In my college days in the 1980s, as I’d head to the latest movie about the Vietnam War, death camps or organized crime, my late mother would shake her head.
“I grew up in the Depression, then World War II,” she reminded me. “We went to movies to get away from bad things.” If only she had my refinement, I thought to myself, she’d understand that movies aren’t just about escape but engagement — a way, sometimes, to confront the darker parts of experience.
With the passage of time, I’ve come to understand my mother’s point of view. I still recognize the importance of seeing movies about difficult subjects like the Holocaust and the terrors of combat. We owe it to those who have suffered to try to understand their pain, however imperfectly. But in recent years, I find myself less drawn to the tragic topics that arrive at the cineplex. Middle age tends to deepen your sense of what loss really is. And if an awareness of peril and conflict helps grow wisdom, then it seems that the recent news cycle has brought more than the recommended daily dose.
Remembering the mother I once dismissed as out of touch, I’m coming to see that being out of touch, if only for an hour or two in a darkened theater, is exactly what she aspired to be. Movies now appeal to me less as a window on reality than a refuge from it. Luckily, as this winter’s headlines gave me more reason to seek respite at the movies, my wife and I had more freedom to go. Our daughter and son are growing older, making lives of their own. For Christmas, as a way to thank us for the date nights we sacrificed in raising them, they gave us a gift certificate to catch a few matinees. Since my wife anticipates Oscar night as avidly as sports fans embrace the Super Bowl, we assigned ourselves the happy task of screening as many Academy Awards contenders as we could, hoping to have someone to root for during this weekend’s awards ceremony.
Maybe it says something about the grimness of the national mood that Americans are flocking to see a movie musical, “La La Land,” that lives up to its promise of escapist fantasy. Like many men, I’m almost allergic to musicals. But watching the lavishly produced dreamscape of “La La Land,” a colorful canvas in which two young lovers sketch out their future, is like swigging helium. It’s a transient piece of fun — a diversion made all the more pleasing because it doesn’t seem destined to last.
“La La Land” lacks truly memorable songs, a must for a musical that aims to be a classic. The chief charm of the movie is that it’s tailored for the moment. In this angry winter of our discontent, “La La Land” seems like the ideal place to go.