3/14/2012

The movies that save our lives

Sometimes it's not 'only a movie'...but where do Mad Max and The Dude fit in...?
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in 'The Shawshank Redemption' (1995)
There are definitely stalwart films in any movie fan's collection that end up treated more like medicine than entertainment - mood alterants, like wine or other alcoholic drinks, or like drugs in a medicine cabinet - everything from an Aspirin for a headache to bandages, and more specific and higher-strength solutions.

There's a difference between a film with 'rewatch value' and a movie that reaches into your spirit and the tangled web of your current plight and gently points to a future that you couldn't see - or remember believing in - until that point.

Whatever the film might be that saves your evening or saves your life depends on where you are in your life, what the problem is, and what the movie means to you at that particular time. Because in ten years time, it may have different meaning...or none.

Some of the movies that have got me over life's minefields and slumps, disappointments and periods of painful hope include Groundhog Day, Leaving Las Vegas, Apocalypse Now and The Dambusters. Go figure. All at different points in my own story and all for different reasons, these intimate affairs of repeat-viewings, these treatments of cinematic catharsis/gestalt.

Nic Cage in 'Leaving Las Vegas' (1995)My very long tryst with Leaving Las Vegas in the mid-nineties was so intense and so prolonged, that I don't think I can ever watch that wonderful film again - it's now so associated with a set of particular circumstances in my life that I feel about it as Ned Beatty felt towards Jon Voigt at the end of Deliverance: "Y'know, I don't think I'm going to see you for a while..."

I was interested to know who else had been carried through the dark months or years by which movies, and here are some tales of cinematic salvation...

[If you stumble upon this post by chance, I'd be glad to hear what movie carried you through when you couldn't carry yourself. Comments box is below]



The Shawshank Redemption (1995) - details

Tim Robbins as Andy DuFresne in 'The Shawshank Redemption' (1995)
Frank Darabont brought the rights to make Stephen King's excellent 1982 novella Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption as a film student in the eighties, struggling years to get the inspiring tale of wrongful imprisonment and the power of hope made into a movie. His own hopes were dashed when the theatrical release bombed in 1994 - no-one knew what the hell this movie was about, and when they heard it was a prison flick, it sounded like dour movie-of-the-week fare. But then the film got busy living; in 1995 it was the most rented movie of the year, as millions connected with the grim trials of Tim Robbins, framed for the murder of his unfaithful wife and given a life sentence i
n a harsh New England prison. Raped for years by 'The Sisters' and befriended by bemused item-procurer and fellow lifer Morgan Freeman, Robbins proves to have an indomitable will to freedom and hope that has uplifted audiences worldwide. I'm certainly among those audiences in feeling that this is an essential film when the chips are down for the time being. Mark Kermode's 2001 documentary Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, which can also be found on the very cheap DVD edition of the movie, outlines the hundreds of thousands of people who found hope in the grim walls of Shawshank. Darabont, Morgan, Freeman and others all remark upon the frequent kind and grateful comments fans approach them with, and Freeman himself marks it (along with Driving Miss Daisy) as the biggest milestone in his career.
As I write, the film is once again No.1 at the IMDB Top 250, and it's rarely been out of that spot over the last ten years. And that's a hopeful sign too, for me. It means moviegoers still care more about hope than big explosions and tight superhero costumes...
"It's a life affirmation film and when I'm fed up it never fails to give me the reminder that "sometimes it all comes down to a simple choice – get busy living or get busy dying." In my humble opinion, this is the greatest film of all time."
"I burned through law school in two years. I watched that movie at least twice a week. Easiest two years a man's ever done...and I, too, contribute my survival to that movie. I still wake up (no alarm clock needed these days) hearing Morgan Freeman saying, "Ok, that's it. Up and around time. Do it now, boy, or this broom handle will find another use." It's no sh** that that movie saved my life."
Bryan James commenting at stephenking.com
"The sentence "Get busy livin or get busy dyin", well in a way it shaped my whole live. This is definitely the best film I have ever seen"
Thomas Roesener at IMDB user reviews
"If ever there was a movie that could inspire people to overcome the challenges and obstacles in their lives, this is it. Many fans of the film have said that it helped them through divorces and loss of loved ones. There are probably some people who saw this movie and decided not to commit suicide. Simply put, The Shawshank Redemption is a powerful film."

The Big Lebowski (1998) - details
The Dude and Walter marvel at the affrontery of Jesus Quintana in 'The Big Lebowski' (1998)
Only a Dood-head (and we get more numerous each year) truly knows the sheer rewatchability of the Coen Brothers' down-at-heel sham-noir comedy. The most worthless showing of TBL you'll ever see is the first one. Yes, it's apparently labyrinthine plot is one pointless shaggy dog story. Now hurry it up. Get that plot business out of the way, so you can start enjoying the rich tapestry of awkward friendship, mad coincidences and mantra-like repetitions that draw you back to spend time with The Dood, Walter, Donny, The Stranger, Maud, Bunny and the gang time and again.
For all that, I wouldn't have guessed that Lebowski had saved many lives, if any. Yet an interview with Jeff Dowd, the real-life 'dood' on whom Jeff Bridges' faded hippy detective is based, reveals otherwise...
"One day a man came up and hugged me and said, “You saved my life. The movie saved my life.” He was going to work on 9/11 (a firefighter) and ended up staying at Ground Zero the whole time. He told me he’d seen lots of people expire in front of him, but never by jumping out a window. He was suffering post-traumatic stress, a basket case. … “Then I saw it on top of my TV,” he told me. “A copy of The Big Lebowski. And for the first time in six months, I started to laugh.”

Beauty & The Beast (1991) - details

Beauty And The Beast (1992)
Disney's popular toe-dip into CGI (though the film is mainly animated by more traditional cel-painting methods) won many hearts and viewers in the early nineties. The Disney formula combined well with a hard-edged tale of the inner meaning of love to guarantee that a few hankies might need wringing along the way. But for blogger arthurn at the experience project, this entry from The Mouse hit even harder than most...
"Belle a girl confined by the expectations and preconceptions of others is kidnapped by a beast who she hates until she finds that under the fur and fury lies the broken and bleeding heart of a scared and humiliated man who can offer her the life of adventure that she so craves. By the end they are both redeemed, both saved from their former lives by the other...
In both characters I found elements of myself and my situation. Belle was confined and oppressed, Beast was angry and hurt. I felt connected to them in a way that I had not felt for any real person in a long time. But not only that for the first time in many, many years I could see that maybe, just maybe there might be a better future out there for me. It inspired me to take the chance of opening myself up, making friends and getting out there. It would not be an exaggeration that this movie saved my life."

Die Hard (1988) - details
Bruce Willis in 'Die Hard' (1988)
You never know what films will cheer people up and redeem them. I can't really go into the story here, as it's strictly anecdotal, but many years ago I used to know a man for whom the sure recipe against the blues was another showing of his threadbare VHS of Conan The Barbarian (1981). I guess that isn't any dafter than my love for The Dambusters...
So if I'm equally surprised to find John McTiernan's 80s action blockbuster falling into the 'First Aid' category of movies, I should also mention that Die Hard quite literally saved someone's life on this occasion...
Diner Michael Rudder found himself shot in the stomach one night in a hotel in Mumbai, as a lone gunman opened up on him and his fellow table-guests at the Oberoi Hotel. This was part of a lightning campaign of attacks in the city.
"I found myself in a Bruce Willis Die Hard moment, where my arm — had a lovely white shirt on — and it just exploded into red. And, while I was taking that in, I got a bullet in my leg. So I quickly got myself on the floor to get a bullet in the butt as I was going down — and then another bullet, still another bullet grazed my head. So I just laid there in utter shock.My intention, once the bullets started flying, was to pretend, as I've learned from so many Second World War movies, that I was dead."
[The object-lesson in McClaine battle etiquette worked - up to a point. But when the possum-playing diner found himself having to get up and flee from a subsequent series of gas bombs that were lobbed into the hotel, the smoke helped mask his exit to the Bombay hospital.]

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) - details
James Stewart in 'It's A Wonderful Life' (1946)
If there was no Christmas, they would have had to invent the holiday just to accomodate the life-redeeming power of Frank Capra's most-loved tale from the heart of Americana. I personally find Capra's work alien - I keep trying with Mr.Smith Goes To Washington and It's A Wonderful Life, but the spirit and heart of the best of Capra seems to deal with uniquely American national and personal identity - as well as morés and ethics. It didn't surprise me then that it took such a long time for Wonderful Life to become a Yuletide fixture in my native UK - which is of course ever more North American in outllook.
But I may be alone in that regard - when you get past the strange business arrangements of a small-town bank which is collapsing, the tale of a father whose suicidal response is interrupted by a bumbling but potent novice angel is a universal fable of cheer, and a good alternative rouser if you've already seen three versions of A Christmas Carol in the last week (to which even more famous work Wonderful Life owes an enormous debt).
As a tale of despair and redemption, Wonderful Life has given hope to many in a dark hour, it's only arguable drawback being a short season of availability...
"This movie saved my life in 1987. When George finally sees how much his life has touched everyone around him. That no matter what life hands you, doing the next right thing is ALWAYS the way to go."
RobinsWeb commenter
"Let me preface this by saying I am not a cryer. I don't cry at funerals, I don't cry when pets die. I just don't. However, this movie is the exception. There's one very specific part of the ending that gets me every time. As the money is piling up on the table from the townspeople and George looks down and sees the copy of Tom Sawyer. Inside is written "Dear George:- Remember no man is a a failure who has friends." I don't know why it chokes me up so much, but it does. Even sitting here at work right now, just thinking of that scene is tearing me up..."
"To be honest, I was going through a very similar situation that 'George Bailey' was in the movie, and I do have a habit of watching a 'feel good' movie to enliven my spirits whenever I am going through a bad phase. I must admit, it was one of the most sensible things I did in recent times. This movie has reinforced my belief that life is truly wonderful, and one should try to make the most of every moment. The old adage 'You reap what you sow' still holds true. Do good and no harm will come unto you."
"I've loved to watch "It's A Wonderful Life" for as long as I can remember - and, no matter how many times I've seen it, it always leaves me pondering my own life - wondering what I've contributed to this world & to my loved ones just by the simple fact that I am "here"..."
Katie "book worm", Amazon.com reviews

Cast Away (2000) - details
Tom Hanks disappointed on Christmas morning in 'Cast Away' (2000)
Robert Zemeckis' tale of desert-island desperation shares emotional punch with The Count Of Monte Cristo, The Shawshank Redemption and numerous other literary and cinematic antecedents, in that it presents a man trapped in a predicament or prison with no prospect of release - and since the longest journey is that which has no visible end, those of us in current and ongoing strife can really relate to the central dynamic of this type of plot.
Monte Cristo, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, does not get his girl back in the end, partly because he has become something so different from their early days together that Mercedes can scarcely credit who he has become. But after the corresponding scene in Cast Away, a real tear-jerker where Hanks discovers that the love of his life has remarried and has a young family (having long thought him dead after the years of his island vigil), we are rewarded with an apparently innocent little scene of flirtation quite literally at a crossroads in the desert, as Hanks gets the shine from a pretty farm girl. That's all he needs - he's absorbed his pain and life, made it part of him and he's ready to take any of those four roads ahead. For all we knew, he went after the girl again. It was his choice, his freedom...
The Hanks character has a wonderful monologue on these internal changes which you can read here, and one anonymous commenter at cinemaobsessed.com said of it:
"I love this monologue because at the moment, I am going through a similar situation. And the part at the very end, "I have to keep breathing," kept me alive. Because I know what I have to do now...I have to keep breathing. :) This movie is one of my all time favorites and remembering this part of the movie saved my life."

Making Love (1982) - details
Making Love (1982)
Director Arthur Hiller struck a rare and useful note in the early 1980s with this well-made tale of a happily-married man (Michael Ontkean) who comes to terms with his homosexuality somewhat at the expense of loving wife Kate Jackson. Later viewers of movies-of-the-week in that decade will not only recognise the principal players as frequent flyers on this theme, but will find the subject matter trite because of a later widening of the discussions that it raises. That's as unfair as blaming Silence Of The Lambs for looking hackneyed after The X-Files spent seven years copying its style - Making Love joined 1982's Personal Best as an early and rational look at gay issues in 'conventional' society. Only two years earlier such subject matter would more likely have been dissected with sanctimonious homilies by Quincy and were in fact famously (and controversially) exploited in 1980's Cruising.
It certainly had an effect on IMDB user Wayne Malin:
"I saw this twice in a theatre back in 1982. I was a 20 year old closeted gay man seriously considering suicide. Basically this film saved my life. It portrayed gay men as sympathetic people--not victims or psychopaths or comic relief as other films did before this...This was a groundbreaker for Hollywood...this was the first major Hollywood film to deal realistically with gay men. That makes it a gay classic. I give it a 10."

Moulin Rouge! (2001) - details
Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in 'Moulin Rouge' (2001)
Baz Luhrmann's musical outing made a tremendous impression on Sheila O'Malley, as you can read unexpurgated at her website...
"I've read posts where people scoff those who say "That movie saved my life! Reading that book saved my life!" And I suppose if every other thing appears to have "saved your life", then you might not be taken seriously. Or maybe those who scoff have never been so saved or changed by a movie or a book, and they would rather scorn you - than try to understand. Whatever the case may be. In 2002, Moulin Rouge (and I hadn't seen it in the movie theatre - for some reason, I missed it) saved my life. It was not pretty. And I had a roommate at the time, and whenever she brings up 2002 now, she gets kind of tentative, like she doesn't know what to say. I don't blame her. I started my blog in October of 2002, which was my true re-entry into the human race again. But that would never have happened without Moulin Rouge...
"I remember where I was back then, and what it was like for me inside my head, and then I remember staring at the television, watching Moulin Rouge, and feeling, vaguely, like a bell from a distant mountaintop, like maybe I was going to be okay. Someday. Not now. But someday. That's what watching that movie was like for me..."

Mad Max 2 [aka The Road Warrior, 1982] - details
Mel Gibson as Mad Max in 'Mad Max 2' (aka 'The Road Warrior', 1982)
Post-apocalyptic warrior Mel Gibson joins the Dude as an unlikely candidate for the 'life-saving' category of movies, but true to the nature of the central character, George Miller's superior sequel to his 1980 road-movie took a practical approach to the matter. David J. Bookbinder recounts over at his website not only how movies have been of help to him in his life in general, but how this particular movie literally saved his life. Twice.
"Movies...have been pivotal to me in a dozen different ways...Ground Hog Day sustained me for the first few months following my near-death experience, a time in which I had to learn everything over again and again. As noted in an earlier blog post, The Matrix broke me out of a mental deadlock and spun me into a strange new world of legal labyrinths, from which I brought back a keen sense of the difference between vengeance and justice. But one movie literally saved my life -- not once, but twice...
"For several years post-college, I was living in Brooklyn, NY, and had a girlfriend in neighboring Queens. I was riding a motorcycle at the time, and part of my commute between home and girlfriend involved the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE. I was reasonably adept at dodging the lightning-quick NYC traffic and at monitoring the cars and trucks on all sides, but no amount of defensive driving could have prepared me for the imminent convergence, by a tractor-trailer on my right and an old Caddy on my left, into the space that I and my little Yamaha were occupying.
"Seconds before the Caddy reached my space, I recalled a scene from the Mel Gibson film Road Warrior. In this film, post-apocalyptic Gibson is "Mad Max," a cop whose wife and kids were ruthlessly murdered in the earlier film by the same name. In this film, if memory serves, Max is being pursued by two guys on motorcycles, each armed with a crossbow. In the instant before he's certain to become a human pincushion, Max throws his souped-up police cruiser into overdrive and the twin cyclists shoot through the space he occupied and into each other.
"My bike was an underpowered 200cc two-stroke, so overdrive was not an option. I did the next best thing and hit the brakes, hard enough to fishtail but not so hard I'd lose full control of the bike, and I watched as, like two enormous ballerinas, the car and truck eased into alignment and sped away..."
David's tale of yet another rescue by the normally unhelpful Max over twenty years later is just as bizarre, so do give it a click!
[If you'd like to see another unlikely movie (Freebie and The Bean, 1974) saving another motorist in this fashion, check out this thread at the IMDB.]

There are so many obvious examples to continue with: The Passion Of The Christ, The Breakfast Club, Requiem For A Dream and more recently the likes of Precious and Milk. But the beauty of movies is that you never know where a real 'connection' will come from; a movie-of-the-week could leave you cold or at best follow a set formula, while the unlikeliest Hollywood fodder can speak to your heart and show you a glimpse of a better future, or even a better you. After all, if the 'formula' really worked for any genre, Hollywood could drastically reduce its ulcer-count.
Anyway, from those of us who needed these six-reel ferries over troubled waters - thank you, film-makers of Hollywood and beyond. Some of us are still standing because of these movies.

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