There’s a scene from the 2000 movie Castaway starring Tom Hanks that beautifully displays a conflict that all art must wrestle with: how do you say something without actually saying it at all? In this particular scene, we see a volleyball (called Wilson) floating away as Chuck Noland (Tom Hank’s character in the movie) tries to save it, but ultimately fails. This scenario on it’s own is hardly anything emotional, but whenever I watch the scene, my heart breaks at the sight of the Wilson floating away from Chuck. That’s because, while this scene may simply show a volleyball floating off into the ocean, it’s not about a volleyball floating off into the ocean. It’s about Chuck letting go of himself on the island and coming to terms with his reality. This is what all good art accomplishes. It communicates a strong message without actually communicating it at all.
Anytime a work of art becomes culturally relevant, we explore the unseen. We attempt to discover what the artist is saying based on what he or she is not saying. A good example of this is the epic Beowulf. What we find in this work are fantastic stories of this great hero accomplishing the seemingly impossible. These stories, however, are hardly the focus of conversation surrounding Beowulf. The meaning found in this epic is what is not explicitly written about: culture in ninth century England. We see discussion on the development of storytelling and some Christian theology of the time, but almost nothing of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother. The meaning of the work is mostly about what isn’t there.
Let’s look again at Castaway. If Chuck had simply left Wilson on the island and said to him “you can’t come with me” and pushed his raft into the water and left the island, essentially the same thing would have been accomplished. But this direct manner in communicating the point would make the scene, and ultimately the movie, less valuable.
The audience must come to the conclusion that Chuck must move beyond Wilson to be rescued from the island at the same time that Chuck comes to this conclusion. Through this we are able to deeper empathize with Chuck as he watches Wilson float away. Our heart breaks with Chuck’s. Allowing the audience to freely explore the deeper meanings to be found in this movie is what allows it to be relevant today, even if today’s world in 2017 looks very different than the world of the year 2000.
When we watch castaway, we aren’t necessarily thinking about a delivery man in the late 1990s getting stranded on an island. What we get in this movie is a visceral view of the human experience and loneliness. But through this, we become aware of our friends, family, and even the strangers around us, the very thing that Chuck doesn’t have anymore. This allows us to discover what it truly means to have these people with us. The very thing that is absent in the movie is where we find the most meaning.
Please watch this video I made for a better understanding of this brief essay: