The first thing I did after my daughter was born was watch a movie.
Well, not literally the first thing. There was the cutting of the umbilical cord, the business of her small new body being washed, the trip bringing my baby and her mother out of the operating room and into the private room we’d extravagantly paid for. There was kissing and crying and taking photos and videos. There was holding her and passing her back and forth. There was the saying of her name to her for the first time—Crosby—and then the second and the third and the fourth and the fifth time.
But when it all died down—when my girlfriend was sleeping (or rather, as I learned the next day, trying and failing to sleep), the baby was sleeping, the grandparents sleeping —the first thing I could think to do to deal with the adrenaline and the joy and the fear was to turn the television on, and try to find a movie. I don’t know why, but in times of emotional upheaval, I always try to find a movie. I can’t focus on books. I can’t look the emotion and momentousness of the moment in the eye for too long, because I know it will blind me. But what works—what works, always, is a movie.
Dr. No was on, that night. Dr. No had taught me a lot of wrong things about being alive, when I first saw it as a kid—that the most important thing a man could do was be cool and callous, and the most important thing a woman could do was look good in a bikini around a man who was cool and callous. But I love Dr. No. So I sat, and held my hours-old baby, and the first extended conversation we ever had, hushed and whispered, was me explaining to her the plot of Dr. No, and telling her how much I loved movies, and telling her how much I hoped one day she would, too.
My experience of movies—of how they explore what it means to be alive, of how, failing that, they simply make us feel alive—is this: all movies do this. All of them. For me, at least. It doesn’t have to be Amélie or Life is Beautiful or The Tree of Life. Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark as a 4-year-old made me feel alive. Watching The Room at midnight, spoons emerging from the darkness and hitting the screen, makes me feel alive—connected, aware, sharing something elemental and joyful with strangers in the dark, in the middle of the night, something no other animals do (that we know of – get on it, Attenborough).
Explaining Dr. No to a newborn made me feel alive, present, conscious of the sweep of time. Someone, back when my father was a child, made this thing. This movie. So people would feel entertained and delighted. He saw it when he was a child. I saw it as a child. And now I could watch it—the same moments, the same lines, the same texture of the film, like touching a memory—with my child. Our mortality, the inevitability of time passing, emphasized and underlined by this film’s immortality, its immutability. The motion picture was almost explicitly invented for this purpose, or at the very least the men who fathered it were aware this would be a side effect. When Louis Lumière, one of the movies’ many fathers, saw his first successful motion picture frame projected onto a sheet (or was it a wall?), he is said to have exclaimed, “Here is the greatest defense against death.” Not because of was within the frame, but because of the frame itself. A moving picture lives. It isn’t life—but it captures a form of life.
The human experience is finite. It is defined by mortality. Once we are born the clock starts ticking, and it cannot be stopped or slowed, ever. Each moment disappears in the very same instant it appears. Books attempt to evoke moments; music to seize emotions; photographs to freeze at least the surface visual of a given instant. But in a bit of film, a bit of moving picture, here is appearance, voice, sound, mood, light, depth, motion, and emotion. When I say a motion picture captures a form of life, capture is the most operative word. The camera seizes what is in front of the lens, transforms it (isn’t that why we generally prefer the look of film to high-resolution digital—because the chemical process makes the moment itself but not itself, elevates it to the evocative plane that feels truer to life than life itself does?), and then locks it into itself. Whatever happened before or after the camera was rolling does not exist in the film life. However much time passes, the people and places in the film life do not age or alter. A film doesn’t just record a moment—it seals it away from the unrelenting flow of time. When life is put on film, it breaks free from the uninterrupted ticking of the clock. It would be weird if, in real life, Harrison Ford never aged. But it feels weird, on film, when Harrison Ford does age. Isn’t that what I mean every time I say, “I don’t want to see Indiana Jones And the Squeaky Wheelchair”? Film is so good at freezing time, at making us forget about time and death, that when the people involved in making the films reveal themselves to be as vulnerable to time and death as we do, we feel betrayal and disappointment. As if a spell were broken.
And, I don’t know. It sounds stupid, because she was a newborn and because the movie was Dr. No. But I think, deep down, without realizing it myself, what I was telling my daughter when we shared that movie was: this is what it means to be human. This is who we are. We make things for each other; great things, silly things. We die but the things we make don’t. We change over time but the things we make don’t—Dr. No is always Dr. No—although being a different person every time you watch it will make it different, too, and the fact that things can stay exactly the same and always be different at the same time is the best way I can explain the contradictions and absurdity and beauty of life. It’s every thing and its opposite. Dr. No is a silly old blockbuster about a randy alcoholic spy, but it’s also, like every movie, so much more than that. It’s grown-ups—real, proper, serious grown-ups, Crosby, the big people you’ll soon think have all the answers, when they have none—proper grown-ups dressing up and pretending to be people they aren’t, for the entertainment of people they don’t know, on a chemical strip that will keep them young and their words and movements identical even while the entire world around that strip ages and dies, stops and freezes, decays and fades.
Life is felt in how experience, longing, and memory intertwine for each and every one of us. Adam Phillips, in his book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, discusses the theory that we all have two lives, an external lived one and an internal fantasized one. Who we think we are (perhaps even who we really are) is created by how we experience both these lives.
Feeling alive, sometimes, is about those two lives suddenly touching one another. The escapism of art is so powerful when this happens: those stories are unlived lives, and they wash through our unlived lives, making them richer and wider and more vibrant, and creating a sharp contrast with our more mundane “real” lives—sometimes painfully, sometimes exhilaratingly, sometimes both. Some of us feel the unlived life as strongly as we feel the “real”, physically happening external one, maybe even more so. A film takes unlived life, and makes it so palpable and immersive and enthralling it feels as real as any external life. Maybe it even performs an act of transubstantiation: By performing and recording the unlived life, by putting it out there to be shared, it makes fantasy real. Either way: life’s potential hits us in full force.
My idea of the 1950s is shaped more by Back to the Future than by anything else, of working for NASA by Apollo 13, of what it’s like to be in the ring by Raging Bull. I got a feel of the emotional stakes of war through Platoon and Full Metal Jacket long before those conflicts were explained to me on the news or in a classroom. I’ve never had a real job, but Clerks and Office Space me feel like I have—or, you know, at least like I get it. I’ve screwed more than a relationship up because my idea of love (the gestures and sacrifices it calls for) was built for larger-than-life two-hour stories, not lifelong normal life. When people say life isn’t a movie, I feel like they’re talking about me. My lived life has been so shaped by the unlived life of the movies I can use the reminder that one is realer than the other, sometimes.
Films do that: they multiply our unlived lives, deepen our actual life in a way that sustains it. That’s why the length of a movie matters, that’s why the dark womb of a cinema matters. Trances and out-of-body experiences don’t happen in two minute chunks on an iPhone screen, swiping notifications away as they appear.
Accordingly, the first films we see hold especial power over us. Now that I have a child of my own, that’s one thing I notice that has changed. I was a child in the 1980s, and like most children of that decade who came to love films, my love started with my parents’ VHS tapes. I wasn’t introduced to the movies with cartoons and kids’ films. I started with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tim Burton’s Batman and, yes, Dr. No—because those were the things on the shelf with the sleeves that caught my eye. They didn’t enter the bloodstream of my imagination by design or because they were appropriate. They did because they were just there.
Every kid I know today, including my own, experiences movies first and foremost as computer animation. Moving pictures that don’t just capture life—they ape it and transcend it, turning zeroes and ones into life forms and worlds that don’t exist anywhere else. Animation is perhaps moviemaking’s great magic trick. Pixels imitating life. Moving you so deeply it feels like life. These are unlived lives nothing like real life, yet tailored specifically for a small child’s own developing unlived life.
Crosby was 2 before she showed any of her own interest in a movie. Inside Out. I suppose it was a bit like my own experience, in that I, Dad, chose the movie. What drew her were the colors, the sounds. She had this small singing armchair, and having never before shown the attention span for a movie, now she was climbing on this chair, trying to get closer to the screen, willing the picture to envelop her. Disappearing, perhaps for the first time, into an unlived life—and fittingly, through a movie about unlived lives. The film is about the personified emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger) inside little girl Riley’s mind. When Riley’s family moves and her day to day life changes, her emotions, led by Joy and Sadness, must deal with how to process that experience for Riley—her unlived life, essentially, determining how she feels about her real circumstances. On their journey through Riley’s personality, dreams and memories, Joy and Sadness encounter Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend Bing Bong, who eventually sacrifices himself to being forgotten forever to save Joy. Before he disappears, he asks Joy to look after Riley’s dreams and potential. “Take her to the moon for me,” he implores her.
My daughter and I sat and watched the same movie, beginning to end, only it wasn’t the same movie to both of us. It was funny colors and sounds to her. A pink elephant in a hat and waistcoat and a gold-skinned, blue-haired girl on a flying cart shooting rainbows. To me it was watching an expression of the very moment I was experiencing while watching it; a movie about the power of emotions, about the different paths a child’s life can take, about the things that awaken a mind to all the possibilities of being alive.
Because this is what films are, in the end. They’re our best unlived lives, only unlike our private ones, they’re unlived lives we can share and pass on, and each make our own through the viewing. They’re the magic we stay alive for—and, one day, get to share.