On Going to the Movies

                                                                

I am quite sure that the pandemic will change some of our long-standing habits, an obvious one requiring employees to go to an office on a daily basis. Another shared routine, going to movie theaters, is also changing.  I, like so many other movie buffs, was saddened with the news that the ArcLight Hollywood and its Cinerama Dome, along with its theaters in other locations, would not be reopening after the long shutdown from the pandemic.  Part of really experiencing a new film is seeing it on the big screen with other people in your presence. I get that some films are not worthy of the cost and effort to make it to the cinema house.  But I am not talking about those.  So, allow me to share the cinematic power that three films had on me when they were first produced, and I experienced them with the kindred crowd in the theater.

In 1959, upon turning 14, my mother asked me what I would like for my birthday.  I had read that Alfred Hitchcock’s, North by Northwest, was soon to open at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.  I asked her if she would take me, and she agreed.  Because I was a fan of Hitchcock, who already had gained celebrity status in directing his television series, I was eager to see this much talked about movie when it came to New York.  I remember seeing the Rockettes, an all-female dance group give a brief but most enjoyable performance before the movie. The theater was a complete sell out as early reviews had said that Mr. Hitchcock had directed another gem of a thriller.  As the curtain slowly opened, the widescreen cinematography appeared stunning.  From a child’s perspective, I viewed the film with a certain eeriness inasmuch as I knew the action was occurring very near to where I was watching the film.  There is Hitchcock making his personal introduction in the film, as the door of a NY bus he tries to board, slams in his face.  It all seemed enchanting going from the Rockettes stage performance to the opening credits of the film.

Part of the grandeur of the movie are the unforgettable scenes that are played over and over again in the media and in our minds.  I can still see Cary Grant with the fright in his face running from what had appeared to be a crop duster, but is really a biplane spraying bullets at him.  The fact that you are not ready for it adds to the suspense that builds from scene to scene.  It doesn’t matter that you suspect Cary will survive all the attempts on his life because you can’t help but root for him.  Who would not root for Cary Grant?  Actually, if Grant and the character he portrayed, Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising man, did die, I may have reacted differently to the film.

About one year later, the next Hitchcock movie, Psycho, that I saw when it opened, did exactly what it hadn’t done to Cary Grant.  Only about one third of the film has elapsed when Janet Leigh, who appeared to be the main character and therefore star of the movie, is murdered.  No prior Hollywood film had killed off the apparent star so early in a movie.  As Hitchcock put it: “The suddenness of the murder in the shower, coming as it were, out of the blue.”  How could this be happening to Janet Leigh?  Yes, she was taking money that didn’t belong to her, but she certainly did not deserve the end she met.  The horror on the actress’s face as she is being attacked, the blood, and the last terrible scene, where her eye floating in the bathtub takes up the entire screen, shocks the spectators.  I remember the cries of the audience.   This was not a film I would have wanted to see at home, especially, if I were alone.  Part of the experience of looking at the film with others was that you were not alone in seeing some very gruesome scenes.

Hitchcock understood the meaning of less being more.  Nowadays movies have long drawn-out bloody scenes that never appear to end.  In Psycho, there were only three very scary scenes with each of them lasting a very brief time:  1) Janet Leigh in the shower; 2) Martin Balsam, the detective, investigating what had happened to Leigh who had been missing and 3) The chair in which “mother” swerves revealing her frightening skull.  What adds to the film’s intensity on the viewer is that the apparent “good guy,” Martin Balsam is also killed.  Insofar as the movie proceeds in a totally unpredictable manner, the suspense almost becomes too much to handle.  The unique and chilling cello and violin arrangement that Bernard Herrmann created further intensified the horror of the violence on the screen.

Hitchcock anticipated problems with the censors.  It is interesting to note they had little objection to the very evident violence in the movie, but rather were concerned with the nude scene of Janet Leigh in the shower.  Perhaps it was Hitchcock’s fame or his coolness in dealing with the board of censors from Paramount.  Initially, they sent a message to the office of Hitchcock: “Please take out the nudity.” Hitchcock, in feigning contrition, repacked the film without editing any of the scenes in question.   He then cannily bargained with the censors, saying he would cut an earlier scene with Janet Leigh in bed with John Gavin, clothed, if they would allow him to leave the shower scene untouched. When Hitch and cast rescheduled the reshoot that the censors were supposed to clear, they never showed up.  However all ultimately agreed, to Hitchcock’s delight, that they did not see any nudity in the shower sequence.

The final film I wish to discuss is Death Wish.  At the time of its release in 1974, I was living in Manhattan and saw the picture, the week it first opened, in Times Square.  What I remember most about watching this film was the way in which the audience, multiracial, reacted to it.  For those not familiar with this film (that had several sequels), Charles Bronson plays a New York City architect, Paul Kesey.  His mild-mannered nature snaps when intruders break into his home raping his daughter and murdering his wife.  When his daughter is committed to a mental hospital, Paul takes a revolver given to him by a client and goes on a late-night walk in which he is mugged at gunpoint.  He reacts automatically in shooting the mugger but, upon realizing what he has done, throws-up.  Subsequently, Paul walks through dangerous areas such as Central Park at night, with the intention of luring muggers and then silencing them with his pistol.  Meanwhile, no matter whether the mugger was white, black or Hispanic, when Kesey killed him, the movie audience broke out into loud cheers. 

Because the film made Bronson, an anti-hero of sorts by his eliminating the bad guys, it appeared to support vigilantism.  In 1974, the rate of crime in New York and other cities was much higher than it is presently.  I viewed the shouts of approval by my fellow moviegoers as releasing their own hurts and pent-up frustrations from very possibly being victims of crimes.  Although film critics had mixed reactions to the film, the public sentiment was different leading to a discussion on how to deal with the increasing level of crime. 

I am sure all of the above three films have been available for home screenings.  However, I can’t imagine experiencing these movies at home, in the same way I did as a member of an audience, sharing the event in common with others.   I am quite sure that the powerful impact I felt could not be viewed at home.  Often the time and cost it takes to go to a movie theater takes priority over the convenience of staying at home and seeing it there.  Hopefully, enough others will both consider and support these benefits allowing the movie house to stay with us as an integral part of our culture. 

Inside Out

As a psychologist, I have noticed that that it has been a challenge for film directors to describe the vast complexities of human behavior on a movie screen that the public will find entertaining. Movies, as visual productions, limit the presence of narrative description so essential in character development. But with the help of technological advances, what is lost in narrative description can be replaced by scenes filled with visual narration. The Pixar Disney production of Inside Out does just this, in a brilliant display of emotions, taking place within the mind of an 11 year old girl named Riley.

Because my view of what a traditional movie on the big screen should look like, I have not been too excited with animated movies. However, despite this bias of mine, I found Inside Out to stand alone on its own merits of innovation by demonstrating how an 11 year old girl’s emotions may cause her to act in certain ways. The animated features, in effect, magnify the conflicting feelings that Riley is currently experiencing.

The catalyst that triggers this girl’s emotions occurs when her parents relocate from Minnesota, where she had played ice hockey, to San Francisco.   Departure from one’s familiar surroundings is hard for anyone but, without a doubt, much harder for a child or adolescent. Years ago, when I was doing some consulting work for LA county, one of the clerical workers, although having never attended college, was well read and to me appeared as bright, if not brighter than a college graduate. Like college students in an English Lit class, we would discuss the finer points of some great books that we both had read. I wondered why he was a clerk, a position well below what I considered his academic potential.

As we came to know each other better, he told me that when he had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, it had been a devastating blow to his emotional growth. He had to give up his relationships with close friends and, he encountered great difficulty in adjusting to the change in his environment. I listened and could see the pain reflected in his face as he talked about this sad event that had occurred some twenty to twenty five years earlier. I wondered whether it was this event that had kept him from going to college and actualizing what I considered his very high potential inasmuch as this memory appeared so vivid in his mind.

In the movie, Inside Out, we see how Riley, the 11 year old girl, deals with the heart breaking experience of leaving her hometown through her emotions of Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness. Throughout this journey, the two primary emotions are Joy and Sadness and, consequently I will focus my review on these two emotions. One of the basic tenets of the movie is the important role that Sadness plays in helping Riley cope with the stressors that her new environment bring. Some of these stressors are peer pressure as seen in the classroom and, when she tries out for ice hockey as a girl.   She is so overwhelmed by her emotions that she decides to leave her family as she proceeds to steal her mother’s credit card and board a bus heading out of San Francisco. But once again her emotions come into play recognizing the hurt she would cause her parents.

Riley’s turning point comes when her Sadness, the flip side of Joy, becomes her dominant emotion. When she is able to express the Sadness that her departure from her old home in Minnesota has caused, her parents, who all along have been preoccupied with the details of the move, become aware of what she has been facing and are able to embrace and bond with her in a supportive manner. If the emotion of Sadness does not emerge, we sense that Riley will somehow not be able to successfully complete her transition to her new environment. As Riley begins to be more comfortable in her new environment, Joy, once more dominates her other emotions and the movie ends on a happy note.

What is most remarkable about Inside Out is that the movie has innumerable possibilities for sequels. For example, how about a boy Riley’s age or older who faces peer pressure along with the added difficulty of getting along with his siblings. In the film, Riley has no siblings. Another possibility would be how a child copes with a traumatic situation such as being beaten up by a bully or observing a parent being abused. We are beginning to know so much more about how the brain coordinates our emotions that, presently, such situations could be visually enlivened with the use of animation the way Inside Out did.   The beauty of Inside Out is that it is an entertainment that can be shared by adults and children both insofar as adults can surely remember the bumps in their own lives that may have made growing up not always such a smooth transition from childhood to adulthood.

Is there room for changes in the structure of inside Out that would improve on the content and what it has to offer? As a psychologist, I know that the driving force behind human emotions is thoughts and, it is the ability to think that distinguishes us from other primates. Perhaps a future movie can deal with two fictitious characters experiencing the same situation (such as moving from home) in a different way. The key here would be to show how one character copes better with the other because his/her thoughts are more accepting to the change than the other character.   Accordingly, the character shown to cope better would be more likely to have joy as a predominating emotion than sadness in contrast to the other character.