Movies can do many wondrous things.
But maybe the most important thing they do is remind us that we’re not alone.
When I was young, I often felt like I was all alone navigating being a child with autism. Movies could remind me that I was not alone. Through films, I could realize I wasn’t the only one undergoing those emotions. The innate power of cinema to reach out a comforting hand and make one feel less isolate was evident here. It’s a gift that proved especially useful during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
At this point, it’d be retreading well-trodden ground to convey the kind of mental horrors we all experienced at the start of this health crisis. Concerns over losing loved ones. Anxiety over upended schedules. Fixtures of life suddenly vanishing within a matter of days. While the pandemic has adversely affected us all differently, everyone is united in finding it a difficult event to cope with. Similarly universal is the desire to find some sort of release from all that tragedy.
For a movie obsessive like myself, the answer for a release was simple:
It was time to turn to cinema.
My penchant for watching movies regularly, even daily, got taken to the next level. In the time since the pandemic began, I’ve used films to find peace in a situation I have so little control over. These pandemic-era viewings have included a wide array of motion pictures, including delightful pieces of escapist entertainment. Looking back on these film choices, I’m struck by how the ones that brought me the most comfort weren’t the ones with big explosions and humorous quips. They were the melancholy movies, the ones that confronted rather than ignored the harsh truths of the world.
I may have been turning to movies for a release, but that didn’t mean I wanted to shut myself off entirely from the trouble of the world. Instead, I wanted cinematics reminders during these trying times that I wasn’t alone in feeling scared, wistful, sad, or any other complicated emotions. It can be much easier to grapple with those feelings through art rather than confronting them head-on internally.
In different melancholy movies from different eras and different countries, I found many details that tied into my own life.
A great example of this is the various stories that make up Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. The titular ladies of this film are all dealing with lives that frustrate them more than they delight. Romances go unrequited, family members have less than ideal relationships with one another. All the little disappointments of life are hauntingly captured by Reichardt’s filmmaking. This is especially apparent in a closing scene depicting Jamie (Lily Gladstone) reacting to her failed attempt to reconnect with a potential lover, Beth (Kristen Stewart).
Rather than screaming or delivering a heartfelt soliloquy, we watch from afar as Jamie pulls her car over to the side of a wintery road. The camera lingers on a wide shot of Jamie’s automobile lying on the side of the road. Jaime’s silence is deafening while the expansive space in the frame captures how small she feels in the world. Though different circumstances informed our situation, I understood completely that feeling of unspoken anguish. At that moment, Certain Women managed to reflect my 2020 mindset all too well.
That sense of sadness so overwhelming that you can’t even make a noise, only silence can convey your anguish.
Instead of increasing my sadness, though, something as melancholy as Certain Women had the benefit of making me feel comforted. This relatable quality extended to the end of the movie. This final scene shows that Jamie’s life has returned to its original status quo consisting of farmhouse chores. It’s a bittersweet conclusion but at least she’s shown to have survived this crushing heartbreak. Sometimes, just making it through the hardship is enough. Watching that, I realized that if Jamie can endure her struggles, maybe I can too.
A similar phenomenon kept happening to me throughout 2020 as I found myself drawn to somber movies that confronted the complexities of reality rather than avoiding them. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas; David Lynch’s The Straight Story; and Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri all were similarly unexpectedly relevant pieces of storytelling. This sense of relevance came in many forms, whether it was through the isolation inherent in the story of Paris, Texas protagonist Travis Anderson (Harry Dean Stanton) or Hara-kiri’s depiction of tradition being placed as more important than the suffering of people. However it manifested, I kept finding myself attracted to melancholy movies that felt ripped from the emotions of the moment (in addition to being excellent pieces of filmmaking in their own right).
Also proving relevant to a world ravaged by COVID-19 was Bringing Out the Dead. This 1997 Martin Scorsese film concerns a New York City hospital paramedic, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). As expected for Scorsese, it refuses to offer a glossy look at this profession. Helping the injured in NYC is dangerous, taxing, and leaves Cage’s protagonist psychologically strained. It’s a film that feels ripped straight from the experiences of medical workers during the pandemic.
Both here and in reality, they’re navigating a thankless job during unprecedented times.
Pierce doesn’t just have to deal with a thankless but essential job in Bringing Out the Dead. His nighttime shifts also lead him to extended ruminations on what defines a fulfilling life. Is it money? Is it fleeting sexual pursuits? It is engaging in violence against your fellow man? Dead doesn’t offer easy answers to its frequently brutal contemplation of that question. The closest it gets is in offering up moments where characters find some sort of peace from the tiniest things. Impaled drug dealer Cy Coates (Cliff Curtis), for instance, finds himself admiring the beauty of sparks cascading across the nighttime sky. Coates is a man whose life has been defined by excessive opulence and clinging to it however you can. Even with a sharp object protruding out of his body, he’s still offering the advice of “Everybody wants to take a piece of [that]!” to Pierce.
Now, precariously dangling high above NYC, he still finds a moment where peace is achieved through the most unexpected means. Those sparks are the sort of thing you easily miss in day-to-day life; but they make all the difference when you pause for a moment. Pauses don’t come easily for Pierce. His whole existence is defined by going so fast that was heavily on my mind as this pandemic raged on. That’s also how I’ve tried to live my life during the pandemic. Keep moving. Write this. Sign up for that class. Walk this many steps.
Keep your mind so occupied that you can’t begin to comprehend what’s happening around you.
Watching Bringing Out the Dead explore its existential matters made me more comfortable with the idea of slowing down even in times of crisis. All my anxieties related to the pandemic weren’t cured, nothing could. But, as Cy Coates can attest, there’s joy to be found when we pause to observe the world around us; even in the most horrible of circumstances. Maybe I don’t have to just keep moving during the age of COVID-19. Maybe, like Coates or Pierce in the unforgettable ending of Bringing Out the Dead, I too can just stop to savor the now.
My love for melancholy movies continued well into the new year. As 2021 dawned, the pandemic was still on the rise, with new highs in case totals being reached seemingly every day in my state of Texas. Nearly a year had gone by and the world was still in this messed up state. For me, only films could provide the proper outlet to process all this, especially films like Anvil! The Story of Anvil. This 2009 comedic documentary’s bittersweet moments are some of its most memorable; helping to make it an engaging experience.
Anvil! explores the metal band Anvil, which never hit the big-time like it should have. The individual members of the group, particularly Steve “Lips” Kudlow are still chasing those dreams of stardom; always just out of reach. Anvil’s pursuits as a band are always plagued by turmoil; with a potentially major European tour being sidetracked by everything from transportation issues to not getting proper financial compensation.
Afterward, we see Kudlow driving to his day job working for Children’s Choice Catering. The pain of this tour gone awry impacts this guy but he retains a glass-half-full perception of his world.
“Everything on the tour went drastically wrong,” Kudlow remarks. “But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on.”
In the face of insurmountable obstacles, Kudlow and the other Anvil members never lose their hope for a better tomorrow. The struggles of breaking through as a metal band and surviving the COVID-19 pandemic are certainly not equal. However, within the margins of the comedy in Anvil! The Story of Anvil is an incredibly relatable story of clinging to hope while recognizing the struggles you face. If Kudlow can manage to keep his head high after that disastrous European tour, maybe I could hold onto positivity in the face of a seemingly never-ending pandemic. Even in movies like Anvil! The Story of Anvil that function largely as comedies, I found that the melancholy moments were the ones resonating the most with me.
The magic movies had weaved on me as a child was apparent again through absorbing these kinds of bittersweet sequences and features. Best of all, these vividly melancholy movies achieved that special thing that movies do so well: make viewers feel less alone. As I learned first-hand, that talent proved more useful than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What melancholy movies bring you comfort?
Header: Erik Mclean