A Personal Theory of the Movies

I am three years old.  My sister and brother aren’t born yet.  I’m with my parents, inside my father’s black Chevrolet Rambler, at a California drive-in theater, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.  It’s the 1960s and we are watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the three of us: father, mother, and little Kevin.  Little Kevin is scared—the dark woods, the gleaming apple filled with poison, the malevolent queen—yet he’s also aware of a red-and-black checkered wool blanket that covers and protects him and smells of home and safety, a familiar, slightly scratchy veil separating him, just enough, from the moving pictures, vast and terrifying, on the tremendous screen that looms high in the night, high and illuminated over the Rambler’s curving windshield.

“Snow White” was my first movie, and one of my earliest memories.  The film, the night, all of it was red and black: the apple with its dark poison inside, Snow White’s red lips and her black hair, the red taillights of all the cars, lined up in rows, the evil queen’s dark cape.  My father’s black car.  The red-and-black blanket.  My three-year-old eyelids slid downward before the film’s cheerier middle section, so there is no memory of that.  Instead I imagine the pale red images flickering, shadowing across the skin of my closed eyes as I slowly fell asleep.  There would be no happy whistling, no seven dwarves for me.  No rescuing prince.  My eyes were shut: I’d seen enough.

I’ve been thinking a lot about movies lately, and the strong feelings they seem to provoke, in myself and others.  When I saw “American Hustle” and was hotly disappointed, it felt urgently necessary to vent my feelings on Facebook, just as I could not stop talking about how much I loved “Frozen.”  Why the intensity?

My personal theory is that movies are about love and betrayal.  When I enter into a movie theater and the lights dim to a womb-like darkness, I submit to an experience I do not control.  All the pores of my mind, body and spirit are open to receive what is on the screen.  And when I feel let down by the movie, as I was by “American Hustle,” the feeling for me is not unlike having had sex with the Wrong Person: I let someone into my body, past my defenses, past my boundaries, and it was a mistake.  And I feel betrayed.

Some people carry thicker armor than me, and are able to see images that I would consider completely appalling and unacceptable, and then go outside afterward and enjoy a pizza—no harm done.  Certainly when I was younger, I saw plenty of scary movies.  I also rode roller coasters, had sex with strangers, and drank too much.  Now those choices don’t work so well for me.

I distinctly remember the movie that made me question my identity as a moviegoer: “Cape Fear,” starring Robert DeNiro.  In that movie, there is a brutal scene in which DeNiro’s character strangles a man with a piano wire.  That night, and several nights thereafter, I had vivid nightmares—clearly, seeing part of a piano, an object as inherent to my identity as my own body, used a a violent weapon, had struck a chord, one I never wanted to hear or feel again.  After that, I grew more careful about my moviegoer choices.

Today, the movies I like display those same qualities I look for in a friendship, and try to cultivate in myself: sincerity, vulnerability, honesty.  I have no time for the sour taste of cynicism, the sad self-puffery of snark, though clearly there is an enormously profitable market for these dubious pleasures, which I gladly I leave to others.  I will never be Hollywood’s prime target audience.

Recently I saw the film “Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, and starring Joaquin Phoenix.  Oh, how I love this movie!  Its subject is male loneliness, and the hunger to connect and feel loved and seen and known, and the temptations of isolation, and the common male tendency to retreat into anger and distance instead of feeling what is there to be felt.  But through the brilliant script, direction, set design, and performances, the film is in fact a gentle tutorial into the art of feeling.  So many films shout, gesticulating wildly—Look at me!  Instead, with quiet confidence, “Her” whispers.  And because it whispers, I am seduced, and not betrayed, and this is the second part of my theory, that films can also be about love, and a reminder of what pure love first felt like.

Who loved us first?  Who betrayed us first?  No wonder the feelings are so strong.

I think a great many films are loud and violent and snarky and cynical because they allow us to numb or deaden or ignore or deny those feelings that derive from childhood, feelings like grief and rage and bottomless pain.

What do you do with pain?  I don't know, but I do know that, for me, tenderness and kindness are a good place to start.  And there are films that I experience as tender and kind, which is not the same thing as sappy-sentimental—some of the favorites that come to mind at the top of my head, at this moment, are “Central Station,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Parting Glances,” “Lost in Translation,” “Moonstruck,” and “Working Girl.”  Just thinking about each one of these movies opens up a little place of joy in my heart.

With a friend, with a lover, I want tenderness.  I want kindness.  I want movies that welcome my trust, the openness I bring to that darkened room, movies that whisper into my ear stories of real life, real feelings, enveloping me with softness, the better to softly press against those places in the heart that still hurt.

I believe that art is a delicate balance of innocence and skill, naivete and craft.  Given the thousands of compromises and decisions, collaborative or top-down, that it takes to get a single movie on the big screen, one that manages to capture that feeling of tenderness without falling into sentimentality is, for me, nothing short of a miracle.

I recently took one of those Internet quizzes that asks you “Which [fill in the blank] are you?”  It turns out that, among Disney’s roster of princesses, I am Snow White, described by the quiz as “gentle, loving and trusting.”  Perhaps too trusting—I must be careful about what I let into my body, be it what I eat, whom I make love to, or what I watch.  I appreciate the skill and dedication it takes to make a film like “American Hustle” or “Wolf of Wall Street” (which I choose not to see), but I know myself well enough now to say that such things are not for me.  I’m a man now, not a three-year-old boy anymore, yet if I slow my breath and relax my mind, I can still feel that boy inside me, holding on to the red-and-black checkered blanket, closing his eyes to the fearful witch on the screen.  That boy has seen enough evil already; the next time I take him to the movies, it will be to enjoy a movie that makes his heart sing.