05/21/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

How to Get Away From It All by Going Nowhere: Movies

What does the outside world look like to the disturbed? Or is the question how does the outside disturbed world look to individuals trying to maintain their sanity?

For some time I've been adopting the persona of the recluse, hermit, misanthrope, getting away from it all. Because of the current economic climate, people are more tense, driven, aggressive, and even hostile, and the art of civility is certainly a lost one. I understand the recluse. However, there are necessities: groceries, going to work if you're employed, the bank, and other various and sundry tasks. I began to consider how to get away from it all without really going anywhere: the "staycation." I have my own rituals or survival tactics.

The true misanthrope bears a certain dignity in his isolation. As I age, adopting the persona of the recluse suits me. Jules Verne's character Captain Nemo said, at least in the film version of Mysterious Island, "Contact with my own species has always disappointed me." What about island shipwreck victims? Robinson Crusoe, in the spirit of its time -- the eighteenth century --was more or less a user manual, a how-to set of instructions for survival. No inner musings or reflection or existential howling at the heavens. Like Bugs Bunny said, "What a maroon." More contemporary was Tom Hanks' portrayal of a crash survivor, struggling to combat the crushing loneliness in Castaway (2000). Sometimes you prefer the company of the soccer ball, "Wilson" to people. Time to enter the bomb shelter and bolt the doors.

I like the classics and contemporary serious film (the latter dwindling; many good actors have returned or migrated to TV because there are fewer good roles in cinema -- Gary Sinise, for example). This is the exact opposite of TV launching the careers of actors like Tom Hanks and Robin Williams into film stars many years ago. Movie houses, theaters, are not long for this world. The Academy has now expanded nominations for "Best Film" to ten from five. It's hard to come up with five these days. "Also nominated for best film: Mall Cop." Why not celebrate mediocrity? It's consistent with our cultural downshift.

One comprehensive and relatively inexpensive source for films is Netflix. So I always have them coming and going. Yes, it's escapism and it's isolating and the psychologists would have an argument about even classifying it as a disorder. You want disorders? Go back out in public. That's why I'm retreating to my personal bomb shelter in the first place. Private bomb shelters originated in the 1950s when the nation suffered from nuclear attack hysteria. Actually, the fear was legitimate, the defense absurd as shown in a "mockumentary" called The Atomic Café (1981).

Getting back to the DVDs, literary novelist, Paul Auster, recognized this in his novel, Man in the Dark (2008). A man spends time with his adult daughter, who has recently undergone the trauma of losing a husband. This is how they pass the time:

I need a few moments to reflect on Katya and the films, since I still can't decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. When she started ordering the DVDs through the Internet, I took it as a sign of progress.... If nothing else, it showed me that she was willing to let herself be distracted, to think about something other than her dead Titus. She's a film student, after all, training to become an editor, and when the DVDs started pouring into the house, I wondered if she wasn't thinking about going back to school.... After a while, I began to see this obsessive movie watching as a form of self-medication, a homeopathic drug to anesthetize herself against the need to think about the future. [italics mine] Escaping into a film is not like escaping into a book. Books force you to give something back to them, to exercise your intelligence and imagination, whereas you can watch a film -- and even enjoy it -- in a state of mindless passivity.

I am also interested in films which have been adapted from novels. 99 percent of the time the book is better. Serious films do not induce mindless passivity to use Auster's phrase. Mindless passivity is Animal House and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Laughs, though clever, witty. And these two films both belong in any sensible list of the ten best comedies. By contrast, watching Schlinder's List is not mindless passivity. As an aside, the movie was made from a book by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally. The book is every much as good as the film. I like almost any genre of film, except musicals. Crime mysteries are heavy on plot, not a strong suit of mine, so I almost never figure out whodunit. Also good are film adaptations of classic stage plays. Mel Gibson's 1993 version of Hamlet is well done and very accessible. No mindless passivity there.

Next, make sure the big screen TV (a 58-inch plasma flat-screen works well) and remote are in good working order. Close the blinds and bolt the doors. Consult your extensive collection of delivery menus. Prepare the libations of choice. Don't answer the phone if possible and simply disappear into the screen. It's your own private bomb shelter... Here listed are 15 personal favorites (there could be so many others) with quotes from what I refer to as best "bomb shelter" movies included as a quiz (scroll down for answers at the bottom of the page, along with brief commentaries). It's a very eclectic list, which pretty much reflects my tastes in literature and film. Extra points if, in addition to identifying the film, you can also identify the actor and the character.

1. "The funeral meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table."
2. "We began to develop weapons we couldn't possibly use."
3. "You can't fight in here. This is the war room."
4. "There are no other guests."
5. "I want the job with the least amount of responsibility."
6. "You've always been the caretaker."
7. "Jesus God almighty, will you look at that bunch over there, man!"
8. "What are you doing Saturday night?" "Committing suicide." "What about Friday?"
9. "Where are we going?" "Where they went." "What if they went nowhere?" "Well, then, this'll be your big chance to get away from it all."
10. "I'll suck your cock for a thousand dollars." "Let me find an ATM."
11. "One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy, dirty old drunkie, howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking, rotten guts."
12. "Have I or have I not covered vaginal juices?"
13. "Would sixty gallons be sufficient?"
14. "I mean, my God, where do you train your nurses, Mrs. Christie, Dachau?"
15. "Son, being fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life."


1. Mel Gibson's Hamlet (1993). Hamlet tells his friend, Horatio that his mother remarried too soon following the King's death. The Bard knew his sarcasm -- it has a modern bite to it. Shakespeare is on the verge of not being taught at any level. When it is "translated" into "modern" English to make it accessible for students, it sounds ridiculous and they still don't read it. In a hundred years or less, the works of Shakespeare, read or performed, will be virtually unknown.

2. On the Beach (1956). Following world-wide nuclear destruction, a handful of survivors in Australia await radioactive fallout to kill them. A scientist, played by Fred Astaire, states the obvious absurdity. The Aussies have a wonderful national song called "Waltzing Matilda", and the tune is adapted to a haunting background score for the film. It's a great drinking song and at least one line is admiringly defiant, "you'll never take me alive...." When our streets are deserted and the tumbleweeds abound and the soup kitchens close, we'll strike up a lusty chorus as twilight descends.

3. Dr. Strangelove (1964). Stanley Kubrick's comic send-up of the dead serious Failsafe. Would have made a great double feature. A Russian diplomat and an American General push and shove in a strategic planning room in the Pentagon.

4. Sunset Boulevard (1950). Norma Desmond is a pathetic over-the-hill silent film star who wants to stage a comeback. William Holden plays a fringe Hollywood writer who has become her lover, but sees that will take him nowhere. Norma invites him to a New Year's Eve party. He asks, "Where are the other guests?" At the end when the twinkie truck comes for Norma, she says she is ready for her close-up as she approaches the screen, grotesquely animated, as if she's about to step into my living room. Oh yeah? Well, that can work both ways.

5. American Beauty (1999). Kevin Spacey, having lost his Dilbert job, interviews with a burger joint. His utterance resonates with the frustrated working public. My experience in workplace taught me that the most responsibility lies with workers who have no authority to carry it out. Those with the most authority seemed to have no responsibility. As for the movie, it is arguably the best made in the last 15 years.

6. The Shining (1981). Kubrick again, this based on Stephen King's novel. A family of three spends a snowed-in winter at a haunted mountain hotel. Apparently, over the years, caretakers keep coming and chopping up their families before offing themselves. This is the response Jack Nicholson gets when he asks a waiter-ghost about other caretakers. Considering the size of the hotel there is still a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, the latter of the bomb shelter variety.

7. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Johnny Depp as gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, tripping on a cocktail of psychedelic drugs who reacts when he sees bar patrons turn into dinosaurs. You may not see people in Wal-Mart turning into dinosaurs, but some of them are just as disturbing.

8. Play it Again, Sam (1972). Early in his film career. Woody Allen played the schlemiel who could never make it with women. He meets one in a museum, who is admiring a painting. When he asks her what she thinks it means, she launches into an outrageous nihilist diatribe. Unfazed, Allen asks her out.

9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Good story with classical allusions to Shakespeare's King Lear, Melville's Moby-Dick, and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. It is, however, a real ham-off between Shatner and the late Ricardo Montalban. So many unintentionally funny lines. McCoy poses the question to Kirk. A chance to get away from it all by going nowhere is right on topic here.

10. The Big Lebowski (1998). You could pick something from any Cohen Brothers movie. The bizarre landscape in their films sometimes seems a more valid reality than our own. Jeff Bridges as the Dude has a perfectly logical response to the offer.

11. A Clockwork Orange (1971). Kubrick yet again. Depicts a dystopian society ruled by mindless violence. A young Malcolm MacDowell, ultra-violent and hyper-sexed, takes offense at a homeless old man under a bridge who asks for money.

12. The Meaning of Life (1983). It's John Cleese's deadpan delivery on sex education in an upper crust British prep school. A textbook example of incongruity.

13. Forbidden Planet (1956). Arguably one of the best science-fiction films ever made. A very literate story, loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Tempest. The space cook (for comic relief) is about to run out of his private stock of whiskey. Robby the Robot samples the last of it and offers to reproduce it. Look for a very youthful Leslie Nielsen (d. 2010), in a serious role, much later of Airplane and Naked Gun fame.

14. The Hospital (1971). Paddy Chayevsky's dark comedy about a chaotic urban hospital. George C. Scott of Patton fame is the Chief Surgeon and Administrator trying to hold it all together while his personal life is in shambles. He growls at a nursing supervisor played by Nancy Marchand who later turned up as Tony Soprano's malevolent mother. The inflection and growling of Scott make the line and there are others.

15. Animal House (1978). The Deltas are hauled into the Dean's office for their poor midterm averages. Dean Wormer chastises each but finally looks at "Flounder", played by Stephen Furst and offers great wisdom.