Posted on March 18, 2016
While I’m getting my nails done, my manicurist, Kim, whom I’ve known for 18 years, tells me that she’s just seen the movie, “The Revenant.” I don’t know why I asked her what she thought of it because her movie review will be communicated to me in heavily accented, broken English through a face mask with a background din of roiling pedicure bowls while their occupants make cell-phone calls. But, there’s nothing to watch on the TV perched above her station so I bite. Kim stitches together her review with something about the Titanic and Leonardo, a bear, and a bloody fight next to a river–guts being spilled all over the place. It’s as good a time as any to interject my standard question about a movie I have no intention of seeing. Ever. How violent is it, I whimper? Answers to this question vary from friend to friend, relative to relative, manicurist to… It is how I reaffirm to myself just how little acceptance I have for viewing violence, or anxiety for that matter, on the screen. It also reinforces the divide I feel between well-functioning, coping adults and me. Each year, as the movies become more violent or at least more realistic in their portrayal of violence, my own threshold for tolerance precipitously drops below sea level. And, that schism I just mentioned? The one between normal people and me? It widens like a barracuda’s mouth.
Kim’s response to my query reminds me of when I recently had lunch with a lactose-intolerant friend. When this friend asked our waiter if there was cream in the mushroom soup (and she needed to know because she had a medical issue she stressed to him), he told her that there was none. He waxed on: The soup was completely vegetable-based, topped with chives and laced with sour cream. So, she’d be fine. Just as obliviously, manicurist Kim told me that “The Revenant” was a cool movie and not too violent. I guess “too” is relative, like the waiter’s understanding of that mushroom soup’s ingredients.
The impact, intensity, and frequency of violence in the movies are in the eyes of the beholder. Clearly, I’m not polling 14-year-old males and asking them to put down their gaming devices to tell me how they enjoyed the latest superhero movie. See “Mad Max Fury Road?” I don’t think so. Instead, I’m asking my friends, people I have dinner with and discuss politics with and share a joke with, to give me their opinions on what the New York Times has called a beautifully rendered, thoughtful movie. Or, I’m listening to Terry Gross on NPR, who has just interviewed the beguiling director of a film that’s up for an Academy Award. I am tempted to buy a movie ticket to the latest blood-drenched film because, after all, I managed to get to the end of a challenging novel with a difficult-to-handle chapter. OK, so I skimmed over a few chapters. Last week, in fact, I saw Macbeth at Berkeley Rep and a throat-cutting scene was so palatable that I didn’t even need to divert my gaze. Yawn. But, I’m predictable if nothing else. I know from experience that any violence or what I call violo-anxi moments will leave me so squeamish and horrified that, obviously, the movie/TV show is ruined for me. My compassionate friends now will talk to me about their movie dates like I have an incurable tropical disease. There is that sympathetic head tilt and corresponding sad-eye gaze in my direction. They mean well when they say, “Yes, there’s some violence; but it’s not gratuitous.” Or, “The violence is there, but just in the beginning of the movie.” Or, my personal favorite, “Sure. It’s got some violent scenes but you can cover your eyes.” I tried that. The problem is that once your hands are used to shield your eyes, your ears remain vigilant.
So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, what’s my deal with violent movies?
Some movies are compelling and tell an important, maybe even historically significant, story and then…wham. Suddenly, there’s a poison dress that’s eating away at the Queen’s body (“Elizabeth”). Or the scalps of invading cowboys become playthings to the put-upon Native Americans (“Dances With Wolves”), and I’m suddenly climbing out of my seat and pawing my way through the row of viewers seated next to me. I have been known to sit in the lobby waiting 90 minutes until the movie is over and my husband is ready to leave. Wait. Make that 120 minutes because he needs to read ALL of the credits.
The same is true for highly anxiety-provoking movies. For example, movies about child abduction (“The Safe Room”), rape (“Prince of Tides”), or war (“Saving Private Ryan”). Please don’t get me started on the genre of Holocaust movies, which of course contain violence, anxiety, and perversion. It’s the trifecta of horribleness. One time, a friend asked us to meet him in line to see a movie that was part of the Jewish Film Festival. He wanted us to meet the girl he thought he would ask to marry. I know. What a perfect date, right? The movie, it turned out, was about the death camps and the horrors found therein—and not parenthetically it was also a poignant story about a survivor. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out how the survivor manages to, well, survive. Again, sitting in the lobby waiting for the movie to end, I thought if this friend of mine doesn’t end up marrying this woman, I’ll never talk to him again.
The first horror movie I saw was when I was 12 and the movie was the “Birds.” I refer, of course, to the Hitchcock nightmare of a film where birds go ape-shit and pick out people’s eyes with their beaks and nest on the heads of denizens of a serene coastal community using their scrawny talons to dig apart the unsuspecting tourist’s hair and Tippi Hedren’s dandruff. The itchy fabric on the theatre seats rubbed against the back of my legs as I curled up into a ball of tears and sweat. This culminated in my first-ever night terrors that lasted for a week, and as I recall my mother thought that two aspirin and a luke-warm bath might calm my nerves. Nice try. A week of that remedy only resulted in my no longer confiding my nightmares to her.
The next cinematic barrage of violence was watching “Psycho” with my teenage girlfriends. This time, the movie was on TV and it was part of a junior-high sleep over. I was captive, shy, and intimidated. Not wanting to wet my pants or be accused of being a baby, I clumsily maneuvered the two-way eye/ear block I had hastily improvised to quell the abuse being hurled my way from the tiny black-and-white screen. Having had no warning of the evening entertainment plans, I hadn’t honed this technique. It didn’t go well.
However, with time and practice, I developed a skill that for years would allow me some semblance of control over an otherwise impossible situation. It was as a teenager, while watching “Wait Until Dark.” I found that when I hummed “Hava Nagila” during the violent/anxious/terrifying scenes, I could drown out quite a bit of the soundtrack and surprisingly no one in the audience seemed to notice. I’m not sure if another song works as well. So I’m sticking with my proven “Hava Nagila” success. Another memo of note, if you hum while covering your ears, you’re golden. But, you risk social ridicule. This was hard enough to avoid because once, also during “Wait Until Dark,” I grabbed my girlfriend’s hand to hold it for comfort and wound up shoving it in my own mouth to stifle a scream. Now, it was she who was horrified because stuffing her mitt into my mouth caused her to drop her fistful of Junior Mints. Ostracism at high school was unavoidable when Monday rolled around.
It is May 1983 and I am getting my nails done—clearly, some things never change. This particular spring day I leave work early to treat myself to some pampering. My young son is tucked into his daycare cot and my husband is away at a meeting. My plan is to have a manicure and then catch a movie before heading back to the reality of being a working mother with a small child. I am deciding between seeing “Amadeus” or “Ghost Busters” figuring that a relaxing manicure will undoubtedly help me arrive at a decision.
But, I never made it to the movies that day. As my polish was drying, three armed men walked into the nail salon, pulled the curtains closed against the afternoon sun and lined the 3 of us customers and 2 manicurists against the wall. One man held his gun to my left temple and grabbed my arm. He ripped off my wedding ring and pulled back his other hand as if getting ready to pummel me. He stopped, however, when someone came to the now-locked door and knocked loudly. He turned his attention away from me and motioned to all of us to get down on our knees and to be quiet. After taking all our jewelry and cash, the bad men left. Tears of relief followed as did a call to the police. While pressed against that salon wall, I never once covered my eyes. Instead, I glared into the face of my attacker to forever imprint his ugly face into my memory bank. My ears heard every word those bastards yelled at us. And, I would never have given the robbers the pleasure of hearing my rendition of Hava Nagila. I embraced that violent episode like the badge of honor it was. Once I regained my composure and my dignity, I drove to the day care center to pick up my little boy and I called my husband to recount the details of the disastrous day.
The following Saturday night my husband and I went to the movies and the choice of films was up to me. Perhaps, now, I could handle any and all cinematic representations of violence and terror, my husband mused. After all, hadn’t this real life episode shown me to be a strong and courageous woman in the face of danger? I survived a very scary event. Surely, I now was able to separate fantasy from reality. I made my decision, and we went to see “Ghost Busters.” I’ve never regretted that decision. “Amadeus” just seemed too risky a choice to me.
Careful where you point that thing,