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David Cleary Headshot

Do Like Don and Seek Comfort In Film

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"Everybody likes to go to the movies when they're sad."

This line from last week's episode of AMC's Mad Men "The Flood," casually uttered to a movie theater usher by young Bobby Draper, middle child of Don, has grasped the attention of countless commentators. The episode recreated the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, focusing on the reactions of the show's diverse range of characters in the wider context of what was occurring around them in New York as well as around the nation. What was Don Draper's response? He took his son to the movie theater for a Planet of the Apes double feature.

Especially in times of tragedy, films have always provided me the same type of comfort. From the time I can remember, I've always been attracted to narrative depiction. I'd stay up late as child and refuse to get out of the bathtub until my parents would read me one more story, whether it was yet another rendition of "Casey at the Bat" or one of my favorite ancient myths.

My love of film narrative developed through sharing them with my father. Whether it was The Sting at a poker-themed birthday party, or The Last of the Mohicans and Speed, two of my first R-rated movies, introduced to me by my father, for which he certainly received some level of rebuke from my mother. One memory in particular involved Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, which my parents actually invited me to watch with them only to cast me out of the room during a bizarre scene involving a Richard Nixon mask. Needless to say, my childhood has been shaped by the stories I've read and watched on screen. Where film and literature differ for me, though, is that film has always provided me a comfort that I've never been able to find in reading. Movies are all-encompassing, involved experiences with sounds, images, and of course their stories, allowing me to truly lose myself in them, even if only for a short while. Don Draper in Mad Men likely sought the same effect in taking his son to the movie theater to escape from the MLK aftermath, even if only for a short while.

My generation has now lived through two of the rare and major acts of terrorism in America: September 11th and the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon. Many critics have noted the eerie timing of the theme of this Mad Men episode in light of the latter, as both incidents put on display a nation devastated by senseless violence and hatred. I experienced the chaos of this recent terrorist act firsthand, having traveled from New York to Boston in order to support a friend running the race.

I'll never forget that day's events: first there were two faint sounds, mostly unnoticed and drowned out by the joyous chatter of runners celebrating with friends and family. Then followed the unmistakable screams of countless ambulance sirens. At that moment came the bizarre and indescribable experience of witnessing everyone in the restaurant where we were watching the finish suddenly fall silent and collectively turn their attention to the televisions above the bar that flashed the headline: "Deadly Explosions at Marathon."

The news was then followed by the tears of sheer incomprehension, the panic for our own safety, the franticness in searching for nearby friends and relatives, and finally the anger and urge for revenge upon those responsible for this.

Television rarely plays the same comforting role as film during such times. Rather than being a source of diversion and distraction, TV is where we go to find out the immediate happenings of our reality. In the Mad Men episode quoted above, the character Michael Ginsberg is shown on a date in a restaurant where everyone hears about the MLK assassination for the first time via the TV. Similarly, it was a TV that delivered the tragic news to everyone in the bar with me watching the end of the Boston Marathon. We often experience TV in public, in the midst of what's happening around us, whereas with film we have the control to make it a completely private experience and become wrapped up in its alternative reality.

Bobby Draper's assertion that people are attracted to film in times of tragedy has been a popular topic, formerly written about by many leading film critics and historians. The Los Angeles Times' own Betsy Sharkey echoes the importance of so-called comfort films in the piece listing her "Top 10" of the genre: "Comfort films are there to fit, and fill, whatever the emotional need of the moment, able to lift the shade on even the darkest of moods (or deepest of recessions)." In other words, these films provide us tangible reasons to feel a certain way, while tragedy often leaves us speechless and confused, devoid of any feeling at all.

What was my response in the days that followed the marathon, after safely returning to New York to follow the subsequent manhunt as it unfolded? I watched John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday for Draper-like diversion and temporary distraction. Ironically, this choice featured one too many bombings itself to provide complete distraction, but it helped. I closed my shades, shut off the lights, and curled up on my couch to let myself get lost in another world for those few brief hours.

The weekend following the Boston bombings, while the manhunt for the second brother continued from early Friday morning through the rest of the day, film websites and newspapers around the country projected low box office sales -- the idea being that people would instead choose to stay in their homes and keep up to date via TV and online news as the facts and rumors about the suspects quickly poured in. Instead, Tom Cruise's newest feature, Oblivion, scored the actor one of his biggest opening weekends ever at $38.15 million nationwide, behind only his War of the Worlds and Mission Impossible films. In other publications' comments on the surprisingly high-grossing weekend, the analyst Tim Briody at Boxofficeprophets.com was quoted as saying, "Escapism will always win out over reality." For me and for countless others who turned to film following the terrible events which occurred that week in both Boston and in Texas, this escapism provided the temporary relief necessary to face these tragedies with a fresh start and do our part, however small, in helping put the nation back together.