The Subtle Devastation of the Right Kind of Very Sad Film
Monday is about movies. And sometimes TV.
Last night, I rewatched Marriage Story. I usually post what I’m watching on Instagram - and so someone commented, “Prepare to be depressed”. But I had already done my prep, back in December of 2019 when I first watched it. Marriage Story absolutely is depressing, or sad (or both). But it’s also very funny, and sweet, and that’s what makes it all the more tragic. I wrote about it at the time, and also reviewed its lovely score (I mean, c’mon, it’s by Randy Newman, of course I’m going to have something to say about it…)
I love a good ‘sad’ film; those movies that devastate you. A very good drama is sometimes forgotten in the scheme of things, a movie night needs laughs (comedy) or chills (horror, thriller) or intrigue (mystery, documentary). But what about a compelling story, that is brilliantly acted and creeps toward being subtly devastating. More and more, I’m finding that to be my kind of film. I don’t often rewatch those sorts of films. The ones that knock you on your arse. Films like Blue Valentine, or Manchester By The Sea, or Revolutionary Road, or The End of The Affair.
The first time I can remember watching a straight drama that subtly devastated me was Kramer vs. Kramer. An obvious touchstone for Marriage Story. But I first saw Kramer when I was far too young to really know what it was about. I mean, I got it. How could you not, with that storytelling; those performances. But rewatching it in more recent times, as a parent, it was something else.
My favourite films that have stopped me in my tracks are all movies I don’t really plan on seeing again. Part of the magic of them was in the moment when I watched them. The mood I was in, the timing and placement; where and how I was seemed as important after as what the actual movie was about and how it was delivered. Does that make sense?
I went to Dead Man Walking one afternoon when I was living alone in a bedsit, struggling to make it to my classes, wondering what I was going to do with my life, hiding from any and all responsibility, and - sure - it was the film’s story that hit me hard. But my own sad state (nothing much really, just a bit of adolescent indecision and inertia) definitely ‘collaborated’ with the film screening.
When I saw Last Exit to Brooklyn I had absorbed the movie’s soundtrack (Mark Knopfler) for a couple of years, and though that was (and is) a beautiful score, and one that somewhat signposts the depression of the film, it was still a super harrowing time when Jennifer Jason Leigh’s prostitute character is assaulted; an utterly heartbreaking film to sit through. I loved it! But I remember feeling shook. Later, that very same day, I drove into town and saw Once Were Warriors by myself in a movie theatre in Hastings. It was a big day for great-but-depressing movies. I topped it off with a screening of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
The film I think about the most though, that I have still only seen once, is The Remains of the Day. It’s now 30 years old. I own it on DVD. I’ve never ever watched it again. I like to have it. I sometimes look at the DVD cover and it brings back memories of that one time, back in my high school days, when I saw the film. I drove in to the cinema by myself, as a 16 year old - and watched that G-rated British drama. The repression, the restraint, the heartbreak. It wasn’t because I was a fan of the book, so I imagine it was only because I had loved Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. Anyway, whatever it was that got me to that film, I’m grateful.
It sits with me still.
I know one day I’ll rewatch it. And it will take on a new mood - given I’ve experienced more from life than when I had first seen it. But for now, it’s almost enough just to sit and think about when I saw it, where I was. Who I was…
A friend, now long gone, told me many years ago, with baffled frustration, that he couldn’t understand how I - or anyone - would rewatch films. You see the film. And move on to the next, he thought.
I told him that films were like albums. They had been made by people as a record of a time. And you could rewatch them in different moods and eras to get different things from them. I suggested that just as he might play his beloved Queen CDs and LPs often, the same could be true for anyone with a favourite film. On a different day, they might find it somehow played through in what seemed like a different way.
But I also have albums in my collection that I now only want to hear once a year, or not even that. And albums I couldn’t ever imagine listening to again now - but the memories of what they meant at a particular time still hang tight. Still mean the absolute world.
The same is true with the films that subtly devastate me; that have left me feeling crushed in the moment. I love them. And a thin replication of that mood is not required.
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