Every time I go home for Thanksgiving, I feel like I’m getting exponentially older by the year. My favorite thing to do in Louisiana on a Friday or Saturday night is to dodge people’s phone calls, pet my dogs and argue with my male-dominated family over what movie we’re gonna watch.
This year, I’m feeling sentimental about my baby 17-year-old brother heading off to college, so I decided I was going to pin him to the couch and force him to watch “Dead Poets Society” with me, despite his insistence that he was going to hate it. It’s pretty much my favorite movie ever, and I was convinced that he would be able to relate to the story, since it’s about high school boys learning to ‘seize the day’ and defy their parents’ expectations. Plus, the quality of “Dead Poets Society” is not really a subjective matter anyway– you don’t decide it’s good, it just is inherently good, and if you can’t see that, then the problem is not in the movie but somewhere buried in the folds of your defective, pea-sized brain.
So the whole family gathers around and we put on the movie and I am giddy with delight, just hanging on Robin Williams’ every word as he teaches these stuffy rich kids to appreciate poetry, looking over at my brother every 30 seconds with a stupid grin on my face to make sure his facial reactions to the movie are conveying a sufficient amount of enthusiasm. I mean, sure, the story is overblown and contrived, and the music is waaay melodramatic, and nobody actually talks the way these kids talk, but how can you not be inspired by the way Robin Williams gets these rich kids out of the classroom and makes them shout lines from poetry as they kick soccer balls and rip out the dumb introductions to their English text books and stand on their desks and yawp?!
So my favorite scene happens, where all the boys have this assignment to write a stanza of original poetry and read it to the class, and this really smart, but really shy kid (Ethan Hawke) has a horrible fear of public speaking and thus tells the teacher he didn’t write a poem when he obviously did, cause he’s awesome. To pull him out of his shell, Robin Williams points him to a picture of Walt Whitman on the wall and gets him to ad lib an amazing poem in front of the class.
Here’s the scene:
So my eyes actually well up with tears as I’m watching this scene, because I’m a gigantic English dork, and I look over at my brother and he is… wait for it…
texting someone on his iPhone, completely oblivious to the emotional upheaval happening in Robin Williams’ classroom.
And it occurred to me that kids these days are so freaking overstimulated by technology and so accustomed to the 2010 movie, in which either the titillating special effects take the place of a well-crafted story (i.e. Avatar) or the movie is so close to reality that it feels more like a documentary than a movie (i.e. Hurt Locker), that they have all but lost the ability to suspend disbelief for a beautiful (if melodramatic at times), special effect-free, sentimental story. Now I know how my dad feels when he tries to force me to watch “Laurence of Arabia,” and I fall asleep during the opening credits.
By contrast, my parents and I watched “The Kids Are Alright” with Julianne Moore on Saturday night (big weekend!), which is an all-too-real movie about a modern lesbian married couple with two kids and the complicated relationship they develop with their sperm donor. There’s a scene where Julianne Moore and Annette Benning, the moms, have this awkward, graphic sex scene while they’re watching gay man porn and the kids overhear everything and then later ask their moms why they’re into gay man porn if they’re lesbians, and my mom looked over at me with her face all squinched up and said, “I feel really uncomfortable and creepy right now, like I’m a peeping Tom spying on somebody’s personal business.” And I’m pretty sure the director would take that as a huge compliment, because the movie was not supposed to feel written, it was supposed to feel like a reality show. I can’t decide whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Have you ever noticed that all the best movies from the 80s and 90s– Jerry Maguire, Forest Gump, A Few Good Men, Dead Poets Society–seem really, really dated when you re-watch them in 2010 and compare them to the movies coming out right now? The emotional crescendos corresponding with the sweeping musical crescendos and dramatic scenery, like that horrible song “Secret Garden” in Jerry Maguire that plays when Jerry and Zellweger are standing across the street from each other in the moonlight before their first date, just jab their fist in your face and demand that you shed a tear over the love or grief or humiliation or triumph that is exploding out from the screen. And you do, or at least I do, and it’s just really fun.
Why do we have this need for movies to represent an ugly, gritty, entirely unsexy reality? Whatever happened to pure, unbridled escapism?