This week’s question comes from staff writer Alex McCown:
When I first saw the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life, I thought, “Aw, that’s a charming movie.” It struck me as cutesy, if a little over the top, and I saw it as a typically generic feel-good conclusion to a big-hearted but slightly hokey Yuletide tale. Now, every time I see it, I weep like a small child that’s just learned about death. Something about its evaluation of the measure of a man’s life is so earnest and cathartic that, as I get older, it strikes me as more and more meaningful with each passing year. What pop culture hits you harder, emotionally, the older you get?
This will sound preposterous, but it’s true. Like all good cartoon junkies, I grew up with Chuck Jones’ 1957 masterpiece, What’s Opera, Doc? I must have seen it a few dozen times in my youth, along with all the other Looney Tunes on afternoon TV. It was just another cartoon to me then. I might have filed “Kill da wabbit!” away in my memory, but that was about it. When I revisited Opera as an adult, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and craftsmanship of it, so much so that it’s not even a comedic experience for me anymore. The poses, the backgrounds, the facial expressions, the voice work… everything is perfect. And, against my own better judgment, I find myself getting wrapped up in the life-or-death struggle of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. Part of the credit goes to Wagner. In particular, there’s a duet called “Return My Love” (a parody of “Pilgrims’ Chorus” from Tannhäuser) that I find heartbreakingly lovely. When Bugs “dies,” I can’t handle it. Poor little bunny.
I’ve watched The Wonder Years
series a number of times. When I was younger, I was transfixed by Jack Arnold’s outbursts, and to this day, he still puts me on edge. The older I got, the more I focused on the characters I saw as my peers—the relationship between Kevin and Winnie and Paul—hoping against all hope that Kevin would stop being such a dick to his love interest and his best friend, or that at the very least Paul would kick Kevin’s annoyingly sassy ass. But watching it as an adult, I’ve stopped worrying so much about how the Arnold men could stand to improve, and paid more attention to the complexities of Winnie Cooper. Despite her “girl next door” label, she faces the extreme hardship of losing her brother, which puts her on an arguably more interesting path of self-discovery than lead Kevin. By the end of the series, her drive and her refusal to meet the expectations of the men around her, instead following her career aspirations to Paris, make me really proud of her, and when it’s revealed that she doesn’t marry Kevin, I find myself crying tears of joy.
When I was a teenager, I loved the Sci-Fi Channel’s Farscape for a lot of reasons: witty writing, fantastic villains, and an amazing collection of alien creations (courtesy of the masterminds at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop). But the older I get, the more I appreciate Farscape for the subtle things it got right. The quiet confidence of Claudia Black’s performance as glacially thawing soldier turned hero Aeryn Sun. The slow, elegant deepening of the cast’s relationships. And, most of all, series protagonist John Crichton (Ben Browder, giving one of my favorite performances in all of TV). At the series’ start, Crichton is a classic sci-fi hero: brave, heroic, and utterly committed to doing the right thing. And then, at the end of the show’s first season, our plucky, Star Trek-quoting hero gets tortured. And he breaks. And he never really fixes himself. Crichton spends the rest of the series bouncing between brooding and mania, never quite getting back to the righteous idealist he once was. The more miles the world leaves on me, the more I appreciate Browder’s (and the show’s) commitment to those kinds of permanently non-healing wounds.
I was never part of the crowd that found Jackie Brown a disappointment following Pulp Fiction, nor would I go to the other extreme and say it’s the only emotionally affecting movie he’s made just because it’s not quite as violent or flashy as some of his others. But I was certainly struck, rewatching it this year for a Together Again piece, by the way it addresses the aging process through both Jackie (Pam Grier) and Max (Robert Forster), the not-quite-couple at the center of the film. I always liked both characters, but as I’ve gotten older, I’m more susceptible to movies that really address the realities of aging and the passage of time. There aren’t any scenes of the Jackie Brown characters in their younger years, yet Quentin Tarantino, adapting an Elmore Leonard novel, really makes you feel the weight of their life experience—and both the wisdom and regret that come along with it. The final shot of the movie, a protracted medium shot of Grier’s face, hit me harder than ever.
Goddamn, Jim Henson Muppets. Like Alex, I too am leaning toward Christmas, a holiday that can draw emotion out, no matter how I resist. Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has long been a seasonal staple for my family; we watch this “The Gift Of The Magi” retelling nearly every year. As a kid, I was most into the uptempo tunes—“There Ain’t No Hole In The Washtub” and “Barbecue”—delighted by the mere fact that there were puppets (!) singing (!). As I’ve gotten older, the class themes overpower the culminating battle-of-the-bands-style talent show, and the slower, sadder songs—sounding like agnostic hymns—are what get me. With these songs’ nature symbolism and deference to patience and understanding, the short film encourages viewers to make the most out of what they have by embracing the mystery of life and death, and embracing those who matter most: family and friends. Evidence once again that Henson is one of the best, if not the best, at creating stories and characters that speak to children and adults with equal power.
Rewatching a really good movie personifies a variation on the sphinx’s riddle: What do you notice as a child / what do you notice as a young man / what do you notice as an adult? I regularly revisit The Shining. As a kid it was blood elevators and rotten tub-ladies. In my 20s it was color palettes and framing. I just recently watched it for the first time since having kids and was newly impressed with how the movie addresses the cost of rage and alcoholism on a family. It should be obvious, of course: Jack Torrance was always the monster. But it’s only now, understanding how fragile families are, that I understand the full extent of his monstrousness. Parental anxiety, along with “no monster greater than man,” are the two themes that define modern horror movies. But their ubiquity is irrelevant when the subject is handled as deftly as it is here. Wendy Torrance nervously smoking a cigarette while speaking with a doctor, trying to both minimize the trauma of Jack dislocating their son Danny’s shoulder and present it as an ultimate good—because it forced him to stop drinking—is as painful and haunting as any scene in the movie.
I recently revisited A Prairie Home Companion and while I liked it the first time around, I don’t know that I found it particularly substantive. I initially found that to be much of its appeal: It’s a featherweight breeze of a movie about people hanging out and having fun and just kind of luxuriating in being performers, and being alive, and being in a Robert Altman movie. This second time around, I found the film much more haunting and powerful and sad than I did when I was a substantially younger man. Part of this is attributable to Altman’s passing: It feels like a valentine to everything he adored, and his death lends an additional poignance to a story very much concerned with death, and endings, and the will to go in the face of our nagging, inescapable mortality.
Picking your lifetime band is a life-altering decision, up there with selecting your university or future spouse. Fortunately for me, Cheap Trick’s At Budokan was my second album (on vinyl!). Considering that Shaun Cassidy’s self-titled debut was my first, this marked an inestimable improvement from A to B. As a kid it was fun to walk around singing “Surrender” with my friends: I remember an ill-timed Halloween camping trip, huddled with my (still) best friend in the bathroom, the only heated thing on the campground, running through all of In Color. As the Trick and I grew older a funny thing happened: They never, ever quit. They continuously toured and released albums—good, bad, whatever—refusing to stop when many lesser bands would have surrendered. What the Trick means to me now goes back to that very anthem: As a kid I giggled over the parents dragging the KISS records out. Now, the “Surrender” lyrics that strike me most are the nostalgic lines, post-key change: “Whatever happened to all this season’s losers of the year / Well every time I got thinking, where’d they disappear?” I obviously still talk and write about Cheap Trick a lot, and it’s because decades ago, I was lucky enough to take the slogan “Don’t give yourself away” to heart. Listening to them now reminds me that I never have to stop, either.
As a sheltered kid, I saw a lot of stuff that only landed much later. Sneaking Blazing Saddles on HBO was a revelation in a lot of ways—first Mel Brooks movie, the idea that grown-ups also think farts are hilarious—but the racial subtext really sailed right over my head. (I also had to wait to find out why the name “Lili Von Shtupp” was funny.) Only later did the movie’s anger get to me. If, as Brooks intended, Richard Pryor had played Sheriff Bart, Pryor’s coiled comic intensity would have refused to fade into the background. But Cleavon Little is so smoothly confident that every slight the people of Rock Ridge throw at him just bounces right back in their faces. It’s only after an old lady responds to his sunny greeting with a hateful, “Up yours, nigger,” and the shattered Bart stands stone-faced as the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) tries to rationalize the townsfolk’s behavior, does Bart’s cool crack under the pain. When the Kid concludes his sermon with a joke (“You know—morons”) and Bart cracks up despite himself, even dum-dum young me understood that Bart needed to tell me that he was okay again.
I think the moment I knew I was an adult was when I rewatched The Little Mermaid
and realized it’s not a love story, but the story of a father and daughter. Fairy-tale romance is obviously the thing the movie is pushing most explicitly (along with, to be fair, some themes of female independence), but the emotional climax doesn’t come when Ariel and Eric finally get together. Instead it’s Triton’s realization that he has to let his daughter grow up. “Well, I guess there’s one problem left,” he tells Sebastian after they’ve saved the day. “How much I’m going to miss her.” To be honest, I teared up just typing that. It’s a subtle, mature note snuck into an otherwise colorful, fun kids movie, and it’s the sort of thing you don’t even realize is there until you return to it with older eyes.
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