Going to the Movies with the Smiths

My husband and I have a tradition for our birthdays: we go out to the movies and then to dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant. It’s an inexpensive celebration that is usually doable on a weeknight. Sometimes we have additional celebrations, such as the wine events we attended this year around the time of both of our birthdays. This year, for my husband’s birthday we saw Still Alice—because who doesn’t want to celebrate getting older by seeing a movie about a woman who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease? “Another uplifting film,” my husband would say.

(Yes, we’re a fun couple. On Presidents’ Day we saw Leviathan, the Russian film nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards. It’s an epic tragedy about one man’s fight against the corruption of Russian bureaucracy, especially against his antagonist, the piggish, evil mayor. The film also has stunning shots of the Barents Sea coast, where it was filmed.)

So Still Alice. After it was over, my husband turned to me and said, “I think that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen.” That sparked a dinner conversation about sad movies we’ve seen recently. (See, aren’t we fun?) There are different types of sad movies, of course. There’s the overly sentimental maudlin sad, for example, the type of movie that doesn’t really appeal to me. Still Alice is sad, but it focuses on the woman and follows her through her life as it changes over the course of her illness, instead of becoming a sappy emotional vehicle. The movie boasts an amazing performance by Julianne Moore. I asked my husband if he was sorry he had seen the movie, and he said no, he was glad he had seen it. I don’t know if we would say we “enjoyed” the movie, but we were both glad we had seen it, and we both agreed Julianne Moore did an incredible job in portraying the articulate, fashionable, university scholar and professor who becomes the slightly unkempt, nearly wordless, vacant-faced victim of a disease that robs her of her memories. It is the journey from those two extremes that makes the movie so memorable–and that also makes it so sad.

I also dreamt about the movie last night, but I was Alice. In the dream, I told my friends, Chris, Pat, and Irene about the diagnosis. As we have shared the heartaches and the joys of our lives for many, many years, it seemed this would be one more crisis we’d all weather together somehow. That was sad, too. Then I had another dream that involved food. Life goes on.

During our dinner discussion of sad movies, I mentioned first Amour (2012), about an elderly French couple—the husband cares for his wife, a brilliant pianist, after she has a stroke. After seeing trailers for it, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to see it, but my husband and I both agreed that it was a very good movie. It may tie with Still Alice as “saddest.” A couple of other movies that we discussed during dinner: The White Ribbon (2010), a German movie, that is bleak, cold, and disturbing, as well as sad. I don’t remember it as well. I do remember “bleak” though. It is all black and white and gray. The Lives of Others (2006), is a terrific movie about spies and spying and life in East Germany. It’s one I would definitely watch again.

Lest you think my husband and I are like Alvy Singer, Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall who is constantly going to see The Sorrow and the Pity, the French documentary about the Holocaust, let me assure you we are not. (I do love Annie Hall though.) The latest Hunger Games movie (Mockingjay, Part 1) was my birthday movie in December. OK. I guess that’s not really upbeat either, but honestly, we do sometimes see comedies. Recently, we’ve seen Mr. Turner, Into the Woods, Birdman, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, among others, so we have seen an eclectic assortment of films. I have seen most of the movies nominated for Best Picture, all except Whiplash and American Sniper, and I will probably see both of them at some point. We’ve seen two of the four movies nominated for Best Foreign Film (Ida and Leviathan), and have seen many of the other movies nominated for various other awards this year.

Sometimes we need an escape from reality. Books and movies help provide that escape. Sometimes they also make me think and reflect about my own life.

Movies form a backdrop to favorite family memories, as well. I began to see some movies in different way because of our children. When my older daughter was about three, she wanted to see a particular scene from My Fair Lady and referred to it by the color of Eliza’s dress. (She also referred to a restaurant by the color of its door, which we had never noticed. Can you tell she’s an artist?) Our younger daughter cried and cried every time she watched The Fox and the Hound, but she still insisted on watching it. I remember my husband and I laughing and laughing at Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year.

Do you watch sad movies? Do have family memories associated with movies? Do you try to see the movies nominated for Academy Awards?


Detail showing the "Prince of Hell"....

Detail showing the “Prince of Hell”. Gibson compares the monster to a similar figure in the 12th century Irish religious text Vision of Tundale, who feeds on the souls of corrupt and lecherous clergy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I remember the staff at our public school. You know, we had a saying, uh, that those who can’t do teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym. And, uh, those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school.”

Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), Annie Hall (1977)

I have enormous respect for teachers—even gym teachers—but when I was in 7th grade I dreamt that my gym teacher locked me up in prison. She was probably not the ogre I imagined her to be. In my memory, she is a small, wiry, grizzled woman with short, gray hair, but my memory could be wrong. I’m certain she did not single me out for torture; I was noticeable to her only because of my clumsiness and my unfamiliarity with sports and sports equipment. Whether through lack of time or lack of inclination, she made no effort to find out anything about me. She didn’t know that I had no experience with an intense junior high school physical education program.

I was uncomfortable in my body, as many girls are at that age. Through a combination of willpower, diet changes, and walking, I had lost about twenty pounds between the end of 6th grade in Dallas and my move to Havertown the following spring. My body was lighter, but my soul was still confused. I had both the energy and the self-consciousness of youth.

I started thinking about my own relationship with exercise and how it has changed over my lifetime because of a recent discussion about recess on the wonderful Philadelphia public radio show, Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. Many schools in the United States have eliminated, or are considering eliminating recess. How sad it is that having an opportunity to get up and stretch and relax is considered a luxury for both children and adults. When I was in elementary school we had free time after lunch to wander around the schoolyard (to me the space seemed enormous), to play on the monkey bars, jungle gyms, and swings, or to throw a ball around. Although I did not engage in vigorous physical activity, I enjoyed the freedom to walk around and think without being bothered by teachers or confined by desks or tables.

In elementary school, we had physical education classes two to three times per week. On gym days, we girls wore shorts under our dresses because we were not permitted to wear shorts or pants to school, but we were also not supposed to show our underwear. We did a variety of activities including relay races, square dancing, and calisthenics. My classmates and I were excited when we got to use scooters. These scooters were little wooden squares with four wheels. You sat on, or draped yourself over the square “seat” and pushed with your hands. I wonder—do elementary schools still have scooters like that?

My gym classes in 7th grade in Dallas were markedly different. Girls and boys were separated. We now had ugly white, cotton one-piece uniforms to wear during class.  At “that time of the month,” girls did not have to put on the uniforms or participate in gym. But I don’t remember ever doing anything very active in that class. We were being groomed to be young ladies who occasionally perspired lightly; we were not supposed to actually sweat. Once or twice a month, the teacher, a pretty young woman with red hair, would gather the girls around her to discuss questions we had posed via slips of paper dropped into a box. We sat on the gym floor in a circle around her. The questions we posed to her were about periods, personal grooming, and dating. She answered them in a hushed voice as we leaned in to hear her words of wisdom and advice—none of which I remember.

In March of that year, my mother, sisters, and I moved to Havertown, Pennsylvania. The junior high, constructed of fieldstone, looked like a prison to me. The basement with its dark, winding hallways, and exposed pipes, seemed like the gateway to some hellish torture area. Yes, it was—or as I referred to it, the gym. On my first day at this school, I walked into an area filled with gymnastics equipment. I had never seen such things, and to me it was as though I was walking into the torture panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Despite my nightmare, I survived the class, although I continued to hate phys ed. throughout my high school years.

My feeling about exercise and gym classes has changed. I now enjoy the physical activity, and even though I no longer have the energy of youth, I’ve lost most of the self-consciousness. Since I work from home, going to a gym is also my time to socialize with my gym pals. When one of the aerobics instructors exclaims in her boisterous trainer voice, “Are you here to talk or workout?” My answer is both. It is the time I use to recharge both my body and my mind.

I think we all need that time. Although not everyone has the means or desire to join a gym, we all need breaks and time to move about. When I am having trouble focusing on a writing assignment, sometimes all I need to do is get up and sweep the floor or play “Jump for the Cheerios” with the cats. One thing has not changed, however–I still have no interest in sports.