I am not in the least bit embarrassed to admit that I cried at a recent screening of Pixar’s brilliant new film, Inside Out. It’s a remarkable piece of work, rife with emotion, action, humor, depth, color, life, and creativity. It’s heartbreaking, fun, and powerful – but the thing that really shocked me was how, as a guy in his early 40s, I was able to connect with the feelings of an 11-year-old girl as she dealt with the loss of her innocence, a suddenly-mutable family dynamic, and the first inklings of isolation and despair destroying her once smooth-running internal world, while a huge life change throws her external world into chaos. Inside Out has wonderful and complex things to say about how we process trauma and how emotions effect the delicate inner workings of our psyches.
As I sat there in the darkness, lump in my throat, tears rolling down my cheeks, I thought to myself “This. This is the power of movies.”
And why should I feel ashamed? If anything, I should be thrilled, even celebratory, because despite all sorts of mitigating factors —age, years of built-up cynicism, desensitization, and critical thinking—cinema still has the ability to reach a place inside me that few actual human experiences have. There have been thousands of articles written about this kind of thing, and it sounds trite and cliché to say that movies can transport you to another world to escape reality, but that’s a hugely impactful truth; the best movies can make you forget that you are sitting in a theater. There is no theater. There is nothing outside, there are no people around you. It’s just you, the characters, the world, the story, and, well, magic.
Getting to that level of immersion is difficult, especially if you’re a jaded old writer and critic like me, or an actor, or if you’re someone who makes your own films. It takes a certain level of storytelling, powerful performances from the cast, and the perfect blend of visual alchemy to make my friends and I stop thinking about where the camera is placed, how that tracking shot was achieved, what the framing is trying to communicate, or any number of other technical aspects going on behind that window into another plane of existence.
I’ve now spent over two decades talking (some would accuse me of pontificating) about movies, arguing about them across social media, writing reviews, and poring over every detail of upcoming projects I’m interested in. Everything is scrutinized, from the casting, to the tone, to scoffing at the director, “Oh no, Michael Bay is doing that?” By the time a movie is released—especially a genre film like a superhero movie from Marvel Studios—I’ve likely been reading and writing about it for up to four or five years, monitoring every bit of minutiae, watching all the trailers and TV spots, looking at all the posters, and reading every rumor or interview with the cast and crew.
When you take all of that into consideration, how can any movie hope to surprise, thrill, inspire, amuse, or affect me in any real, emotional way? How can a movie resonate with any of the countless millions of people that obsess in the same ways I do? Well, that’s where the real enchantment of cinema reveals itself, because they always do, and I’m pretty sure they always have. Loving films—especially ones with aliens, superheroes, robots, spaceships, and monsters—has been ingrained in me as long as I can remember.
See, when I was growing up, my parents didn’t have a lot of money. We weren’t destitute or anything—we had a house in a decent neighborhood and never wanted for food, clothing, or toys—but we weren’t able to take vacations to the Grand Canyon Washington, D.C. or Disney World. What we did have was the backyard, and we had movies. Aside from the pure entertainment they provided, movies were a way to see places and experience things we couldn’t; it was an escape from the mundane.
Summers were probably held the most memorable film experiences, thanks to the purveyors of misty movie magic like Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis, and Donner. Because we didn’t have a pool, our only respite from the punishing heat and humidity typical of New England summers was the blissfully air-conditioned cineplex. And when the house lights came on and that projector clicked to life, those otherwise nondescript, concrete ice boxes transformed into glowing cathedrals; portals into some mystic realm beyond imagination.
I swung across the Death Star Chasm with Princess Leia; I traveled through time in Doc Brown’s DeLorean; I tried with all of my might to empty my head and not think of a form for Gozer The Destructor; I felt my heart break in my chest when E.T. grew sickly pale and nearly died on Elliott; I got to visit the planet Mongo, Ancient Greece, the neon-blue glow of “The Grid,” The Well Of Souls, The Temple Of Doom, The Batcave, The Fortress Of Solitude; One-Eyed Wily’s treasure ship; I was a Jedi Knight, a superhero, a time traveler, a Goonie, a Ghostbuster, an archaeologist…a dreamer.
Back then, those flickering images in dark sent me into a near-transcendent state seemingly every week for years, but now it only happens sporadically (last year it was the ludicrously entertaining and effortlessly charming Guardians Of The Galaxy). However, just knowing that it can still happen, and probably will continue to happen for the rest of my days, is simultaneously exhilarating and comforting.
You may have gone to see Inside Out and been unaffected; had a completely different reaction. But that’s just another great thing about movies – they are a wholly communal experience, but also a deeply personal one. No one is ever impacted or touched in quite the same way, but everyone has moments, sequences, even entire narratives that have reduced them to tears, made them pump their fist, or made their sides ache with laughter. The movies are like a spouse or a child – you love them unconditionally, because no matter how often they disappoint you or even hurt you, you always end up loving them more than you thought possible.
I guess what I’m really trying to say here in a completely long-winded way, is that every once in a while, you see a movie that makes you remember why you love movies. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an all-time classic (only time will tell where Inside Out will land) – all it has to do is make you feel something.
What do you feel?