Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Life and My Life

[The following is my contribution Culture Snob’s "Self-Involvement Blog-a-thon," which invites submissions related to “the intersection of movies and life.”]

That I can no longer remember whether I was in the fourth or fifth grade when my parents got divorced should tell you a lot about how unremarkable the whole thing was. Stopping a moment to look back, it was by far the most insignificant significant thing that ever happened in my life. It dissolved one family so that later a larger and more spectacular one could be born. At the time, I didn’t realize that’s what was happening, of course. But now it feels like destiny. And I’ve never once wished things would have happened another way, because there’s nothing desirable about being a caterpillar once you’ve experienced life as a butterfly.

It helps that the metamorphosis was mostly painless. Steven Spielberg was so scarred by his parents’ divorce that fractured-family themes can be found in almost all of his films. I can’t relate. Not once before their divorce did I ever witness my parents arguing with one another. Not once since has either of them disparaged the other in my company. They’ve been classy to the core, determined to see that their failed marriage would never adversely affect my life. And it hasn’t. They had no blueprint to follow and yet made every right move, a flawlessness of execution that I find increasingly amazing the older I get. But that doesn’t mean life as a pupa was always easy. I know this because of John Denver.

Round about the time my parents separated, I was sitting in the living room with my dad listening to the radio on a weekend afternoon. To this day, I have no idea why. If you exclude sports broadcasts, I can’t think of a single other time my dad and I listened to the radio together at home. Yet there we were. And that’s when John Denver’s “Sunshine On My Shoulders” started to play. And that’s when I started to cry.

Bawl, actually, for reasons I didn’t understand. What I did know was that when I was a little kid in the bathtub my dad used to sing that song to me when he came in to wash my hair. (He also used to come up with elaborate adventure stories about characters named Mork and Mindy that had nothing whatsoever to do with the TV series, except that Mork was an alien and had a spaceship “shaped like an egg.”) I’m not sure I’d heard “Sunshine” since my Johnson & Johnson “No Tears” era, and its surprise unveiling stimulated emotions I didn’t know I had. Not sadness, I don’t think. Most likely, vulnerability. My tears were a yearning for simpler times.

Sometime soon after that, my mom moved into a rented house two blocks away that would be my every-other-week home through my middle school years. My dad provided us with a housewarming gift: one of those wooden cases to organize audio cassettes with one tape already in it – John Denver’s greatest hits. “Sunshine On My Shoulders” was on it, and for the next few years I would wear it out. Playing, rewinding. Playing, rewinding. Just that one song.

I’d cry every time. The catharsis became almost addictive. For the first year or so, the opening plucks of the guitar would do it; my cheeks would be covered with tears before Denver sang a word. But after a while I started to make it through the first verse. Then the second. Eventually I made it all the way through the song without being able to turn the lump in my throat into actual waterworks. Dismayed, I rewound the tape and played the song again. This time even the lump was missing.

Ironically, losing my go-to catharsis stimulator left me feeling more lonely and depressed than I’d ever felt crying my eyes out during the song. But within a few days that passed. I told myself that like an aging Christopher Robin I simply didn’t need my Winnie the Pooh escapism anymore. The tape disappeared into the closet and later, like all cassettes, disappeared altogether. I moved on.

But I never left that emotional part of me behind. Music rarely makes me cry anymore, but movies do. I tend to respond not to sad things but to overwhelmingly happy ones: poignant moments, thoughtful gestures, triumphs of the spirit. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Field Of Dreams makes the room feel a little dusty every time I see it (if the firm handshake between father and son doesn’t do it, the game of catch does). But I might be the only person willing to admit that Tin Cup gets to me, too (that moment of elation when his shot finally goes the distance). A few weeks ago I caught Love Actually in progress on TV. I left it on in the background because within the immensely schmaltzy movie I think Emma Thompson turns in a sincerely heartbreaking performance of the highest order. And, wouldn’t you know it, when that blond drummer boy gets the lead singer girl and leaps into his father’s arms, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

But no movie has ever made me cry like 1993’s My Life. I was in high school when it came out and thus young enough not to be offended by the uber sentimentality of its plot, which finds Michael Keaton’s Bob Jones, terminally ill with cancer, filming instructional life videos for his child, whose birth he doesn’t expect to live to see. These days, whether this marks personal growth or regression, I’d probably skip the movie altogether. Instead I saw it with my high school sweetheart and we blubbered through the latter half together. It wasn’t the main character’s imminent death that affected me, it was his vulnerability as he breaks down the walls around his heart and learns to love and be loved again (not to mention the scene late in the movie when a gruff father gives his too-weak son a shave).

A year after that first viewing, my girlfriend and I rented the movie on VHS and watched it a second time. The tears came even more freely. Ever since then, I’ve cherished My Life, yet I never recommend it to anyone, in large part because tear-jerkers created from a deck loaded with tragedy have a way of crumbling like a house of cards. They feel cheap at best. Shamelessly manipulative at worst. And My Life fits that design. (Roger Ebert, in his 2.5-star appraisal, notes also that My Life includes some “unforgivable” comic relief. I can’t argue with that.)

Still, about eight years ago, when I stumbled upon a copy of My Life on DVD, I bought it. I’ve watched it twice since, my third and fourth viewings overall, and though the emotional response hasn’t been on par with my initial viewings, it’s been significant. Now, on nights when I’m alone and I go to my DVD collection to find something to settle in with, I look squarely at My Life and then look away. I remember John Denver. I don’t want the movie’s effect to wear off.

A few months ago, My Life came off the shelf again. My uncle had sent me a DVD with footage from his ride on a bi-plane, edited to music. I thought I recognized the accompaniment, but I couldn’t place it. The answer, it turned out, was that the music came from Hans Zimmer’s Pearl Harbor score. At the time, though, I thought it came from My Life. I loaded the DVD and let it play, hearing just enough of John Barry’s score during the opening titles to realize that I had it wrong. Then I stopped it. Already, the lump was there. The DVD went back on the bookshelf.

Someday, I might need a good cry. It makes me happy to know that My Life will be waiting.


Richard Bellamy said...

I have always been amazed by the power of films to touch the heart and soul so deeply.

I find myself getting all teary-eyed simply when a movie is so well made - so beautiful - regardless of plot or theme. A Western like "The Searchers" will do that for me.

But I know what you mean about movies that connect with your life. A character might remind you of a deceased friend or family member. Another character might remind you of your first passionate love.

The film that always makes me cry at the end - so deeply that I haven't watched it in a very long time - is "To Kill a Mockingbird." And all I have to hear is the narration and the music just before the final fade out. (Even the use of the "Mockingbird" theme in "Vanilla Sky" chokes me up.)

Atticus reminds me of my father - of course, he probably stands as the epitome of all good, wise, gentle fathers. I also identify with Scout's searing loss of innocence - since I saw it when I was ten, at a time when I was starting to realize that my life was not the ideal I had innocently thought it was. (I was also very aware of the turmoil of the time period.) And, too, I was touched by Boo Radley's piercing loneliness. Ironically, his loneliness reminded me of the loneliness which drew me to the movies obsessively.

Other times - the emotional reaction comes when the film has done such a good job of developing its characters that you just love those guys! I always feel that way about the characters in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape." I yearn for a movie to do that for me this year!

Mark said...

Man. Not your everyday Cooler fare, but another really strong and affecting post. Thank you.

Allison said...

I remember when ET came out. I was always a super tomboy and hadn't ever cried at a movie. Granted, I think I had only seen Star Wars at that point.

I will never forget watching the movie and at the end suddenly crying uncontrollably. I didn't know I had it in me. It was such an interesting experience.

Of course, now I'm a chick and a lot of movies cry.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

A-Ross: You know, I don't think I've seen "ET" since I was a kid and saw it in the theater. I believe I saw it twice. The first time was with my dad, and the story goes that I went to pieces when I thought ET was dead and my dad had to tell me to "keep watching, keep watching."

But you're supposed to cry at movies like "ET" or "My Life." So for anyone still following the comments, how about this:

Name a movie you're embarrassed to admit made you cry.

Good luck topping "Tin Cup." When my eyes burned during that one I remember thinking, "What's wrong with me? This is ridiculous!"

Allison said...

UH. Secretary. At the end. The fact that I even love that movie is embarrassing.

Anonymous said...

I'd have to delineate between the movies I cried over as a kid and those as an adult.

A-ROSS: I can't say I shed a tear at ET upon my first viewing. On the contrary, I remember being terrified by the scenes where ET is sick and the guys with the masks on and the tarps in the get my memory. Same with Storm Troopers in Star Wars. I have no real emotions for those movies other than total fear.

I have thought a lot about this topic and at first I was going to contribute to this conversation by saying that I think the films that moved me to tears in my 20s and 30s would not have had the same effect as in my teens or as a kid. Instead, I give you this:

The movies that have truly moved me to tears have soundtracks that made the acting and the moments more poignant than if there was nothing or anything else but the score. I realize this sort of goes back to Jason’s original post, but for me these movies, in no particular order, are Unfaithful, Philadelphia, Out of Africa, City of Angles, The Crying Game, The Bodyguard, The Hours, and The English Patient, to name a few.

Unexpectedly, (I would have said inexplicably except for the realization that it’s all about music sometimes), the last movie that gave me misty eyes was, Wall*E. My attitude going in was something like “well, there’s nothing better to see,” and it turns out this little robot and his 2.0 version love-bot Eve totally jerked the tears out of me. Not once, but upon two viewings.

I can’t believe I just admitted that a Pixar movie about robots is the closest thing this year to bringing me to tears. Apparently anything can happen in any given movie season!

Brian said...

Great post -- very touching and thank you for sharing from your personal experiences. Films that I'm embarrassed to admit made me cry? I started to tear up a bit during Seven Pounds. I'm having difficultly remembering many that have made me cry (and I'm definitely not the macho type who pretends they never cry which, ironically, describes my friend Nick who introduced My Life to me years ago). The relationship between Chris and the old man in Into the Wild really got me as he reminded me much of my grandpa. I think the saddest film I've seen is hands down Dancer in the Dark.