape his suffering, his retreat into fantasy as life became too much, were all mine. The way everyone in his life walked on egg shells as if his grief made him dangerous, his animalistic, selfish cry for closure in spite of what closure would mean, were the ugly elements to grieving I couldn’t put words to until I saw them.
Seeing my own experiences reflected, refracted, writ large across a screen bigger than me, was electrifying. I was overwhelmed by how close I felt to the filmmakers, by the power of fellowship, of being understood, of empathy; of knowing that even in bleakest sorrow, you’re not alone. I left the cinema in tears, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to review the film as I’d planned because it had affected me so deeply.
In a strange way, I believe this experience has defined my love of cinema. To feel a loving hand reach so tangibly through the silver screen, speaking directly to me, gave me an incredible understanding of the importance of community, of allyship, and of cinematic representation – of all the things that make watching films so powerful and valuable in today’s fractured, confused world.
In a cinema, when the trailers stop and the lights go down, when you’re sat in the dark with a bunch of strangers, all looking at the same flickering lights on the wall, the room is united in collective experience. It’s the closest we get to everyday magic. I truly believe that’s never been more important than it is now. I hope it’s an experience we never have cause to mourn.