Silvered Screens: Self in Cinema

When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you see the same self that you’ve seen on past mornings, going all the way back to your very first awareness of morning? Is self a private possession…akin to soul…abiding throughout life…. perhaps persisting beyond? Or is personal identity a fleeting experience… or less a reality than a way of talking…or a construct that creates a sense of continuity as one moves through time?

In recent years, serious responses have been piling up on both sides.  But agreements remain elusive. What is to be done?

The plan here is to step outside the scientific and philosophical arenas in which the question is conventionally debated. I will turn instead to movies with some simple questions. What do their reflections tell characters about themselves, about their personal identity? And how do characters react to what they see?

Cinema is a promising site for such an investigation. It provides us with the visible dreams of characters, and shows their unseen desires as well. What’s more,  movies play out the operations of our own moviegoing minds, reflecting back to us  our own sense of who we are.

Such play is my target here. I’ll not dwell on philosophical and scientific inquiries into selfhood. Instead I’ll attend to how self is handled, how self is done. I am not pursuing a proposition about self, or a claim, or even a hypothesis. Rather I am aiming for an understanding of the ways that people conduct themselves, even when, especially when, they don’t have answers to questions about the nature of the self they’re dealing with.

We are told that we never wonder who we are,…that we always know it is us who looks at us from our mirrors…that we are the same individuals we have always been for as long as we can remember…  So we are told:


But self-concepts, our self-schemata, don’t tell the whole story.  The larger and still unexplored issue is how we “do” self, “realize” self, and “accomplish” self.  These are the questions to be addressed here.

Silvered Screens  examines hundreds of movie scenes in which characters look at themselves in mirrors, studying, questioning, celebrating, imagining, criticizing, and assaulting the glasses that reflect their selves.

Mirrors, of course, have long been considered both truth-tellers and grand deceivers. So, their effects are bound to be complicated. And as a result, the mirror’s tale of the self is predictably complicated and deserving of reflection.

(Mungo Thompson, June 25, 2001 (How the Universe Will End) March 6, 1995 (When Did the Universe Begin?), 2012; at The Jewish Museum, NYC, June 2, 2017)