Under the heading of Things That Make Me Happy:
On this blog I like to talk about movies, list the things that I like, and talk about myself & my life in embarrassing detail. This is one of those posts.
I was thinking about movies that represented important times in my life. That not just reminded me of those times, but that affected, informed, reflected and transformed those times into some of my life’s most important moments.
These are movies that (figuratively) saved my life.
To the list…
Raider of the Lost Ark (1981)
Firstly, the movies were an escape:
I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark EVERY DAY for several months. Two, sometimes three times a night. After school, instead of going home, I stayed at the movie theater and watched Indiana Jones take on the Nazis over and over again. Sometimes I paid, sometimes I didn’t pay at all. Those days you could hang out near the exit and walk in as people walked out. But I wasn’t about to go home.
I knew every word.
I hid at the theater, the way Indy hides on that cargo ship.
“There’s a place for you in the hold. Go my friend. Go.”
“WHAT ABOUT JONES?”
“Jones is dead. I killed him. Herr Colonel, that cargo you’ve taken, if it’s your gold, go in peace with it but leave us the girl. She will reduce our loss on this trip.”
“Savages! We will take what we want and then decide whether or not to blow your ship from the water.”
Seriously though, I know every word, every sound, every note. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my happy place. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Top Secret (1984)
To get over a bad break-up.
Val Kilmer in an over-the-top Airplane style comedy. Several jokes per second. Pure silliness. Insanely funny. But more than that. My first break-up.
This one’s simple. I was 17. I’d just broken up with my first real girlfriend. I’d never felt such pain in my life. No, wait. That’s not true. I had felt pain like that. But it was when I was a kid. I didn’t know what caused it. Non-physical pain hardly really registers with children. Because there’s nothing physical to blame. No fall. No sprain. I couldn’t blame anything for that heavy, empty feeling in my heart. That crushing feeling is a mystery pain to a child.
So, with the first girl, the first hand, the first time someone reached into my chest, pulled my heart out and broke it in front of me, it wasn’t just that very pain. And that very cause. It wasn’t just her. No. Getting my heart-broken finally helped me to realize that it had been feeling like that all along. It was the rejection. That’s what that was. The feeling you get when someone you love treats you like something they scraped off the bottom of their shoes. Finally I was able to identify the feeling I was feeling.
It was a lot to put on one girl. I should have thanked her for opening my mind to the realization of all the pain I’ve ever felt. I didn’t realize I’d been in pain the entire time. And it destroyed my image of the world like the crumpled photograph of the forgotten lover. I couldn’t breathe and a part of me didn’t want to anymore.
So, as I do, I went walking.
This is a recurring theme. I walk when I’m in pain. Like running away from my problems but slower. I’m a walker. This one time I walked to the multiplex – a theater with six or more tiny theaters contained within – and I bought a ticket for Top Secret. I loved Airplane and The Kentucky Fried Movie. I love that silly stuff. I sat there in the theater crying through the coming attractions… in the dark.
By the middle of the film I was crying on the floor with laughter. Laughing my ass off so hard my sides hurt more than my heart. It is one of the silliest movies ever made. So many visual jokes. So much zany. So much funny.
There’s a point during pain when you think it may never cease. No matter how many times pain has come and gone away. THIS time… This time it’s moving in for good. But then a movie (or a song) just blows that theory out of the water. You’re singing. You’re dancing. You’re still inside the pain but the laughter has shoved it over to the side and made room for pleasure. Room to smile again.
I can’t say Top Secret is one of my favorite movies but it is a movie that saved my life.
“How silly can you get?”
Barton Fink (1991)
To make the writey things BLAH
Speaking of things that feel like they will never end. Writer’s block is one of those “Oh my god. This isn’t going away” type things. One of my worst bouts was after getting notes from a severely demanding “producer” (I use that term loosely) and then getting to a point where I couldn’t see the words. They weren’t even words. They were just shapes on a page. Have you ever felt like that? Like words aren’t words just letters. And it’s all just shapes on a page that make no sense. That these so called words are in a language that you do not understand. Only to come to the realization that you also think in that stupid language. Your thoughts are also in that same alien gibberish that you don’t understand. And communication no good think fuck words… WALK.
So I walk. I find myself on the street. Walking it out. Walking it out. I lived down in the village at this time. I use the term lived loosely. I went through several homeless phases in my life. From homeless teen to homeless artist to homeless drug addict to chronic homeless to homeless mental patient. This was the artist phase. (I use that term loosely) They put me up in a hotel with a typewriter and nothing else. And I drank. And I wrote.
I made something I was proud of until… More producers. More notes. More changes. More stress. I walked. I walked past the Cinema Village Theater; an artsy multiplex on 11th or 12th street. I said to myself, “I will see the next movie starting.”
It was Barton Fink. I wouldn’t lie to you. I didn’t even know what that was. Didn’t know the Coen Brothers. I’d seen Raising Arizona but that’s it. At least with Top Secret I knew what I was getting into. I loved Airplane. I knew it was a comedy. I knew that it was just what I needed. But this one, I walked into blind. I didn’t know a damn thing about it. Nothing.
And it too was just what I needed. Barton Fink is a movie about writer’s block. The main character suffers from it. Everyone in his world has a debilitating frustration with communication… and it is marvelous. You have to love the universe’s sense of humor.
Some turn to drink. Some turn to murder. Some put their names on other people’s work. Each character deals with it a different way. Not being able to find the right words is maddening. And not just for writers but salespeople, professionals, professors, executives, executors, etc., etc.
Barton Fink was the first time I saw the genius of the Coen Brothers. A film written by two of my favorite screenwriters when they were blocked while writing another of my favorite films; Miller’s Crossing. They used it as a way to work out of their… their own… what’s the word? (the word is BLAH).
I do this thing now that I’m pretty pleased with. When I can’t find the word I’m looking for in a reasonable amount of time, I put BLAH (all caps) in its place and move on. I don’t even think about it. When I go over what I’ve written an hour or two later, the word I wanted is immediately apparent. It hasn’t failed me yet. (Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to reopen a file and it’s going to read blah blah blah, blah blah, blah blah. Serves me right for jinxing it)
Barton Fink is one of my all-time favorite movies. Not just because it helped me out of a sticky situation and I left that theater and went back to my tiny hotel room and re-wrote the best thing I’d ever re-written in my life into something barely recognizable as my own. But I still pull that movie off the shelf when I’m having trouble with the letter thingies. The little letter thingies. Because it’s also a really good movie. Really really really really good.
“I’ll show you the life of the mind!”
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
To work out my post-incarceration aggression
It was the first thing I did when I got out of jail. I went to the movies. It’s what I do. I couldn’t walk. I was too angry. I had to rest my sore leg on the back of the seat in front of me. The theater was crowded but nobody said shit to me. Reservoir Dogs was playing. And I laughed through the entire thing. Especially the torture scene (think De Niro in Cape Fear). It was exactly what I needed. Exactly. what. I. needed.
During one of my homeless stints, I carried my belongings in a backpack. This time out it was mostly books. But I had one of those packs that distributed the weight from your shoulders to your waist. It was still quite a workout. I read books on writing. Books on Buddhism. Books I loved. I would read them and I would sell them. During the day I would go to the illegal flea market and set up a store to sell my books while I played my guitar.
It was not illegal to sell books (something to do with the first amendment). So whenever the cops would come and close us down, I would calmly pack up my books and leave. But for some reason, this last time, an officer decided to walk over to my “store” and stand on top of my books so that I couldn’t pick them up. I tried to work around his boots until; finally I said politely, “Excuse me sir you’re standing on my books?”
Well that did it. How dare I be polite. He grabbed me and slammed me to the pavement. Yelling at me to stop struggling (I wasn’t). To stop fighting him ( I wasn’t) Soon there were five officers on my back. Twisting my arms. My neck. But the last one; A female officer who was standing and watching and being admonished for not joining into the abuse. She had to prove herself I suppose. She grabbed one of my legs and twisted it until my patella snapped and I screamed bloody murder. And they all laughed. They had destroyed my knee. Two surgeries later, it has never fully healed. And they laughed. And arrested me.
I was complying. I was leaving. Selling books isn’t illegal. And I asked the officer politely to not stand on my books so that I could remove them. Judge said that when I called them MY books it was an admission of guilt. Guilty of what you might ask? Guilty of placing books on the sidewalk. They beat me. Destroyed my knee. Arrested me. And stole my beautiful backpack… basically my home. They handed me back my books in a plastic bag after a weekend in jail. They treated me like I was subhuman and I could do nothing.
I got out of jail and went to a theater. What else? I went to see Reservoir Dogs.
“You shoot anybody?”
“So, no REAL people?”
It was cathartic. Even the torture scene. I left the theater singing…
“Don’t know why I came here tonight.”
I know exactly why.
I had never been more in the mood for violence. It was dangerous. Reservoir Dogs helped me through that. Sometimes you just have to see cops being tortured and shot to feel like a human being again after being treated like an animal.
I don’t hate cops. I hate the way that when one of them is a menace, and shouldn’t be wearing a badge, the others have to join in with the abuse of authority because that’s their code. I don’t hate the woman who destroyed my knee. I wish she were stronger and more able to resist her peer’s pressure. Or at least I wish she would have stopped before… before the crunch. She was aiming for that crunch by the way. She had set out to do what she did. Destroy my knee. She was trying to impress her peers. “You think you can abuse this guy. I’m gonna make him limp for the rest of his life.” I don’t even hate the cop who walked on my books… not much anyway. He probably got shot in the head years ago… after having his ear cut off and doused in lighter fluid (a fella can dream, can’t he?).
“Yes I’m… stuck in the middle with you.”
Raging Bull (1980)
To confront my violent temper.
Don’t be alarmed. I’m still going in chronological order. When I saw Raging Bull for the first time it was in re-release. Sometime in the nineties. There was a girl that I worked with. Not really, but I worked with her boyfriend. He was a fucktard (in the traditional sense). He would verbally abuse her in public. And she was the sweetest little waif. Pretty. Smart. Completely out of his league. And he knew it. But he kept up this steady stream of abuse.
Once I saw her flinch when he raised his hand. Something I had seen first hand… second-hand… third hand. I’ve been a bully and I’ve been bullied and I’ve seen people I care about be bullied. And this was an angel. I was secretly in love with her and this… fucktard was frightening and belittling her. But like I said, I am in no position to judge.
She once said in passing that she didn’t need anyone to fight her battles for her. That the thought that she needed saving was a sexist one. She wasn’t talking about herself when she said this. But I knew she was talking about herself. We both knew. But I had never thought about it that way. I had always believed that when a woman had a problem the right thing to do was to solve it. To play the hero. But if I’m the hero, what does that make her? Why can’t she be the hero of her own story? I can be the side kick, The wise teacher. Comic relief. As long as I’m in the fucking movie I’m good. Changed my whole way of thinking. I love it when people do that.
I would chat with her while she waited for him. (we worked long nights at a book store uptown) and it was she that recommended I go see Raging Bull. I was a movie fan. I was a Marty fan. I had never seen Raging Bull. I think she saw the way I looked at her. Admiration, Lust, Pity. She knew about my anger issues and that me and her boyfriend had bumped heads a few times. (I could have easily pummeled him into the ground if I didn’t already know that wasn’t what she wanted). There was a little art house theater that I’d never been. And for the record, she wasn’t asking me out. She was just telling me to go see Raging Bull. And I am nothing if not good at following orders.
I went on my day off. And I saw, not a bio pic about an aging fighter, but a movie about a slave to violence. About an aging bully. I saw people I’ve known in Scorsese & De Niro’s Jake Lamotta. I saw my tormentors in him. Bullies and Stepmonsters. But worse, I saw myself in him and I was disgusted and ashamed. (I’ve broken my pinkie punching a wall so often that my other fingers have disowned it). But all I could really think about was her. As I cried at the end and as the credits rolled, I looked over to my right and there she was. Across the aisle a couple rows back. I didn’t even know she was there. I didn’t say anything to her. Her face was soaked. She must have been crying the entire time as well.
We sat there in silence during the credits… separately. We left at the same time… separately. She never said a word to me so I never said a word to her. I just knew I didn’t want to be a slave to my anger anymore. I didn’t want to be that guy. And I wanted to thank her for the movie even while it hurt so much to see an angel cry.
I heard she broke up with that fucktard soon after. Or maybe it was even that night. Weeks later he told the bosses that I was stealing and that the address I had given them wasn’t a real one. (It was a church that let me pick up my mail there). So, only the second part of his complaint was true. But that was enough for them to fire me.
I never saw her again.
Henry V (1989)
To finally declare war on my addiction
When I battled drug addiction (It was crack and cocaine) I would promise myself that I was quit the very moment the drugs and the money ran out… it was over. I was done. Then I would forget my promise as soon as I could afford to. I would regularly check into Detox. And the entire time, while most of the addicts were having sex (yes, Detox is a mad fuck fest), I would be plotting the course from the front door to the drug spot. And by the time my time was up, I knew the route by heart. I would head from the hospital to the dealer. I wouldn’t even bother to remove the tags.
Tell me about it.
But the very last time I went through detox, instead of heading to the drug spot, I took a walk down to my favorite theater. The good old Cinema Village Theater: Revivals, First-runs, Cult Classics. I swear to you, every single movie they play there is amazing. I said to myself, I said, “Mel, you’re going to see the next movie playing and it’s going to help you out of this cycle.” It was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. Again I knew nothing about it. I had the Complete Works of William Shakespeare growing up. A book I could not read when I was 7 but by the time I was 12 I had read cover to cover. No that’s a lie. I had read the Comedies and the Tragedies. I hate to admit this, but I skipped the Histories altogether.
So I entered the theater knowing nothing about the play or the movie or the history for that matter. Needless to say, it was just what I needed. Cinema Village comes through again.
This fight was going to be an epic battle. I was completely outgunned, a superior force that had taken down better men than me, better men, was mocking me with little affordable vials of extremely addictive crap. But I would learn to outsmart it. I was determined to win.
They like to tell addicts to “take it one day at a time” but that was never working for me. I was always a few steps ahead myself. So what I was going to have to do was take on my addiction – the NEXT day at a time. I would do everything I could TODAY, anything and everything I could think to do THAT DAY, in order to make sure that I would not and could not do drugs TOMORROW.
For me it was money and access. (It’s different for everyone) For me I was always able to stop when the money ran out. For a lot of folks, that does not stop them. And the other thing is that I could never truly claim victory. Because as soon as I started feeling proud of myself, that was the moment when I let down my guard.
I mean, the only way to claim true victory is to die never having done it again. Which is why certain folks can’t visit me on my deathbed. (I’m looking at you, crack dealer)
But when I feel like I’m going to let myself down I start humming the tune from the movie. “Dominay. Do-minay. Dom-in-ay. Oh, Dominay. Domi-i-naaaay.”
That’s my battle song, baby.
And I can tell you this with complete honesty and confidence; I will not be smoking crack tomorrow. And after more than a decade & a half totally crack and cocaine free, that’s the most I will allow myself to say. Because for all you people who think addiction isn’t real, even after all this time, I still wake up some nights sucking air. Trying to get that hit. The one from my dream. It’s an awful feeling.
Better men than me…
To stop running away from my demons and move back to New York
“I am so high, I can hear heaven.”
You know, this one was not so much about the movie but the song from the movie. It’s a Nickleback song (I know) or more accurately a Chad Kroeger song (same thing I suppose). I was living on the road back then. Travelling from city to city. Either sleeping in my car or on a friend’s couch. It was the best way for me to stay ahead of my addiction. Never staying in one place long enough to know where the drug spot was. Plus I got to see a lot of the country that way. Never got all the way to Seattle but I wanted to.
From 98 to 02, I was just running. I’d stop in a city. Get a job. Stay there for about a year or until I found out where the drugs were and started thinking about them. And then I was back on the road. Then this song comes on the radio.
“…and they say that a hero will save us…”
You know, the one from Spider-man. The first one with Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. From the first trilogy. The Sam Raimi one. The good one.
It wasn’t really the song but the ad for the movie. And I’ve always loved Spider-man. Spider-man reminds me of when I was a kid. When I had dreams. When I had promise. When I had confidence coming out of my ass. I was gonna see the movie anyway. But listening to that song made me realize that the only place to see it was back home.
“I’m not gonna stand here and waaaaaaaa-it…”
I sang that song the entire way. I didn’t own the single. I didn’t even know the words. I just sang the part from the commercial and from the trailer. I pulled into Manhattan after driving for hours and hours cross-country. I drove directly to the movie theater, parked my car with all of my belongings and walked in to see the movie.
Just wanting to see the movie at home was all the motivation I needed to stop running. I’ve been back in New York ever since.
Dorothy was right.
There’s no place like it.
“I’ll hold on to the wings of the eagles. And watch as we all fly away….”
… And that’s my list of 7 movies that saved my life.
There are other films that I throw on when I need them: Casablanca, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, and New York Stories (particularly Scorsese’s Life Lessons) are my go to break up movies. Each with its own way of making me feel better about how bad I am at relationships.
And when I need inspiration there are a bunch of action films that get me pumped. I’ve mentioned most of them. They are all over my blog.
But as for when I need a laugh? There was a time when I would throw on some Monty Python or Mel Brooks, (Flying Circus, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) but these days I can just go to social media and in a few moments I’m laughing hysterically.
You people make me happy.
These days, it’s almost too easy.