On Serious Movies

For the first time in years and year (like, probably ‘since Return of the King‘ years), I’d actually seen one of the nominees for Best Picture before the Oscars. It was La La Land, and the only reason I’d seen it was because it didn’t really sound like an Oscar movie.

I don’t watch many movies, but I definitely don’t watch serious movies. Anything set in the real world, with people giving dramatic speeches about how painful life is in the trailers? I’m not going to see it. Generally, I only see movies if they’re Disney, a musical, or, occasionally, some other fantasy or sci-fi type adventure story. Think things like The Mummy, that are fun with good characters but that no one would ever exactly call “art”. And if a movie is a fantasy Disney musical? I am so there on the first day.

But in the run-up to the Oscars, people were debating La La Land versus Moonlight quite a lot, and it really got me thinking. La La Land, with its bright colors and catchy songs, is exactly the sort of movie I would see. Moonlight, with its deep emotional plotline and examination of social issues, isn’t. Moonlight certainly sounded like it was more deserving of a win. But is it weird, maybe, to think, “Oh, no, I won’t see that one. It sounds too good for me to watch”? Not “too good” as in “too entertaining,” but too good as in having too much serious value as art. Is it bad that I look at highly praised movies and think, “No, that looks like it’s going to be too upsetting, lemme watch Anastasia again instead”?

And it’s got me thinking back to one of the best movies I have ever seen, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is a mix of a “me movie” (fantasy, fairy tale) and a gritty and realistic story about the Spanish Civil War. I watched it maybe 10 years ago, and I adored it. I also know that I’ll never see it again. The fairy tale elements were beautiful and enchanting and unsettling, and the ending was absolutely heartbreaking… but it was the stuff in between, the violence, the oppression, the suffering, the torture, that mean I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sit through it again. I’ll remember it as an amazing movie experience, but if I’d known how dark the non-fantasy parts were, I might not have watched it.

I think the problem is that I don’t watch movies, or TV shows for that matter, to grapple directly with realistic, real-world horrors. Put these through the lens of a fantasy world, and they become more manageable, as long as they’re not too graphic, but I watch things in order to relax and be transported elsewhere. I don’t want to be transported to the worst parts of the real world.

And that doesn’t mean I don’t like movies that make me cry. All the best movies make you cry. But I feel as though there are two different kinds of sad moments in movies, although they’re hard to pin down in words. In one type of sad moment, you connect emotionally with the character, and you feel this clear, almost cathartic sadness along with them. In the other type, it’s painful sadness. It’s sadness about uncorrected, realistic injustice, of the movie being real and painful without also offering any note of comfort. La La Land made me sob, during Mia’s audition scene, but I didn’t walk out of the theatre with a lasting sense of unease, a prickling in my stomach that this was cruel and wrong. And when I do get that feeling, it certainly makes the movie memorable to me, but the bad feeling sticks with me, and I already feel bad about enough real things. I don’t need to be getting depressed and in pain about fictional people too.

Serious movies are really important. They explore important social issues and introduce them to people who are otherwise unfamiliar with them and allow viewers to see themselves and their struggles represented on screen. Buuuuut if there’s no magic, no singing, and no spaceships that defy the laws of physics, they’re not for me.

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