A few months ago, a new acquaintance curiously asked me if working in the movie industry had killed my love of movies, if familiarity had bred contempt. Without hesitation, I told him no, that if anything, it had only increased my love. Discovering how the magician does his trick usually kills the wonder, but learning what went on behind the scenes of the business of making movies only introduced to me another kind of magic to love.
I am made of stories. The stories of my life, and the lives of others, stories of characters both fictional and real, of those who have come before, are unfolding now, and will exist in the future. It's what makes people themselves; humanity's essence is stardust and stories held together by memory.
Books have shaped me the most firmly. They are, after all, why I went on to get my Masters degree in English literature, why I used to teach college composition classes, why I became a writer and an editor. But if books are the slow burn, then it's movies that have created the brightest snapshots in my mind, vivid still frames that, when strung all together, paint a picture of who I am and where my life has led me.
Picture a little girl with a ponytail and her two even younger sisters, all three of them rapt on a living room floor in a rustic log cabin. The floor is still years away from being replaced with elegant hardwood flooring, so for now, the little girls are laying on their stomachs on a floor covered with carpet in a dark rust shade that screams "We're not yet that far from the 70s," chins in hands, absorbed in the movie on TV.
The little girls, of course, are me and my sisters, and we were watching the video tape my mom had made for us for what was probably the 378th time. This was back in the days before DVDs and Blu-rays, when VHS tapes were still fairly new. But one we held in higher esteem than any other, because it held three of our favorite movies: The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story, Footloose. It was my youngest sister whose favorite movie was Footloose, back when she was so little that she still told people that when she grew up, she was going to be a frog and marry Ren, Kevin Bacon's character in the movie.
It's still something we tease her about, almost 25 years later, even though she's about to have a baby of her own in a few months. Those are the things that shape us, the childhood memories that stick.
My aunt has just dropped me and my sisters off at the movie theater, along with two of my cousins. It's just a few days after my birthday, and, as the oldest at 13, I am humming with the inflated sense of pride I got whenever I was seen as being GROWN UP enough to do GROWN UP things. In this case, it is being GROWN UP enough at the ripe old age of 13 to babysit my sisters and cousins at an afternoon showing of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It seems silly now, that such a small thing filled me with such pride, but it was a different time. And I was much more sheltered back then.
By the time we got to the citizens of Halloween Town singing "Boys and girls of every age/ would you like to see something strange?," that was it. It was all over for us. We were hooked, enthralled with the plight of Jack Skellington and his wacky idea to kidnap the Sandy Claws. We spent the car ride home singing the songs at full volume, and to this day, my sisters and cousins and I can still sing along with the full soundtrack. In fact...I am listening to it right now. And there's a smile hanging around my face as I write, a smile that's a softer version of the childlike glee I still feel every time I hear the first few notes of "This Is Halloween".
I'm sitting on that same rust-colored living room floor, and I'm sobbing. My mom and sisters are gone for the day at a gymnastics meet, and my dad is puttering around downstairs in the basement. But I'm sitting on the floor and crying as if my heart will break.
I'd opted out of traveling with my mom and sisters as I was getting over being sick, and I was spending the day being lazy on the couch. So when a movie called The Power of One came on TV, I figured I'd watch. I hoped it would entertain me for a few hours; I didn't expect that by the time the movie was over, I'd have been introduced to the idea that human beings could do horrible, irreversible things to one another solely out of hate and fear. I was still so very sheltered then, had only ever seen the world through an unwaveringly rosy lens, so Maria's sudden death cut me to the core. It was my first introduction to the idea that good, kind people can die in senseless acts of violence, and that was just sometimes...life. Big, abstract concepts that I hadn't expected to be wrestling with after watching a movie when I woke up that morning.
I've never watched the movie since. Just that one time. I have no idea if it's considered a bad, good or great film now. But somehow, I can't bring myself to watch it again. It was a moment that gutted me to the core, profoundly shaped me in a sudden, intangible way, but a moment I wouldn't change. So I'll never watch it again, because I'm scared. Not of the idea that it would affect me in the same way, but that it wouldn't. Some movies are only meant to be watched once and then preserved in a crystal bubble, imperfect but perfect as they are. Some moments are too personal to relive.
It's sweltering outside, the kind of still summer day that sends everyone scrambling indoors. I'm sitting in a darkened theater, and my eyes are saucer-huge, bugging out of my head in wonder. I'm watching the new Spielberg movie about dinosaurs, Jurassic Park, and it's--it's...words are failing me. At the time, I'm not thinking about the insane hours of animatronic work put into the film, or the leaps in CGI technology making it possible. All I know is that I'm completely transported, as an entire world was when that first panning shot of the plains opened up and suddenly, we were there - we were right there - with the dinosaurs.
An entirely new means of storytelling was introduced to me that day, a universe of new potential realized when the first brontosaurus rumbled his way onto the screen. But I didn't realize it at that moment. I was too rapt in the movie to think about anything beyond the story being told.
I've watched Jurassic Park many, many times since then, and it holds up every time. It was a groundbreaker, a game changer, and I find myself hoping that when I have children one day, there's a movie like that that grabs their imagination at just the right time and never lets go.
I'm in the passenger seat of a small red pickup truck, kicking up dust as it barrels down a back country road. The windows are rolled down and a warm summer breeze is whipping my long, blonde ponytail around my face. Mike, my best friend since I was two years old, is driving, and we're laughing and talking about how we could be storm chasers, we're totally brave enough to be storm chasers. We're filled with the bravado and daring that only teenagers who have just recently gotten their driver's licenses possess, so when a dark storm cloud builds up ahead, we speed up and race toward it.
It's been a week since we saw Twister, a movie that came out when CGI was still in such fledgling stages that naive, guileless me had wondered as I watched the movie just how, exactly, they'd managed to film a real-life tornado that monstrous and massive.
But right now, we're singing along to the movie's soundtrack at the top of our lungs - the Goo Goo Doll's "Long Way Down," to be exact, and it's summer, and we're wild and we're happy and the talk is all about being storm chasers. When you're 15 and 16, nothing seems impossible. There are only the things that are possible, because everything's possible when you've been recently inspired.
It's a few weeks before Christmas, and I'm a senior in high school. 17 years old, and I'm crazy in love as you can only ever be the first time you're in it. My boyfriend and four of my friends and I had all decided to see the new movie that everyone was buzzing about, Titanic. The guys agreed to go mostly because it was supposed to be epic, and Leonardo DiCaprio was in the rarefied air of being admired by both guys and girls thanks to his turn as Romeo in the past year's Romeo + Juliet, which, at the time, blew our teenage minds.
The theater was so packed that we had to split up, and one of my friends even had to sit on the steps - obviously, our small town movie theater was fine with overlooking safety regulations in the midst of the overwhelming craze for the box office juggernaut.
As I watch Jack and Rose's love story unfold, so much of my mind is focused on nothing but the feeling of my fingers intertwined with my boyfriend's, acutely aware of his nervous hand resting on my leg. It isn't that I'm not paying attention to the movie, but that the story of their love was just so beautiful, and real, and just so us - just like every young couple in the theater was thinking. But isn't that why it's great to be 17 and in love for the first time? Every love story mirrors your own, even on-screen couple is you, every tale of life-changing romance is exactly how you feel because you're in the middle of experiencing your own. Titanic belonged to us, but it also belonged to every person in love. And for a while, it made us all appreciate our individual love, and the people we shared it with, in a way we never had before. Such is the power of movies, that they can elevate us to be better, to view those in our life through a kinder lens.
It's May of 2002, and I am smack in the middle of the finals week of what should have been my second-to-last semester of school. Except it's not, because rather than breezing through my finals with straight As as I always had, I am limping along, haphazardly trying to scrape together any salvageable parts of a semester that had completely fallen apart on me, one that would end with one failed class, one class from which I'd withdrawn, one incomplete, and one C grade.
My semester had fallen apart because I had fallen apart, had stopped caring about anything, withdrawn from even my sister and two roommates, with whom I shared a house. I still interacted, still smiled, but on the inside, I was just...numb. And though there was a part of my mind that recognized something was wrong, I mostly couldn't care, and I couldn't care that I couldn't care enough to go to class, to leave the house, to turn in assignments, to even contact my professors and tell them what was going on with me. I didn't know that I was in the middle of my first real depressive spell, that the apathy and guilt I felt weren't my fault, nor me "just being lazy" (as I thought), but the chemicals in my brain going haywire.
But now it's May and the sun is finally showing its face after months of the sullen gray skies I hated so much; color is slowly starting to creep back into my thoughts. My friends and I are seeing Spider-Man as we're already huge fans of the X-Men franchise, and besides, it's Spider-Man. Who wouldn't want to see his movie?
And I'm blown away again. As I sit there watching Peter Parker struggle with balancing his secret life as Spider-Man even as he wrestles with the every day, real-world problems that other superheroes somehow magically never had to worry about, I find myself...I find myself feeling...upbeat? Am I feeling upbeat? I'm feeling...happy. A legitimate spark of pure joy as I watching Spidey swing around, as I think, If Spider-Man can do it, if he can struggle with so many of the same things I do and still be heroic, then I can do it, too. It's the first moment I can pinpoint that I finally see a light at the end of the gray tunnel in which I'd been stumbling for the past few months. It's the first moment I feel something other than the nothing I'd been feeling for too long, an angry, joyous determination that I was going to be me again, goddammit. It was a thread to hang onto in my mind when I was more lost inside it than I'd ever been, and eventually I guided myself out of that gray tunnel because of that first moment of inspiration. Because of Spider-Man, which somehow resonated when nothing and no one else did.
Now, we have a glut of superhero movies. Those that have never read comic books or aren't necessarily of a nerdier persuasion scoff and ask why someone like me loves them, why anyone cares so much about these characters. But the truth is, sometimes these characters matter to us as more than just movie characters. Sometimes we need their strength, or guidance, or wisdom at a particular moment in our lives when we don't think we have any of our own. Sometimes we need to recognize something good in them that we'd stopped seeing in ourselves; sometimes we just need to be entertained for a while. Sometimes it's as simple as a kid sitting in a theater and finding a compass she so desperately needed when she didn't even know she needed it.
Movies matter to us. They shape us and inspire us. They make us view the world through someone else's eyes for a time, and we leave being better able to view it with our own eyes. They invite us to talk about them, discuss them, argue passionately about them and hold them close them forever, in a way we do childhood toys that have been rubbed bare from years of our love.
Movies matter because we matter. Every time we watch movies, we see a little bit of ourselves in them, their stories that are our stories, the tapestry of humanity. At times, they've made that tapestry better, stronger, or have completely rewoven parts of it. I thank them for that, because they've become part of my own story, colorful threads in the tapestry that is my life.
So I thank you, movies, because without you, I would have never been me.