Warning: what follows is a very long and possibly incoherent rambling post, so read at your own risk.
I’ve never claimed to have the perfect taste in movies, nor do I consider myself a pretentious know-it-all movie snob. I’m just a girl who loves her escapism, whether it’s through a 2-hour film or a long weekend binge on a good TV show.
There’s also no rhyme or reason when it comes to the type of flick I gravitate towards: I can just as easily get sucked into the Tarantino universe as I can a sappy frivolous rom-com, and I can appreciate a serious, politically-charged movie about social issues just as intensely as I enjoy mindless, violent horror and action packed suspense.
Having said that, there are always certain genres that never really interest me; I’ve never been a sci-fi fan, I can count the fantasy movies I’ve watched on the fingers of one hand, I’m completely immune to the superhero genre and I’ve only ever seen a handful of musicals – and enjoyed only about half of those. (I’m also allergic to artsy-fartsy films that are supposed to dazzle us with their low-budget “innovative” cinematography and quirky dialogue but only end up boring me to tears with the long, “meaningful” shots of sulking protagonists or “provocative” storylines I can never identify with).
In addition, I’m usually immune to Oscar-bait type movies, the kind that are obviously custom-designed to appeal to the older, conservative Academy members and usually focus on specific topics that are guaranteed to move that particular demographic. There have been notable exceptions, of course – even the Academy gets it right sometimes – but for the most part, there seems to be a dissonance between rewarding a movie’s cinematic or technical accomplishment and/or performances and actually recognizing an overall good, enjoyable or powerful movie.
This very long introduction to an even longer post is by way of saying that, when it comes to deciding what I’ll dedicate two hours of my life on, I tend to approach oscar-nominated movies with a bit of trepidation; for whatever reason, an Academy endorsement usually has adverse effects on my desire to watch a movie, especially when it falls under a genre category I’m not normally a big fan of.
Hence why La La Land was stuck on my watchlist for a few weeks now, and I hadn’t worked up the courage to press play until last weekend. Record-breaking numbers of nominations and Golden Globe wins aside, I would have probably gone in eagerly just for the fact that Emma Stone was in it. (I’ve had a major girl crush on her ever since Easy A.) I also figured that if I’m willing to watch a live remake of Grease, I might as well watch the first musical to ever score so many Oscar nominations; plus, Gosling and Stone have already proven their on screen chemistry before. So how bad could it be? (according to several movie goers who seemed incredulous over La La Land’s critical acclaim, very, but in my upside-down world, a divisive film is often much more intriguing than a universally loved one).
How bad could it be?
Turns out, not at all. Is it worth the exorbitant amounts of hype surrounding it? Probably not, at least according to all the movie buffs who watched every other Oscar nominated film and made unfavorable comparisons. I might have enjoyed it even more had it not been promoted as the unlikely super-hit that swept everyone away. In the end, if the Oscar buzz didn’t add to my expectations, the negative reviews didn’t lower them, either. And that’s definitely a good thing.
La La Land is superbly directed, well-written and well-acted. The musical numbers are great and Emma Stone is simply mesmerizing. Is it the most original story ever put to film? Of course not; but it’s presented in a beautiful package, paying homage to classic films (which, given my love for Tarantino, it’s something I always appreciate) and leaves you with a bittersweet taste that’s doesn’t quite fall under the overarching sappy Hollywood ending, even though, at the end of the day, it’s just another (very, very good rendition) of the standard feel-good movie. Isn’t that what the ambiguity of the alternate ending was trying to achieve?
This, for me, even more than the fact that it’s a musical, is what’s most surprising about the movie’s transcendent critical success. Feel-good movies aren’t usually what you’d consider a cinematic masterpiece. They don’t employ impressive set pieces or wow us with their originality. Most of them, in fact, are rather mediocre films, which would have faded into obscurity if not for the nostalgia factor that compels us to revisit them over and over. Then again, there’s a lot of to be said about re-watchability when it comes to ranking movies. Is a heart-wrenching, soul-crushing melodrama, that leaves you feeling utterly spent, better than a couple of hours of pure joy or whimsy?
But I digress. Personal taste, after all, is subjective by definition, and debating the merits of one type of movie over another never really leads to any conclusions other than to reaffirm how much our preferences vary. What intrigues me more is the reason why this often sub-par type of movie holds such a strong appeal, whether we like to admit it or just consider it our very own guilty pleasure. Because we all have them, don’t we?
There’s a certain type of movie we’ll return to and watch over and over again because it makes us feel good. It might be the cheesy 80’s movie that reminds us of happier times, or the Christmas movie that takes us back to our childhood, or just the romantic rom-com that makes us feel like everything in the world will fall into place and make things all right.
These movies are usually mindless fun or romantic stories of fairy-tale happy endings. They might even be adventure movies, where the hero gets the girl and/or puts the bad guys away. Animated films are usually a feel-good staple, although I’ve never really been into those.
Whatever genre each of us goes for, a neat ending with all the loose ends tied up is usually a prerequisite; after all, nothing about the unknown gives us the warm fuzzies, does it?
But there’s also another thing that my favorite feel-good movies have in common: they are usually marketed towards a younger audience, or at least they feature protagonists in their twenties, or even their teens.
This makes perfect sense, to an extent. For one thing, most feel-good movies cater to a younger demographic anyway; you’d be hard pressed to find films about middle aged people – let alone senior citizens – that aren’t (even slightly) sad, even if they do end on a positive note, and that’s not exactly the kind of movie I’d classify as a feel-good one. And why would there be an abundance of such films? Movie-goers nowadays are usually youngsters who will spend cash on junk food at the concession stand: naturally they will opt for plotlines and characters they can relate to. But even the more adult crowd is more likely to gravitate towards lighter entertainment, and that is often provided by 20-something characters trying to find their way through life rather than family-oriented professionals with too much on their plate. Grown-up problems on screen might make for good discussion fodder during post-movie drinks among 30+ audiences, but they rarely leave them with the sense of well-being and hopeful optimism.
Entertainment being the key word here, I feel the need to take a slight linguistic detour: although the term encompasses a number of activities, events, spectacles or performances that provide enjoyment, pleasure, relaxation or fun, this is not the case in my native tongue.
There are two distinct Greek words predominantly used to describe entertainment:
- Diaskedasi (διασκέδαση), literally meaning to disperse/scatter in ancient Greek, as in scattering about stressful everyday situations, thus relaxing, and
- Psychagogia (ψυχαγωγία), from the words psyche (soul) and agogi (to guide, lead, educate or to treat, as in an ailment), which encompasses activities or performances that uplift, educate and heal the psyche and bring harmony to the body and soul.
Although used interchangeably in modern Greek to denote entertainment, the two terms are significantly different in terms of not just the source of entertainment but also its resulting effect: diaskedasi involves fun activities whose goal is none other than to make the individual feel good; it might be a night out for drinks or a party, or – for the purposes of this essay – a TV sitcom or a fun movie. It might be an action film or a comedy or anything in between, but its purpose is usually an enjoyable watching experience, rather than a piece of art that will have you ruminating its meaning for days after it’s over. Psychagogia, on the other hand, aims to do more than just provide a couple of hours of escapism through the screen; it is usually associated with intellectual or artistic endeavors, literature, art exhibits, music concerts, anything we might describe as culture, including film.
So when I talk about feel good movies, I’m referring to the first kind of entertainment; the kind that, even when it makes me think, said contemplation is limited to reminiscing with nostalgia or daydreaming about my future. (Okay, sometimes it also makes me brood over my present, but in the hopeful, optimistic way of someone awaiting better things to come).
I was born in the late 70’s, which makes me an 80’s kid. Which, in turn, means I grew up worshiping E.T. and the Goonies, the Karate Kid and Indiana Jones franchises and just about every Tom Cruise and John Hughes movie from that era, and of course Adventures in Babysitting, Pretty In PInk, Footloose, Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, to name a few. [I also had a weird infatuation with Grease and adored Beetlejuice – although it was not age-appropriate by any means – and Top Secret – even though I was too young to get some of the jokes – and remained completely indifferent to the Star Wars saga.]
What most of these movies have in common, other than being heavy on the cheese factor, is that they feature kids, teenagers or young adults. Although not all of them would fall under the rom-com category, they are all replete with fun, light themes running throughout, a sense of adventure, a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending. They are the movie equivalent to comfort food – and, naturally, the watching experience must almost always be accompanied by such snacks.
Almost 3 decades later (has it been that long? *cringe*), my taste in movies may have expanded considerably, but when I feel nostalgic or just want to lose myself in 90-odd minutes of vicarious excitement, these are the films I’ll watch, and watch again.
But what if Ι want something new to sink my teeth into? All the action, drama or horror flicks in the world can’t hold a candle to the movie magic of your run-of-the-mill rom-com where beautiful people enjoy all the perks their youth and/or wealth provide, and find true love in the process; at least not when all you want to do is have the closest thing to a all-around positive out of body experience by way of a TV screen.
My old dvd collection and external hard drive is chock-full of films I’ve watched and enjoyed enough to assume I might want to watch again. Some of these get replaced by newer ones, others are too dark to revisit, and several I regard as instant classics, or at least worthy of a spot in my list of favorites. And then there’s a handful that retain their status as staples in my ever-changing movie collection, not because I consider them cinematic masterpieces but because they’re just so damn fun or relaxing to watch. When I want to wind down with a movie, it’s usually those I reach for.
Aside from a handful of 80’s and 90’s classics, several splatter B-movies and whatever recent box office hits or more obscure independent movies I’ve deemed worthy of a spot in my collection, a quick browse through my hard drive folders reveals plenty of run-of-the-mill rom-coms and teen movies that stick out like sore thumbs: from the more well received, like Crazy, Stupid, Love, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stuck In Love, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Silver Linings Playbook, to teen classics like 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Easy A, 13 Going on 30 and Mean Girls, to films about young adults trying to find their way through love and life like Two Night Stand, Friends With Benefits, No Strings Attached, Legally Blonde and The Devil Wears Prada… there’s a feel-good movie in there to cover all the bases for situations when light entertainment is required.
Although clearly not evidenced in the previous paragraph, I can be quite eclectic when choosing what to watch. So why is it that these are the movies I turn to when home alone on a late night with a slice of pizza? It might be that I’m just a sad human being, or maybe it’s perfectly acceptable behavior. All I know is, there’s one thing these movies have in common, and that’s romantic tales of love, beautiful young people and everything coming together in the end.
It’s no mystery why I choose happy endings and light-hearted, frivolous or downright silly storylines when I want to relax. They’re called feel-good movies for a reason, after all.
But why do I still find it easier to identify with teenagers or protagonists in their 20’s, just like I did a decade or two ago? Why do I seamlessly revert back to my younger self when choosing which movie character to relate to, instead of, say, a professional whose career I may aspire to, or an action hero kicking ass and taking names? Why is it always easier to feel closer to a teenage girl struggling with her crush, even when reminding myself of my own past heartbreak isn’t exactly a happy memory I’d choose to vicariously re-live? What makes it preferable, in my subconscious, to identify with a (probably cooler/skinnier/prettier) version of my teenage self, rather than a similarly improved version of me in the present or the future?
It would probably take a therapist to come up with a plausible answer, but for what it’s worth, here’s my theory: we’re all secretly hoping we lived in Neverland, still inhabiting our teenage selves in some way or other, refusing to grow up against all calendars and real-life signs pointing to the opposite.
When faced with choosing among present-time struggles, future uncertainty or the prettified, even glamorized through second-hand memories, version of our past, it’s no wonder the third option is the safer choice. When it comes to reminiscing, I’m guilty of applying rose-colored glasses. Similarly, when watching a feel-good movie, I’d much rather put myself in the position of any number of teenage or 20-something heroines I would have liked to embody in a parallel universe, than identify with the soccer mom or the tireless professional working 80-hour-weeks. Even when the young female lead acts in a way I would neither condone nor relate to, judging or being able to dispense advice is a much more desirable position to be in: hindsight is 20/20, after all, and we all enjoy feeling superior every once in a while. If I were her, I’d do this or that differently, and all would be right in the world once again.
At the end of the day, this entire self-analysis is probably unnecessary; we watch what makes us feel good, and seeking out the reasons probably diminishes the experience. High school movies and chick flicks and inane TV shows are my guilty pleasure, much like relishing the fake violence in WWE or torture porn movies (Yes, really). The latter is a way to vicariously let off steam and/or vent my frustrations, with the added bonus of not even having to leave the couch; the former is a means to transport myself into a non-reality that either resembles a version of my past self, or a version of my life that probably didn’t – and definitely won’t – happen anywhere but on a movie screen. Neither constitutes psychagogia by any means, but it makes for damn good diaskedasi and that’s really the entire point.
So what are your go-to feel-good movies? Will you unabashedly sit down after a long week to watch a movie that would otherwise make you cringe or do you still consider that type of film a guilty pleasure best kept a secret?