Cinema is a big passion of mine, as it is one of the few pursuits that allows a total escape from reality, and a departure from everyday worries and emotional pain. Books and TV also provide this path to escapism, but cinema is the master of this craft as it is a full sensory experience, where you can forget within moments of the opening credits that you are sat in an air conditioned building in Tottenham Court Road. You can leave your worries and baggage at the door, and inhabit a new world for the next precious few hours.
There are two types of movies for me, the ones that engage me, and the ones that affect me. A good proportion of films that are released act as a way to pass the time, and can excite, shock, scare and allow the eyes to widen with wonder. However, there are also those releases that deeply affect the way I feel, whether because they reflect an aspect of my life, or mimic the way I am feeling at that particular moment in time. In the last few weeks I have seen three films that have had this effect on me; La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and T2 Trainspotting, all to varying degrees. The three films couldn’t be further apart in their stories, settings and characters; however they very perceptibly share some common human themes: regret, nostalgia, loss of hope, ageing and relationships. At various points throughout these three movies I felt deep wells of sadness, poignancy and sorrow, not just at the predicaments the characters faced, but also because I could relate to the thoughts and feelings that the characters were experiencing. Particularly the ideas of nostalgia and regret, as looking back and imagining how things could have turned out differently is a constant source of discomfort for myself. In La La Land there is actually a montage where a character pictures how a particular moment in time, if tackled in a different way, could have led to a completely different life, and it felt like the director had plucked these series of thoughts straight out of my head.
Movies can act as powerful emotional triggers, and have a unique ability to affect you to the very core. Why do people watch sad films, especially people like myself who suffer from depression and emotional struggles? To the outside it may seem a tad perverse intentionally putting yourself through the emotional ringer, and surely it would be preferable to watch a happy and uplifting movie? It’s very difficult to answer this, but I can posit a few theories. Firstly, there is a fascination with seeing how characters navigate through dark episodes and experiences, which can in turn make you feel like your own story is being represented upon the big screen. They can help us analyse our own foibles and emotional frustrations, without having the pain of actually going through them ourselves. Perhaps it makes us feel like we are not alone in our struggles, and can engender a sense of reflection that we all need to engage with at one time or another.
It’s also true that any strong emotion makes us feel more alive. It’s not just exercise that produces endorphins, but also strong surges in emotion, whether positive or negative. It’s perhaps inevitable that we are drawn to stories that reflect our own emotions; and a feeling of fiction induced sadness, whilst uncomfortable at the time, can lead to assurances that we have an ability to feel, and an ability accept our emotions. For instance, I am not going to be able to adequately relate to an action film, or a sci-fi adventure, as I have no experience of these topics, but a film involving a character struggling with their emotions, that’s something I can get on board with.
Maybe there is credence to the notion that by seeing characters experience, deal with, and possibly overcome certain life events and mental strife can give us hope that we are potentially able to do the same. It might make us feel less alone knowing that other people are thinking the same thoughts, and experiencing the same lows, albeit in a fictional setting. This may not lead directly to an improvement in mental health, but at least it could foster a sense of satisfaction that our story is shared by others. It is perhaps inescapable that when you are in a period of depression, you are drawn to media that reflects your own personal mental state, rather than ‘uplifting’ music or films which counter-intuitively would not help improve your mood, but rather emphasise how far away you are from the faux happiness exuded by these pieces of work.
These are just theories though, and I can’t categorically state why emotionally challenging art causes such a draw. All I know is that these 3 films in particular deeply affected me, and left me with a sense of melancholia that persisted for some time after leaving the cinema. Not necessarily in an unpleasant way, but rather as a way of inducing a strong sense of reflective contemplation. My only hope is that one day I will have no desire to watch these type of films, because they will no longer be able to act as a mirror to my own life, and will instead merely act as a reminder of a previous dark time. That is the hope anyway.