The Movies Are Still Saving My Life

When I was a kid the movies saved my life. I grew up in a single parent household with a mother whose emotional neglect bordered on abuse; I suffered from an undiagnosed anxiety disorder and the parts of my brain that were not broken operated so differently from the other kids that I had a hard time making friends or forging any connections. I found a lot of solace in TV and comics and books, and on TV I began watching movies, which our local stations ran all weekend and after school and late at night. Then I began going to the movies, to the little Main Street Twin (which now somehow has like eight screens), and eventually I took the train into Manhattan to see older and weirder movies. VHS opened the world up for me, and it was off to the races from there.

The movies offered a refuge and an outlet, they let me dream and hope. I was a troubled, poor kid from Queens who couldn’t have been farther from the movie industry, but in that world I saw meaning and in those movies I saw my fears and my dreams reflected back at me. I was so alone all the time, but not when I was watching a movie. 

I spent all of my free time immersed in movies. Eventually I spent ALL of my time immersed in movies, making an unlikely career out of them.

These days I don’t have any time. That career is over and I work minimum wage jobs. It’s crazy how two out-of-the-house jobs that don’t actually pay me enough to live somehow suck away all of my time. And the time that remains is filled with exhaustion, and then I have to do other at-home work that also eats up my time.

This is not unique. I am not special in this. Millions of people live like this. For years I did not, and for years I don’t think I understood how other people operated; how many of my readers operated. What their lives were like, what it was like for them to go to the movies – how the scheduling was difficult, how finding the hours at the time that the theater was playing the movie was a challenge, how they could only manage to see one or two movies a month, and maybe a handful at home. How even when they watched movies at home they were doing so in a fog of deep exhaustion.

I had serious movie privilege and I didn’t get it. Make time, I would think when people said they couldn’t get to a movie they were excited to see. Figure it out. I was able to go see every movie that opened in America, for free, early. I took it for granted. This isn’t to say that I didn’t work hard – when I was a full-time writer and critic I worked harder than I work now, it’s just that the kind of work I did was so different. The work I do now is fairly demeaning, often physically tiring and pays absolute garbage. The work I did then was engaging and exciting and paid poorly, but by my current standards it made me rich as Croesus. The work I did then was fulfilling, so I didn’t mind doing 16 hour days. The work I do now is for money. I like to leave as soon as my shift is over.

Anyway, I’m glad to have this experience, because towards the end of my career – even though I didn’t see the end of my career coming – I began to be fatigued about the movies. I was immersed in that world in a way that had taken the shine off. I was writing daily news items about casting and posters and rumors and release dates. Box office discussion and lists had replaced any sort of intelligent movie discussion on the internet; people watched great old movies, sure, but it seemed only for the purpose of ranking them. And like I said, I was just taking the movies for granted. I’d watch three or four a day and I’d tear through them and write about them and move on and forget about them.

I don’t have that luxury anymore. Going to a movie requires a lot of effort from me. I still haven’t seen Widows, a movie I have been dying to see. The scheduling never works out quite right because of the nature of my shifts at work, and I know that if I catch a show at 11pm I’ll fall asleep in the movie (I get up at around 7 or 8 every day, even though I often don’t get home from work until after midnight. I have a work-from-home job that needs to be done before I go off to do my out-of-home jobs, which I do seven days a week). Once upon a time I would have been sending frantic emails to the publicist to see the movie before its festival debut; now it’s at the tail end of its theatrical release and I may completely miss it in theaters.

In a weird way I’m grateful for this. Now watching a movie is special, the way it used to be when I was a kid and fell in love with the movies. I don’t have the time to just throw something on and ignore it – I need to be watching the thing. If something is playing on my TV it had better be something I want to see, because otherwise I’m wasting my incredibly limited opportunities to watch stuff.

Let me tell you, watching movies is amazing. Last night I came home from work early – we were overstaffed so I had my shift cut in half, which lost me money but frankly I was just glad to not be there a minute longer – and I had the chance to catch up with the documentary Minding the Gap, which is making a lot of people’s year end lists and which my friends have been discovering one after another. I hope to write about this (writing about movies is also hard to do when there are no hours in your day, and when those hours are exhaustion hours) in more detail, but I fell into that movie so hard and that movie nourished me in incredibly deep ways.

I think I’ve used the word ‘exhausted’ a lot in this piece already, but it’s the only word that really gets across the grey swamp water in which I find myself submerged a lot; it’s not that my jobs are difficult to do – surly teenagers do what I do and excel – but it’s that they sap a certain life energy that we need. Spending most of your waking hours doing something you don’t care about for people who don’t care about you is the modern way of life, and it drains you on a fundamental level. I know a lot of you reading this understand; yeah, it’s not working in the salt mines, but it’s bad in its own spirit-deadening way.

Movies reignite that spirit. Last night Minding the Gap reignited that spirit in me. It set me ablaze with love and excitement, with investment in the lives of others, with appreciation of visual storytelling and it made me feel connected to other people. My life is very lonely these days, and to sit there and feel connected to human beings is a gift that can never be repaid.

Minding the Gap lit the pilot light inside my brain, got me thinking and got me feeling. It took me outside of myself, a goal that I have all day every day. Minding the Gap is a great movie, so it did these things well, but I’ve watched some less-great movies lately and had the same experience. This is the fundamental thing that happens when we watch a movie – we are transported away from the theater seat or the couch cushion into the lives of others, into the worlds of others. We are given perspectives that are new to us, that let us see freshly. We get to feel things, maybe even things that have been stamped down by daily drudgery, stamped down like flowers beneath the heels of an army marching in the mud.

And it’s the full range of feelings, not just the good ones. Minding the Gap is painful at times, and that pain was cathartic. I’ve learned this in recovery – the sharing of your pain with others helps create perspective and meaning for that pain, and hearing the pain of others puts your own pain in perspective. What I’ve learned in Buddhism is that the answer isn’t to ignore the pain or to push it away, it’s to honor it and feel it… and let it pass on as it naturally will.

So I felt the pain of the people in Minding the Gap and it reflected back at me my own pain. I felt their pain and my own, and I didn’t need to ignore it or be cross with myself that I was feeling bad or try to cover it up with a smile. But I also didn’t need to wallow in it; the movie moved forward in the way that movies do, and so I experienced these things and then moved on to the next experience.

When I was writing full time I scoffed at people who said they wanted to go to the movies to turn off their brains. I was a condescending jerk about it. But now that I am a working stiff… I still disagree with those people. Maybe less condescendingly, but still strongly.

Movies can turn your brain ON. Your brain is being turned off all the time, it’s being rerouted to do busy work for giant corporations that don’t care if you live or die and that try to only pay you the least amount they can get away with in exchange for you giving them the one natural resource you can never, ever replenish – your time. On top of that, your heart is being repressed; you have so many feelings that you can’t express or don’t feel safe having in the moment, and so your heart gets dim and quiet and aches dully all the time.

But movies will save you. They can turn on your brain, can make you think and see anew and fire up neural pathways that lay dormant all day. They can bring new life to your heart, make it vivid and full and feel all the different things that can be felt. What is held back is released, and torrents of pain and happiness, wonder and sorrow can be unleashed like a cleansing rain across a dingy city.

In fact, it rained here in LA this week. When it rains – and I mean really rains, not just drizzles – the aftermath is amazing. The rain cleans out the sky, giving us a day without smog and dust. The air becomes robust and clean and you can see forever. It’s an atmospheric power-washing. This is what happens when you watch a good movie, when you watch a movie that engages you in mind and heart. It cleans you out, leaves you fresh. The day after it rains in LA I feel like anything is possible, like the future is graspable. I feel that same way after a great movie.

It’s worth noting that all art can do this. This is why art exists. But movies do it so immediately, so uniquely. They slip past most of our defenses and get under our skin without us even knowing it. You know when you’re in a lot of pain and you take a couple of Advil and you don’t even notice it but the pain goes away? That’s how the movies work. You don’t even notice how they bring you life and hope and perspective and connection. You’re too busy having fun or being engrossed in the story or the visuals.

I love the movies. I love them now more than ever in these days when it’s so much harder for me to watch them. I need them now more than ever. Once they paid my rent and my bills. Today they’re giving me life and hope and reconnecting me with the humanity that the world tries to destroy every single day. They’re more valuable to me than ever.