The Simple Joy of the Feel-Good Movie
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my taste in films has shifted since college. When I was taking film classes I was a voracious consumer of cinema who never shied away from a movie challenge. I willingly watched Oldboy, Dogville and Festen despite their dark and disturbing subject matter. I whitenuckled my way through a screening of The Exorcist even though I suffered from a life-long fear of seeing the infamous spider-walk scene (never mind the head spinning). I even watched Koyaanisqatsi. Now I can’t even make it twenty-five minutes into The Tree of Life before I decide I have enough to worry about without adding the task of untangling the twisted web of Terrence Malick’s mind to my to-do list. On some level, I view my current inability to embrace the dark and dense sides of cinema as a personal failure. One of the great things about the medium is its ability to tackle difficult subject matter, and I know that I’m missing out by avoiding movies like Winter’s Bone or Zero Dark Thirty. I’ve always loved that movies have so much to say; it’s just that at the moment, the only cinematic voices I can listen to are the ones that make me feel happy.
Movies that evoke a strong emotion of happiness often get the short-shrift. We call them popcorn movies, rom-coms, screwballs and feel-good. Sure, they’re pleasant, but are they important? The Academy voters rarely think so. Lighthearted fare may win over our hearts, but come Oscar season it’s the films that leave us sobbing uncontrollably or dazzled by spectacle that receive all the glory. It can be frustrating to see a film like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a movie that managed to juggle a strong undercurrent of sadness with the euphoric rush of first love, get passed over, but that doesn’t change how joyful it made me, and I suspect many others, feel.
The amazing thing about movies is how versatile they are. Sometimes we crave an intellectual experience, so we queue up something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sometimes we want to be terrified and only Linda Blair will do. And other times we just need to spend two hours with characters that will make us grin, so we turn to Bringing Up Baby or maybe even a trifle like The Hangover. In a way, the act of watching a movie can be a bit like therapy.
One of the main reasons I haven’t been up to the task of watching the Winter’s Bones of the world lately is that I struggle with anxiety. The sad truth is certain movies, war epics for instance, have become off-limits for me because I find they trigger my condition. Much as I hate giving into the whims of my addled mind, I’ve found that there’s no sense in compounding the issue by allowing too much fictional sadness into my head space. I get enough of that from Game of Thrones each week, thank you very much.
I’d rather queue up Hot Fuzz and giggle at Simon Pegg as he struggles to adjust to small town life in a decidedly creepy hamlet, or pop in The Thin Man and delight in Nick and Nora’s breezy banter for the umpteenth time. Our movie watching experience is what we make it, and there is value in making people smile, even if the Oscars don’t always reflect that. The best example of the power of feel-good movies lies in 1941’s Sullivan’s Travels, a film about a Hollywood director who decides to spend time on the streets in order to make an authentic social film and ends up discovering just how valuable all of those popcorn pictures can truly be.
Now that the season of feel-good crowd-pleasers is in full swing, I suspect I’m not alone in feeling a bit embarrassed by just how thoroughly pleased I am to have three months of lighthearted confections ahead of me. There’s no reason for us to be embarrassed though. Go forth and enjoy whatever movie makes you happy, I say. The truth is Winter’s Bone isn’t going anywhere. It will still be there waiting for me in my Netflix queue when I finally feel up to tackling it. In the meantime, I hear The Heat calling my name.
What movies are guaranteed to make you happy? Share your favorites in the comments.
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