When I was about twelve years old, my dad bought a television for my room. I quickly got into the habit of turning it on when I couldn’t sleep and soon discovered that PBS (among others) would run old movies until the wee small hours of the morning. Remember, that was 1972 B.C. (before cable). As yet, there was no HBO, AMC or Netflix, and most stations signed off soon after midnight. For someone who couldn’t sleep, prospects were bleak. On one particular night, I stumbled upon a movie titled The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jennings, about an elderly professor who falls for a cabaret singer. I remember sitting in my bed, watching as the film reached its climax; the singer humiliates the professor and causes him to break down. I remember sitting in my bed and sobbing uncontrollably. The Blue Angel really stayed with me and soon after, I saw (for the very first time) It’s a Wonderful Life. Once again, I found myself sobbing after George Bailey opened Tom Sawyer to find a final message from his guardian angel, Clarence.
A good film should move you, should elicit an emotion; from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Imitation Game, a really good film always provokes some sort of feeling. It should leave you awash in emotion, if not completely drained. Even a comedy can have the power to change you.
Take a movie like Moonstruck or St. Vincent – at the end you have laughed…I hope, but you’ve also experienced the same emotions that the characters did. This is the power of a good film: the catharsis that bubbles up from the experience, and that raw emotion is how you know you’ve seen a good film. It doesn’t matter what the critics say or what awards it has been nominated (or passed over) for, what matters is whether or not the film has made an impact on you. Did you laugh, did you cry, did you leave yourself for a couple of hours and return a little different? Did it make you rethink your opinions? For me, Dead Man Walking forced me to reconsider my support for the death penalty and Philadelphia really helped to put a face on the AIDS epidemic and helped to make me think about my own personal prejudices. A really good film has the power to change the way you think.
In the brilliant but underappreciated documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, Mr. Scorsese quotes another great director, Frank Capra: “Film is a disease. When it infects your bloodstream it takes over as the number one hormone. It plays Iago to your psyche, and (as with heroin) the antidote to film is more film.” What an addiction!