Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Elevation!

Nancy Flynn Arts & Culture, Awards, Musings, Stream of Consciousness Archive

Photo by Dan Keck.

The Academy Awards are nearly upon us. I’m a shameless devotee of everything Oscar [1] in the short month or so between when nominations are announced and the little gold men are handed out at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles. I try to see most of the nominated movies, including best film, directing, and acting contenders. And, come Oscar night, it’s me with the pre-game show and my remote control, taking in all the glitz and glamour, increasingly adept at muting every obnoxious and tedious ad. An added bonus? I get lots of reading done during those commercial interruptions.

We all know that it isn’t like the nominated movies are necessarily the cream of the film-making crop. Too much good work in the movie business gets left by the wayside for a host of reasons—political, financial, cultural. This year, I have to confess, I haven’t been able to bring myself to go see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (or as one blogger referred to it, “the old man-baby movie”) and not because I don’t like Brad Pitt. No, once I learned that the screenplay was written by the same guy who wrote Forrest Gump, one of my least favorite movies of all time, it was like “been there, done that.” Sorry, but I have better things to do with three-plus hours of my time. See: Go read a book.

I have at least a dozen friends who’ve outfitted their homes with giant television screens, the better to view the latest crop of movies in the comfort of home surround-sound when they finally are released on DVD. But I’m a sucker for going to the theater, for the experience of sitting in the dark with a group of mostly strangers, absorbed and transported for the duration by narrative, characters, soundtrack, and event. Over the years, there have been more times than I can remember or count, stunning moments in the collective, often tribal experience that is big screen movie-going. People sitting in silence at the end of a movie, watching as the credits roll by and the usher comes in to clean up the spilled popcorn kernels and empty Junior Mint boxes, a coven of last lingering holdouts, unable to move.

This year alone it’s happened to me at least three times. The first hour or so of the animated film, Wall-E, when no dialogue is uttered and you feel pulled by that rusty little trash compactor into an experience that is reminiscent of the brilliance of Charlie Chaplin. That moment in the utterly fine documentary, Man on Wire, when Philippe Petit takes his first step onto the cable between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The final scenes of Milk when you see footage of tens of thousands of people marching in San Francisco’s streets after Harvey Milk’s assassination and it hits you, My God, that is actual, historical footage, not a staged-for-Hollywood scene. I could rave on.

In a recent blog [2]written by Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times movie critic, I learned a bit more about the why of such reactions. Ebert writes about what happens for him at the end of such movies:

“What I experience is the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift: Yes, there is a good person, doing a good thing. And when the movie is over, I don’t want to talk with anyone. After such movies I notice that many audience members remain in a kind of reverie. Those who break the spell by feeling compelled to say something don’t have an emotional clue.”

Apparently psychologists are now hot on the trail of better understanding this phenomenon known in their circles as elevation. The term was initially coined by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia who writes: “Power moments of elevation seem to push a mental ‘reset button,’ wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration.”

Elevation is when we feel a goodness, when we experience transcendence, when we have the urge to run into the streets on election night and hug complete strangers. That sort of thing. At the University of California-Berkeley, a psychology professor named Dacher Keltner is hot on the trail of this. He’s even written a book on the subject, Born To Be Good. Haidt and Keltner’s studies help explain my personal dumbfoundedness at the end of certain movies and books (even if they are sad), after theatrical and musical performances (both joyful and tragic), or even upon witnessing the perfection of a work of art like Michaelangelo’s Pietà [3] in St. Peter’s in Rome.

Their studies also speak to the bigger-than-one-person, cultural responses that are also elevation—from weepiness to a desire to be a better person—inspired by everything from people (Barack Obama) to speeches (Obama’s speech on Election Night [4]) to events (the crowds on the mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument on Inauguration Day). According to Keltner, it’s critical that we experience elevation when we are part of a larger group.

In my own life, I have experienced elevation from a poem, a peace march, and a parade. From a gospel song  by Harlem’s Addicts Rehabilitation Choir [5]. Seeing the fresco cycle by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel [6] in Padua, Italy. The heroic Hudson River landing and rescue of every single person aboard US Airways Flight #1549 in January 2009. A lowly individual speaking truth to power: Rosa Parks on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December 1955 or that lone protester in front of those tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square [7] in June 1989. At the National Civil Rights Museum [8] in Memphis, looking out at the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. Even at the end of Thelma and Louise [9] when they hold hands as Louise presses pedal to the metal and they fly off that mortality cliff.

Back to the movies: Roger Ebert thinks this whole notion of elevation explains much about the importance of seeing films in the theater—but it goes way beyond that, too:

“At a deep level, we are part of a group having a shared experience…And during a film where you hold your breath, the more breaths being held, the more powerful it seems…One human life, closely observed, is everyone’s life. In the particular is the universal. Empathy is the feeling that most makes us human. Elevation may be the emotion caused when we see people giving themselves up, if only for a moment, to caring about others.”

I wonder if what we are forever seeking in art—both as makers and partakers—is to have our collective breaths taken away.

More on the concept of elevation in this Slate article, “Obama in Your Heart” [10]by Emily Yoffe. And the first of a four-part series in which Roger Ebert tries to predict the 2009 Oscar winners based on elevation rather than logic or statistics or box-office revenues, begins here [11].


[2] http://
[3] http://à_(Michelangelo)

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