On the 32nd of Never, at 25 o’clock, a canvas made of centaur skin (covered with ink scribbled using a unicorn horn) that describes the GOP’s “alternative to Obamacare” will be unveiled. Since, even in our wildest pixie fever dreams, this fictional legislation still won’t ding the pharmaceutical industry by covering any exorbitant drug prices, we can at least hope it covers movie tickets. I’m kidding! But only about having hope, not about the vital role that movies play in the increasingly important and violently undervalued role of self-care.
From the National Alliance on Mental Illness to tens of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific health journals, self-care isn’t just something vegans and bloggers yip about. Whether it’s a variation on Tom and Donna yelling “Treat yo self” on “Parks and Rec” or a heavily structured personal plan, the core of self-care is finding ways to make like Gandalf tellin’ the Balrog to “talk to the staff” and declare to the demons of stress “You shall not pass!”
Movies work as empathy machines, as I’ve talked about before, and they have a responsibility to inspire and educate. But they can also protect, empower and distract, all of which are hella vital during what appears to be the very worst possible timeline, in which we are currently living. So let’s talk a bit about how film can operate as key component of self-care and, more importantly, why you should punch dinguses who call any movie a “guilty pleasure.”
Up in Canada, where the elected leader of their government is a sane dreamboat who probably knits pink pussy hats and has Vladimir Putin’s face on a dartboard, The Globe and Mail published a great piece on the self-soothing nature of cinematic escapism. Anne T. Donahue describes how she’s coping with the era of Dirty Donald by watching disaster movies, which I admit sounds a little bit like trying to get over a fear of whiny manbabies by attending a Men’s Rights Activist Convention. She explains that, for her, watching a movie in which everyone is freaking the frak out mirrors a real world in which a dude took a selfie with a guy holding the “nuclear football.” But, as she explains, “In fictional hell, there’s a way out.”
Donahue’s self-care skews a little grim, but the idea is solid. Her fear of the rabid nationalism and neo-fascism coming from the White House is compressed and warped into erupting volcanoes from which Pierce Brosnan Britishes his way to safety. She is reassured, however briefly, by making her totally legit worries transform into the bombastic and feeling comfort in the heroic efforts of those escaping. For some, watching Keanu Reeves deposit bullets into the brain banks of thugs in suits sates the anger inspired by tie-wearing millionaires barfing nonsense. You get the idea, right? We’ll call this method of self-care via film “soothing by simulacra,” which is to say, it’s a healthy way to channel frustrations into metaphorical cinematic situations.
Others prefer what The Atlantic calls “the existential therapy of nostalgia.” Derek Thompson, the author of that piece, digs deep into the philosophical and scientific nuances of re-watching familiar movies. Much of it is fascinating and worth reading, but the salient point for this discussion comes in what he calls “The Therapeutic Reason” for nostalgic repeated consumption of the same film. He cites a study that found returning to familiar entertainment is “emotional regulation.” In an era when reading a Twitter feed feels like playing emotional roulette, the emotional regulation of watching something you’ve already seen replaces tension and surprises with familiarity and proven expectations. We’ll call this method of film self-care “soothing by wubbie,” which is to say, returning to the comforts of the past temporarily alleviates the uncertainty of the present and a fear of the future.
I’m sure there’s more, but the last major category to discuss is flat-out escapism or “what can be wrong when I’m watching The Big Lebowski?” The outlandish suggestion that you can “shut your brain off” while imbibing any entertainment is as ludicrous as a man who once called for the elimination of the Department of Energy running the Department of Energy or the Department of Education spewing typos and historical brain farts on Twitter. Okay, bad examples. The point is, while we must retain awareness of the messages embedded within the pop culture we consume, finding pleasant distractions is vital.
I’m not talking about “background noise,” that practice that conservatively counts for 99.99% of my Netflix viewing. I am talking about intentionally “unplugging” from cognitive labor by “plugging” into something that stimulates without stressing. If you aren’t truly engaged in something, the lingering monsters of anxiety will craw from the basement subconsciousness and slink onto your brain’s center stage. What you need is something that lights up neurons without lighting up a neon sign that says “Worry!” Let’s call this cinematic self-care approach “soothing by conscious snoozing,” which is to say, there’s a way to think without having to think too much.
There’s No Such Thing as Guilty Pleasures
The centerpiece of the “Treat yo self” philosophical approach is the absence of guilt. When Tom and Donna dive into the capitalistic orgy of conspicuous consumption on “Parks and Rec,” their mantra is used as a whip to keep the lion of spending remorse at bay. The use of movies in self-care may not seem like it should inspire regret, but it almost certainly does. With everyone admonishing those resisting the lunacy of President Babyhands to “not get distracted,” the simple act of taking time to do something as “unimportant” as enjoy a movie can feel like shirking civic duty.
But that’s not all. So many people are quick to judge the movies that others seek for comfort. Donahue’s whole article feels like it was written after somebody asked her why the hell she was watching San Andreas for the fourth time. The movies we use to emotionally regulate, the ones that carry the nostalgic power in that Atlantic article, are often, you know, objectively pretty flipping bad. As a critic, my job is to pass judgment on whether something is crap or not. A lot of it is. But guess what? At no point do I or would I ever pass judgment on someone for liking something I think is crap. Except for people who want to keep giving La La Land awards. No. Bad. Stop that.
Dave Grohl once said “I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you fucking like something, like it.” He went on to say something about “our generation,” but I prefer to pretend he abruptly stopped talking after saying the one cool thing. Just, as a rule, pulling off a good, important statement that involves the phrase “our generation” is like making tie-dye sexy and fashionable; I’m sure somebody can do it, but you can’t. The core of what Grohl said before losing the plot in his sometimes-terrifying mustache is a key to film as self-care. Guilt can’t enter in. No more “guilty pleasures” from here on out. They are now “self-care movies.”
Watching movies can be therapy. A film can be emotional salve. Cinema can be a safe space. You choose what works for you and don’t make any apologies about it, okay? In fact, let’s do this together. Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org with some of your favorite self-care movies, and I’ll share them in a piece online later. I’ll get us started, and Donahue should approve: When life sucks, I self-sooth by watching Jake Gyllenhaal punch wolves in The Day After Tomorrow. Now you go. No guilt. Just emotional regulation. I promise.