I’m kind of easy.
Get your mind out of the gutter, please – I’m not easy like that (unless you play guitar). What I mean is that I’m not all that complex or resistant when it comes to having an intended emotional reaction, especially the kind created cinematically.
I am a very easy cry. You construct a montage sequence lit like the world the characters onscreen inhabit is made out of gold and shine and then you score those visuals with a song that matches the images perfectly and I will blubber like a teething infant in four seconds flat.
I don’t always like that I’m so perfectly malleable once I’m in a room and the lights are down and a world that I can only experience vicariously presents itself before me like a gleaming dream. I once saw a film at a festival about Native American girls who formed a basketball team. The reason you probably never saw it is because it wasn’t bought or distributed and that makes you lucky. It wasn’t a very good movie, and I remember being kind of bored and that the pace was kind of slow and that most of the characters were barely developed in any real way so it was hard to want to care about any of them, but at the very end – just as the girls returned home after losing the big game – and the music swelled and there were smooth cuts from the face of one solemn girl to another, I got a little teary.
My best friend was sitting beside me in that theatre. She didn’t like the movie and she is meaner than I am so she actually laughed when the girl didn’t get the ball to go through the basket. Several times in the dark we had looked over at one another and rolled our eyes at the generic story playing out before us, but when she looked at me that last time, she saw me quickly wiping my eyes.
“You have got to be kidding me,” she stated with absolutely no humor in her voice.
“I hate myself right now,” I said back to her with no humor in my voice either.
I might never live that one tear down, but there are tons of times when I am perfectly okay with having such a clichéd reaction and I think that what makes me feel fine is when the movie really earns that reaction. I remember going to see The Lion King in the theatre like it was yesterday and I also remember that I found the cold open to be an absolutely stunning sequence: the animals in the area gathering together in the clearing for the reveal of baby Simba and that glorious swooping pan just after the infant is presented to the entire animal kingdom. I remember how all of the zebras and the elephants bowed down to the newest member of royalty and how the Elton John song added to that moment of a complete emotional soaring. I remember that as I sat in the theatre, I noticed right then how the sound cues were matched in such a way that they made the visuals pop even more effectively, and my eyes were filled with tears as there was a smash cut to a black screen and the title of the movie appeared, written in bold red.
And speaking of tears, other than the end of Life is Beautiful – seriously, I cannot even talk about it – and those Humane Society commercials – which made me join the Humane Society, so advertising nicely done – I’ve maybe never been racked with bigger sobs than when Scar murdered Mufasa. It was the combination of it all: the close-up of Mufasa’s claws trying desperately to regain traction so he wouldn’t leave his new baby lion fatherless; the skewed angle on Scar’s defiant-looking face that highlighted those glinting emerald eyes; the manner in which we were able to understand just high up Mufasa was so that his impending fall could only end in the finality of death; and the scoring that made each frame crackle and simmer with the kind of tension and suspense that finally pushed me over the emotional edge just as Mufasa fell off of a literal edge.
There’s no way that the death of my father just three or four years before the release of that movie did not play a factor in why I became a muddled puddle of saltwater on the sticky floor of a theatre where not even the warmth of my boyfriend’s hand or a bag stuffed with gummy candy could offer comfort. Who we are at the time we watch a film and what our most internalized experiences have been create an engagement that is personal. I certainly believe that there are very clear variables that help to designate if a film is inherently good or bad, but there’s also an undeniable subjectivity involved in viewing a film that can be deemed good and ascending it personally into something that screams of greatness.
I recently asked a group of eighteen-year-old students to tell me the name of a movie that they found themselves crying as they watched. A few gave me some examples: The Notebook, Marley & Me, The Fault In Our Stars. But there were some kids who claimed to have never cried while watching a movie – ever.
“You have never cried during a movie?” I asked them, immediately suspicious. “I flat out don’t believe half of you.”
They laughed that I called them out so bluntly, and a look that most closely resembled that of flashing guilt on a few faces let me know that my hunch was correct. But there were also a few faces that betrayed nothing. Those kids might actually have been telling the truth; they have never had to wipe a tear from a cheek in a theatre.
“Wait,” I said suddenly. “How many of you have seen The Lion King?”
Just about all of them raised their hands – a true relief since last week I discovered that about eighty percent of them have never seen Jaws.
“And you didn’t cry when Mufasa died?” I asked, fully in shock. “Are you people dead inside?”
The entire room broke out into peals of laughter just then and I smiled too, but only because I thought it would be rude to betray my actual belief that some of those kids might actually be filled with an true emptiness that a perfectly-executed combination of sound effects and music and visual construction simply cannot penetrate and maybe nothing will ever be sadder than that.
I don’t typically screen movies for my students that impact me so greatly that I am unable to function once the lights come back on. I think to do so would be really foolish and it would come across as needlessly showy and the fact is that there are enough films for me to choose from within a given genre that I need not select the one that makes me go emotionally comatose. So I’ll show a clip of E.T. that makes my eyes grow misty, but there’s not a shot in any kind of hell or purgatory that I’d screen the final scene when E.T. bids Elliot goodbye. My God, I almost need to go lie in a dark room in a fetal position just from typing that sentence because there was something so flawless about the depths of love illustrated in that moment – in the words “I’ll be right here” spoken by a wrinkled alien to his literal best friend on Earth – and it is that purity that continues to resonate hard.
But I can’t completely avoid my own emotional reactions to the films I show, and I guess that much of me doesn’t want to avoid such a thing because part of understanding cinema is understanding one’s response to what appears onscreen and how the way in which it is all fashioned creates meaning. Plus, when I teach my unit on documentary film, I just refuse to eliminate Bowling for Columbine.
I’m a true fan of documentaries and I think that some of the finest films that I’ve seen at festivals have been from that genre. It’s not to say, of course, that every documentary made is my favorite movie ever, but I’ve seen some really good stuff. I loved the film A Small Act, and I helped to bring the director and the producer to my school after I became moved by it at Sundance. I really liked The September Issue, which was obviously way less emotional than a film about children in a poor village in Africa trying to win a scholarship so they could attain an education, but The September Issue was a ton of fun and I loved going behind the scenes at Vogue and getting to see Anna Wintour crack the smallest smile ever captured on the face of a human being in history. I genuinely wanted to love American Teen, which follows a senior class through a year of high school, but I liked the concept better than the final product. And, holy shit, Shut Up and Sing – the documentary about the fallout The Dixie Chicks experienced after once uttering a negative comment about Bush – was humorous and it was dark and it gave pretty remarkable insight into the role of the media in our country and it helped to prove that I might not do very well if I lived in a state that was scarlet in its redness.
But Bowling for Columbine, for me, is the most effective documentary around because it’s engaging as hell and laugh-your-ass-off funny and it pairs the visuals and the music in ways that are less than expected but utterly effective. He’s a pretty divisive guy and sometimes he annoys me too, but I find Michael Moore in that film to be compelling and brave and I think his onscreen participation helped the film. That said, other than losing my family or seeing a Pegasus fly boldly through a lightning-filled sky, my greatest fear is that something violent and filled with consequence could occur at my school and that, without warning, my students and I could be in danger.
There are emergency plans in place, of course. We do drills. We practice lockdowns. There have been some issues that could have morphed into horrible scenarios if my school was not run by wise people who view being proactive as the best course of action. But still, watching the sequence in Bowling for Columbine of the actual school shooting and hearing the frenzied and frantic 911 call made by a terrified teacher as she insists that the students hide under the tables in the Library and watching footage of parents show up to the school and hold their fingers to their mouths in an anxiety-filled desperation as they urgently scan the crowd of teenagers, praying to lay their eyes on their own children, is perhaps the most emotional viewing I subject myself to with frequency. That such an experience could potentially become my own is terrifying and I react to it with tears and with dread every single time.
What got me really starting to think about this subject – how we react to movies and how it is our personal inventory of experience that often drives that reaction – is that I’m doing a sort of new unit this year with two of my classes. I created it last year and tried it out with one class, but the reaction overall was mixed. How it goes with this year’s classes will determine if this unit snags a place of permanence on my syllabus or if I will toss it out and try to forget that it ever happened, like that time I tried to teach Memento before realizing that there are just some films that cannot be broken down into viewing blocks of thirty-eight minutes over four or five days. Seriously: I have never seen a more puzzled collection of students in my entire life, and that includes the time I did a lesson on the style choices common in the work of David Lynch.
Here’s the story: I teach a lot of horror. I teach some full horror movies and I use lots of clips from scary movies in my class. I teach all of the original Halloween for my Slasher unit, but I also use extended clips from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Scream, Scream 3, and Urban Legend to help illustrate the theory I want my students to learn so they can then analyze how the films that they are watching follow or deviate from a particular theory. For my Possession Film unit, I show either Poltergeist or What Lies Beneath and we look at a clip or two from The Exorcist and one from Rosemary’s Baby. If the students have not been fully traumatized, we move on to the Revenge Horror section of the class, where we watch all of Wrong Turn and a clip of Deliverance, though not the rape scene that takes place in the depths of the woods because I teach in a public school and these kids have parents that some of them deign to speak to daily and I like nice things way too much to risk losing my job just so my students can experience a grown man grunting like a piglet for a vicious mountain man.
I use horror movies in other ways too. For a lesson on the difference between how to cinematically create suspense and surprise, I screen the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls, and it’s actually kind of bizarre that it has become an antiquated fear that somebody could be calling from another place inside of one’s own home.
“Try to imagine a world where there is no Caller ID, no cell phones that can place a call from anywhere, no voicemail, and very few homes that have more than one landline,” I implore to my students after they watch the clip, and I can see in their faces that they are really trying to imagine that kind of a world, but they simply cannot wrap their heads around an existence not etched in pure convenience, something I shake my head at with pure hypocrisy as I reach for my iPhone to order sushi, pay my cable bill, and research whether or not Kanye West has finally revealed that he’s really not this big of an asshole but that what he’s been doing all along has just been some cutting edge form of performance art.
For a section of my class devoted to understanding the construction and placement of sound effects, I show the clip of Hannibal Lector breaking free from his cage after literally ripping the face off of a guard from The Silence of the Lambs – and hearing the screams of my students at the end of that sequence when Lector peels off his brand new skin mask feels amazing and it always reminds me of that quote from John Waters: “If someone vomits while watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation.” I love that I can show my students something they have never seen that has moved them to feel something, even if that something is the kind of terror that might keep them up nights.
It’s because I might be triggering the onset of insomnia in others that has me concerned today because this newish unit that I am teaching falls under the subgenre of what I call Home Invasion Horror. (Notice how there are trends in the type of horror that gets popular during a certain time? I want to say a quick thanks to the universe at large for finally ushering away the popularization of Torture Porn. After watching a terrified girl stuck inside a vat of needles in Saw 2, I officially found myself over the kind of horror film whose greatest strength – having no limits – is perhaps also its biggest flaw.) But I am far more open to wanting to see this Home Invasion type of scary movie where the threat feels relatable and much of the fear is left to the imagination and it is the psychological after-effects that stay in the mind instead of the graphic vision of a skull exploding in a microwave.
I started the unit by asking my students to share their most frequent recurring nightmares, and it turns out that my classes are filled with kids who have collectively experienced the following traumas within their REM cycles: being chased by dogs; drowning in the ocean; driving cars that flip over the side of a cliff; having a mouthful of teeth fall out into their hands; coming across dead people; not being able to run at a time when fleeing is required for survival; and killer clowns descending upon them in droves. I shared my own recurring dream with them too, the one of having to go take my Evolution and Extinction final exam in college and not being able to find the classroom because I cut the class all semester. I fucking hate that dream and I always wake from it literally out of breath.
After we compiled that list of dream misery, we discussed the commonalities weaved throughout all of those dreams, and they were able to point out that they are all anxiety-inducing and that they illustrate a loss of control and that many of them involve relatable scenarios that turn into terrifying events.
I showed my class a list then of the most common nightmares experienced by Americans, which was assembled by the American Psychiatric Association, and my students saw that their dreams were all listed – except for the clown dream, though it turns out that clowns are a very common phobia called coulrophobia that I somehow do not suffer from, even though I saw Poltergeist when I was only eight years old. We then discussed how unpleasant nightmares are to experience and I posed the question about why we enjoy watching terrifying events play out onscreen when we desperately try to wake up if we experience similar visions within our own subconscious and the biggest answer seemed to be that cathartic release that comes with experiencing the adrenaline rush of terror in a vicarious fashion.
All of this discussion led up to the screening of our next movie, and I chose to show The Strangers, that tight little movie about two people, alone in a house, who are terrorized by three masked strangers who torment and victimize them for sport. Before we started the film, I gave my students a chart on which I asked them to record the typical thematic, auditory, and visual iconography most common in horror in general as well as the nightmares we discussed that somehow ended up manifesting onscreen.
In just one period’s viewing, they experienced characters being trapped, chased, having technology malfunction and not being able to run. And I stand by the lesson; I want my students to fully understand how horror films are effective when they blend all of our greatest fears together and toss them onto the screen and pair those relatable terrors with lighting and music that connote a sense of dread within us and how powerful it is to understand that which moves us – in this way towards fear – when one is making a film.
But today, one of my students came in to tell me that he had a dream last night where his girlfriend murdered him. Another girl told me she was afraid to get into the shower this morning. And I told them that if anyone did not want to sit through the movie, I would happily excuse that person and send him to the Library, but they all wanted to stay and test their limits. As a helpful precaution, I also told them my little trick for psychologically removing myself from the grips of a scary scene when I’m watching it and I’ve become too uncomfortable in my fear: I imagine the director walking into the very scene that scares me the most and yelling “Cut!” and explaining that the blocking of the scene needs to change or that there’s a problem with one of the props and doing that makes the whole moment begin to seem fictional for a second and it allows me to recover before allowing myself to get swept back into willingly suspending my disbelief so that what I’m watching all begins to feel real again.
We will finish the movie tomorrow, and I have told those two classes that I want their honest feedback after it’s all over and that I want them to let me know if this unit is too intense to keep as part of the course. And for the first time in a very long while, I have no idea what the final consensus will be and there’s something kind of cool about the uncertainty of it all and how it might very well be their own life experiences that dictate how they will respond – and I feel rather grateful that I’ve created a job for myself where boundaries can be pushed in a safe fashion.
Plus, it’s weirdly comforting to know that I’m not the only person in the world who has dreams about trying and failing to send an important text as two of my teeth fall out simultaneously into my trembling hand.