Two Sundays ago, upon hearing the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, one of the first images that came to my mind was of Hoffman in the 1999 film "Flawless."
In it, Hoffman plays a melodramatic drag queen who gives singing lessons to a stereotypically "tough" New York City cop re-learning to speak after a stroke. Hoffman's character, Rusty, has a persona with the capacity to overwhelm; he's erratic, rash, sometimes too vulnerable. Hoffman so perfectly embodies the role and so fully captures attention that it wasn't until after the movie's end, as I watched the credits, that I realized that the cop character was portrayed by none other than Robert De Niro.
"Flawless" is one of the first films that ever made an impression on me. The thoughts and emotions that it evoked in me seven years ago have stayed with me because Hoffman's execution of his craft – so poignant, so well-honed – touched me on a level more profound than any other film performance I had ever seen.
So, when Hoffman passed, I felt like I had lost a piece of something that had a direct role in shaping my taste in film and, through that, my view of the world. Because that's what film does: it creates representations and alterations of the reality in which we live so that we may better understand them.
Some people have complained, particularly through social and popular media, about the amount of attention this particular heroin-related death has received, asking why we only take note when it's someone famous that dies, why we don't remember everyone that dies of a heroin overdose in the same way, why Philip Seymour Hoffman's death is "special." They wonder why we mourn his death instead of recognizing that it came at a time when heroin use and trafficking is on the rise.
Hoffman was just another person – another lover, another father, another son – whose death will be greatly suffered by those who survive him. But the impact of his life extended beyond this immediate circle of people. Hoffman's death impacted us because, through his movies, we had let him into our homes. He was part of the family of anyone who had ever seen one of his films.
Most often we turn to films for entertainment. Thanks to Netflix streaming, watching a movie is as easy as opening an Internet browser. We don't even have to leave our rooms anymore. In fact, most people don't. We're tempted to consume film the same way that we consume television: marathons of episodes for hours on end, with 15 Netflix-designated seconds between each one.
But there's something about films that requires more than simple consumption. Films ask us to really pay attention; they don't bait us with action perfectly timed to shake the screen every 60 seconds; they don't cue our amusement with a laugh track. Some of the most celebrated films barely have dialogue. Others barely have a score.
The best films challenge us to pay attention, to move outside our own bodies and live someone else's life for two hours. They engage nearly all of our senses, and, especially if watched in a dark theater, they let us forget that anything else exists beyond the movie screen. The best films have the capacity to awe, to make us understand something about ourselves we didn't understand before. They challenge us; they make us feel uncomfortable, sad, angry, overwhelmed. Sometimes, if a film is good enough, if its actors are convincing enough, if we see it at the right time in our lives, it stays with us – maybe forever.
Philip Seymour Hoffman made "Flawless" stay with me. And while he has passed, the power of film probably never will. Every time we cry at a movie theater, every time we gather around our television to watch a comedy with our friends, we get a chance to preserve it.
Marianela D'Aprile is a fourth year in architecture. She can be reached at email@example.com.