It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.
– Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize-winning American film critic and screenwriter
Before kids, David and I went to the movies every Friday evening. We both worked in San Francisco in the financial district (at the same company and then for different companies), and we’d meet up at the Embarcadero and eat an inexpensive dinner and watch an independent film at the Landmark Theater movie house. I leaned toward “depressing foreign films,” which David had the patience and good heart to endure. I was always on top of what new indie film was out and I usually made sure that we saw them all. We were told by many a friend that once you have children, forget about going to the movies. And we largely did the past nearly 14 years.
When our son was an infant and then when we had a toddler and a baby, if either my mother was or David’s parents were in town to help us out, we’d embark on a film fest, cramming three films in two days. Other times, we’d get a babysitter or swap with friends for babysitting duties to get a free evening. Through the years we’ve tried to go to the movies that we really wanted to see. But oftentimes, in the midst of parenting and work, we watched the movies we wanted to see go from movie theater to DVD. If we didn’t have time to see the movie on the big screen, there was a pretty good chance that we’d never see it on our TV screen.
But I do love movies and going to the movies, and it’s on my list of things to do more of in 2014 and beyond. I have fond memories of making the trip into the next town and watching sometimes a double feature (back in the day when people had longer attention spans!) when I was girl. The smell of popcorn still gets me. I still experience a small thrill settling into my seat. While I despise the inexorable string of commercials, I love watching the trailers, so long as I am in a Landmark Theater.
Many years ago, I secretly harbored a desire to study films and film-making in college and in grad school because I had so many questions about why directors or screenwriters did this or did that. I wanted to understand what the similarities and differences were between film and writing fiction. And then later when I was in the creative writing program at Syracuse and one of our professors taught a seminar on fiction and film, I thought a lot more about the intersection, the synergies between the two.
I still appreciate depressing foreign films, but I also crave movies that inspire me in any number of ways. I have found that movies that haunt me or make me want to know more about the subject matter are the ones that have lasting power over me. Take, for example, the movie Philomena, which is about an older Irish woman who bore a son out-of-wedlock in the 1950s and was forced to give him up by the nuns who ran the abbey for unwed young women. I was so haunted by her story that when we got home, I promptly did some research on the internet and discovered what scenes were dramatized in the movie, which was to be expected, and what the difference was between the movie/screenplay and the book written by the journalist, Martin Sixsmith, entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. I won’t spoil the movie for those who have yet to see it, but I will say that the book appeals to me more than the movie’s premise – though I really did enjoy the movie – because of the double meaning of the book’s title and the focus on the book, which is about the parallel lives of her son and her than about the relationship between journalist and searching mother.
The same weekend, we saw Nebraska, a movie about an elderly father who gets a letter in the mail saying he’s won a million dollars. He convinces his son to drive him from Montana to Nebraska to claim his prize. About 10 or 15 minutes into the movie, I feared that form and content would be appreciated but would ultimately drive me to tears of boredom. As David later complained, few characters were likeable and some things were predictable, not to mention the depressing desolation of setting and character.
I mulled over his comments. Normally, I don’t like watching a movie or reading a book in which most of the characters are unlikable. But these characters were formed by such a harsh and sad landscape that you sympathized with them on the one hand and then were fascinated by them on the other hand. As one of David’s colleagues who is from Nebraska told him afterwards, this is exactly how the state and its residents are, and it’s pretty depressing. But for me, this is uncharted territory, both emotionally and physically. As far as predictability goes, if there’s a twist to what is seemingly predictable or, more importantly, if what happened, what was predictable, was earned, then I am fine with the whole notion of predictability in a movie or book.
What I found to love about Nebraska, which I admit I was expecting, was how Woody, Bruce Dern’s character, reminded me of my father, who suffered from dementia and who in his later years took to “wandering.” He, my father, would often by brought back by relatives who found him walking by the side of the road, often in clothes that were inappropriate for the weather, to various places and for various reasons – one being that he had to retrieve money that was hidden in the foothills beyond our rural town.
Even Kate, Woody’s caustic and very unlikable wife and mother to their son, David, who was the reluctant companion and then the catalyst to finish out Woody’s journey, reminded me of my mother. In one scene, Kate is complaining about the mess Woody has put the whole family in while he was lying in a hospital bed. Before leaving, she leans over and tenderly smooths down his stray wispy hair from his forehead. From that scene, I was thrust back to the stunned moment when my sister and I watched my sobbing mother trying to get on the hospital bed where my father’s body lay in rest. They had been match made in marriage and were so far apart in age, socio-economic standing, and temperament, which was evident throughout their years together. Even if I hadn’t connected to that personal moment, that one gesture by Kate spoke volumes that no flashback or further drawn-out scene could capture on film. That one gesture was a glimpse into their relationship that was not all harsh and mean-spirited.
These two movies stayed on my mind days after seeing them. Both haunted me in different ways. One reminded me of connections to my mother and father. The other made me think of how life is indeed stranger than fiction, how sometimes life can’t be made more perfect for the premise of a book of fiction or nonfiction, or a documentary or movie. The question is how best to execute the story in order to do it justice. I appreciate the artistic bent of filmmakers who have this vision and then embark on a journey to turn this vision into something they can share with many people. That’s amazing and magical. For me the viewer, what makes film magical is when it invites you to think and explore beyond the screen, to ask more questions and delve deeper, and to want to know more because it gets us closer to this thing called humanity.