This piece was originally submitted to Bright Wall/Dark Room as a pitch for their June 2020 prompt of "The Unknown". They're an excellent outlet and I'd highly recommend checking them out, particularly this Fantastic Mr. Fox piece from my colleague and friend Ethan Warren!
How can something terrifying also be exciting?
How can a sensation that provokes nightmares also create real-life experiences that feel like a dream come true?
It sounds impossible, but that is the very nature of the unknown. Though the unknown comes in different forms for each person, it frequently emerges as something that’s both imposing and tantalizing. An impending job promotion, for example, can instill dread in how unprepared you feel. Simultaneously, the prospect of all your hard work paying off in this promotion can make you heart soar. The unknown can, to quote the Huey Lewis and the News song “Power of Love”, “Make one man weep, make another man sing”.
The complicated nature of the unknown has been reflected in cinema dating back to its earliest days. After all, cinema has always been used to reflect real-world experiences. No wonder, then, that filmmaking has always explored the universal experience of confronting a nuanced form of the unknown. For example, the very first Best Picture winner, Wings, was hinged on the uncertainty surrounding who would survive in World War I. This was used to inform both its suspense and its central love triangle. All the way back in 1927, the unknown was already being utilized in movies to convey both potential corpses and potential love.
Twelve years later, one of the most iconic takes on the idea of the unknown being a complicated entity was released. Such a famous depiction emerged in the fantasy story The Wizard of Oz. Though aimed at children, there is a reason this feature has managed to be equally captivating for adults. The way The Wizard of Oz uses its titular location as a reflection of the finer nuances of the unknown is something audiences of all ages can appreciate.
Of course, The Wizard of Oz protagonist Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) doesn’t appreciate the finer nuances of the unknown land of Oz when she first arrives here. Once she enters Oz by inadvertently murdering a witch and incurring the wrath of a Wicked Witch, all Dorothy wants to do is go back to her far more familiar Kansas home. As she travels down the Yellow Brick Road, though, Dorothy begins to realize this unknown terrain isn’t exclusively a terrifying place. Though full of new sights, Oz is also home to friendly fellows like The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) and The Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) as well as truly wondrous sights in the Emerald City.
On a surface-level, this multi-faceted approach to what Dorothy encounters on her journey helps to instill a sense of suspense in the proceedings. The viewer is never certain whether the next person Dorothy is going to encounter will be a friend or foe. On a deeper level, though, embracing this measured approach has far richer dividends. Going this realistically nuanced route with the unknown fantastical world of Oz grounds Dorothy’s journey in something real.
Watching Dorothy thrive in the best parts of the unknown and endure through the worst parts of the unknown is something views can recognize as reflective of their own experiences with the unknown. Delving into wholly new scenarios rarely delivers only joys or only misery. These experiences tend to be marked more by shades of grey than anything else. Though The Wizard of Oz occupies a world lions sing and monkeys fly, its take on the unknown isn’t just realistic, it’s also reassuring. We, the audience, can take comfort in knowing that there can be something good in the unfamiliar, we can find our version of The Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion in the middle of uncertain circumstances. At the same, The Wizard of Oz also reminds us that we can endure through the worst parts of the unknown just like how Dorothy perseveres through the most challenging portions of her trek through Oz.
The Wizard of Oz may be one of the famous examples of a movie tackling the finer nuances of the unknown but it’s not the only film to approach this topic. Another sterling example of this approach can be found in Donna Deitch’s 1985 masterpiece Desert Hearts. The Dorothy Gale of Desert Hearts is Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), an English professor who's just moved to Reno, Arizona in the year 1952. While here, Vivian keeps crossing paths with local painter Cay Riverr (Patricia Charbonneau).
While Bell is figuring out where her life is going to go next, she keeps getting her attention captured by Riverr. What is it about Riverr that Bell keeps getting entranced by? Maybe it’s just the way Riverr doesn’t care about what others think of her. Maybe it’s Riverr’s gifted talents as an artist. Or, maybe, just maybe, Bell is developing romantic feelings for Riverr.
In Desert Hearts, the unknown is represented by Vivian Bell embracing her sexuality. This is a part of herself she hasn’t ever had a chance to explore. The sensation of loving a woman, of having her skin pressed against another lady, of tasting Riverr’s lips on hers, those are all unknown’s to Bell. Those unfamiliar qualities make Desert Hearts’ version of the unknown sound like a reasonably manageable entity. But Bell’s confrontation with the unknown is tinged with danger from more concretely defined elements.
Specifically, the societal consequences of what happens if Bell and Riverr strike up a romance are always lingering in the back of her mind. How can Bell even entertain the notion of embracing this unknown part of herself when American society is inherently constructed to demonize homosexuality? Bell gets a reminder of the dire consequences of exploring this form of the unknown shortly after she and Riverr share a kiss. Thrown out of the guest ranch she was staying at, Bell is chastised by the owner of this ranch, who claims Bell has “corrupted” Riverr.
The prospect of embracing your own sexuality and/or gender is rife with unknowns that should only be exciting. Defining who you are in your LGBTQIA+ identity should be about painting a blank canvas with your own vibrant hues. But as Vivian Bell knows all too well, that personal explorations gets complicated with real-world prejudices. Whether the year’s 1952 or 2020, bigotry in a myriad of forms makes the unknown that’s tied into LGBTQIA+ identity terrifying rather than exhilarating. A form of the unknown that should be exhilarating is instead poisoned by intolerance.
Desert Hearts’ has an extremely authentic depiction of just how harrowing exploring the unknown can be for queer people. However, that authenticity doesn’t come at the expense of joy. Vivian Bell and Cay Rivver are not solely defined by the suffocating insularity surrounding them. Instead, Desert Hearts eventually lets them travel into the unknown together. Vivian Bell finally gets to sleep with Cay Rivver. As they begin to embrace each other, Bell openly expresses her nervousness doing this. Why wouldn’t she be? Desert Hearts presents it as totally normal and natural to fee flustered about engaging in unfamiliar sexual acts. This is one of the many instances that Deitch’s filmmaking lends an empathetic lens to souls exploring the unknown.
In the process of going somewhere totally new sexually, Vivian Bell finds herself. All the intolerance that so intimidated Bell hasn’t suddenly vanished. A new form of intimidating unknown now lingers in their lives as they debate what to do about their relationship going forward. Still, Bell has mustered up the courage to cross over into the unknown and not only lived to tell the tale, she is discovered who she is. Bell came to Reno, Arizona unsure of what her future entails. Now, by voyaging into the unknown, she ends Desert Hearts certain about so much in her life. This includes what she wants more than anything in this world: “Another 40 minutes” with Cay Riverr.
Deitch’s writing in Desert Hearts astutely explores what prejudiced elements of society can keep LGBTQIA+ individuals from fully exploring unknown parts of themselves. At the same time, she also provides hope and encouragement in her depiction of Vivian Bell exploring the queer unknown. This character's story is as much about the self-fulfillment and quiet joys that can be found in that queer unknown as anything else. It can be understandably hard to remember those positive elements of the queer unknown considering how daunting societally-ingrained homophobia is.
But those positive elements, they’re always there, lurking in the unknown and waiting to leave an impact, just like how Vivian Bell’s romance with Cay Rivver has forever altered her own life.
Thirty-three years after Desert Hearts, a film came along to offer up one of the very best cinematic depictions of the nuanced unknown. Who knew such a depiction would come from a movie featuring Spider-Ham?
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a 2018 animated feature from directors Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman, Into the Spider-Verse’s version of the unknown manifests in the form of newly-discovered superpowers bestowed on protagonist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Previously just another High Schooler in New York City, Morales awakens one morning with all kinds of new abilities. Morales, much like the cities recently deceased superhero Spider-Man, has been bestowed with enhanced reflexes, the ability to crawl up walls and even has his own Spider-Sense.
Miles’ status quo is gone. In its place is a new normal rife with unknowns. How will he possibly live up to the reputation of his predecessor? Who are these supervillains bent on killing me? Worst of all, what will his Dad, Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry), think if he ever finds out? Police officer Davis hates Spider-Man and his vigilante approach to justice. Previously, Morales just rolled his eyes at his dad’s extended tirades at Spider-Man. Now, the words of his father terrify Morales. Miles has become the very thing his own father hates.
Miles grappling with how his father will respond to his new superpowers can’t help but echo an aspect of the queer unknown. Specifically, it is not hard to see parallels in Miles’ situation to LGBTQIA+ individuals grappling with how their parents will respond to their own sexuality and/or gender orientation. Miles soft but petrified query to his father of “Do you really hate Spider-Man?” echoes queer people delicately probing their own parents on how they might possibly feel about the LGBTQIA+ community.
For both Miles and inquisitive queer people, venturing into this form of the unknown is like walking on eggshells while crossing a trapeze wire situated above a tank of piranhas. How will their parents respond? Will you accidentally reveal your own identity in the process of asking these questions? Will your parents become suspicious? Uncertainty defines the most anxiety-inducing manifestations of this facet of the queer unknown that’s reflected in this part of Miles’ personal struggle.
Miles’ navigating his father’s feelings regarding Spider-Man isn’t the only form the unknown takes in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. There is also the unknown of what Miles Morales as Spider-Man even looks like. At first, Miles decided to confront this unknown simply by taking cues from the previous Spider-Man. Decked out in a janky Spider-Man Halloween costume, Miles finds trouble merely following in the footsteps of the old. That is not the best way to cross the path leading one into the unknown.
Instead, Miles finds solace within the unknown in a manner similar to Vivian Bell. He begins to embrace the very traits that make him unique. Instead of trying to confront the unknown by being like the old Spider-Man, Miles eventually puts his own spin on the web crawler's persona. Spray-painting the famous Spider-Man costume with his own style of graffiti art, Miles is now able to face the unknown in an outfit that says “Miles Morales” rather than regurgitating the familiar.
This characters willingness to embrace himself while facing off against the unknown defines the most famous sequence of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. As Miles races to the rooftop of a building so that he can test out his new web-shooters, Miles is accompanied by the song What’s Up Danger? and voices from important figures in his life. Among those voices is some sage advice from Miles’ mentor Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson). The advice is Parker’s earlier response to Miles inquiring when he’ll know he’s Spider-Man. Parker simply answered, “You won’t.” Even so, though, Parker informs Miles that you’ve gotta take “a leap of faith”.
Parker’s advice reflects how, both in Miles’ journey and in the real world, there’s really nothing, can prepare one for exploring the unknown. It can be an awkward journey stuffed with disappointment, challenges and anxiety. It is never an easy trek but it is one we all have to take. We all must venture forth into the unknown and that goes for Miles Morales, who now plans to take that “leap of faith” advice to its most literal extreme. Perched high above New York City, Miles jumps.
Despite all those risks, despite the uncertainty, despite all the unknowns that have defined Miles’ journey up to this point, Miles jumps from that building. No longer does the unknown petrify Miles. Now armed with confidence in the qualities totally unique to himself, Miles plunges into the unknown head-first, ready to save the people and city he loves. Miles’ own mentor even gets to heed his own advice at the end of the film when it comes time to return to his own dimension. Terrified that he won’t be able to make things right with his ex-wife Mary Jane Watson, Miles reminds Peter that he won’t ever know that everything will work out. But that’s OK. Because, just like Miles embracing himself, Peter’s own struggles require a leap of faith.
Miles Morales and his journey reflect how we rarely know in life when we are ready for something new. That’s why the unknown instills such complicated feelings inside of us. If we felt prepared for a new promotion, a new relationship or any other deviation for the norm, we could all face the unknown with bravado to spare. But much like Miles Morales grappling with his superpower, we rarely feel prepared for new developments. To face the unknown is to face the truth that we don’t always have all the answers. How utterly terrifying.
In the journey of Miles Morales, we see that it’s okay not to have the answers. It’s okay to be scared of the unknown. Such feelings are normalized as we watch Miles Morales experience the same combination of dread, anxiety and excitement over the prospect of being a new Spider-Man. Even in a film whose animation style is as much of a departure from reality as possible, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse taps into viscerally real experiences of confronting the unknown.
Though all three of these movies inhabit drastically different genres, tones and eras of Hollywood history, they’re all still united in one critical area. Across The Wizard of Oz, Desert Hearts and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, viewers can find explorations of the unknown that resonate as authentic. Through these films, the struggles and joys found in exploring the unknown are reflected with all their nuances intact, as are the outside forces that influence trepidation about even beginning to venture into the unknown.
The unknown is daunting. There’s no getting around that. But as this trio of films prove, entering the unknown is essential if we are to ever truly embrace who we are as individual people.