I have tried to schedule my entire adult life around avoiding anxiety. In many ways that choice has worked out for me. I think that overall my efforts to sidestep stress have been good for my mental health, because I tend to find anxiety to be suffocating and almost unendurable; I am not one of those people who thrives on adversity. In other ways that decision has worked against me. I have a middling job and make middling money because I'm hesitant to push myself too hard or to accept too much responsibility. It's not that I'm allergic to exerting real effort or because I utterly lack ambition, it's that as soon as I get to a place where I can get by comfortably my natural instinct is to start coasting, and I have a very hard time fighting that instinct.
That status quo works for me for the most part, but you can't go through life without hitting a few uneven patches, and whenever my life encounters a speed bump I am reminded of just how unpleasant uncertainty feels. Lately I have been having a lot of stress over my living arrangements - I have good reason to think that my apartment will soon be remodeled to make room for newer, richer tenants. If that is true then it would suck for me, because my current location is close to my work and affordable, two simultaneous conditions that I probably won't be able to find in my next apartment. Complicating matters is that I have some friends who are looking for a roommate at this exact moment but they don't want to help me out; they have their reasons for leaving me hanging, which as far as I can tell are self involved and borderline creepy, but I've probably said too much about them already. The only reason why I bring their presence up at all is because I want to establish that there are a lot of moving parts in my life right now that are adding up to an overwhelming total, and that particular drama is definitely adding a bit more fuel to the upsetting fire.
So what's a man to do when his life has gone off the rails like this? Well, if you're like me you try desperately to hang onto your normal routine in the hopes that it will provide some semblance of sanity. The time for distractions is nigh! Let's watch movies!
But alas, it isn't that simple, because it's hard to devote your attention to something when your mind is obsessing over something unrelated. I can honestly say that my eyeballs observed two movies yesterday, but I would be lying if I said that I was fully engrossed in either of them. However, there is an interesting contrast between 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and God Help the Girl, because the first is a light hearted action adventure tale which was designed to be nothing more than an entertaining diversion, while the latter is a fairly serious portrait of a very unhappy person. So the question arises: which is better to watch when you're unhappy, a movie that steers against the skid of your life, or a movie that steers into it?
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a Walt Disney produced kids movie from the early fifties. It is about a trio of men whose voyage across the ocean is interrupted when the evil Captain Nemo uses his submarine to sink their ship. After a night spent in the water hanging onto some floating driftwood for dear life they accidentally spot where Nemo's partially submerged ship has docked and they sneak on board. The three stowaways successfully convince the captain to spare their lives, and then they go on a series of adventures with him, including a trip to an island of cannibals. (If you know anything about the phrase "Disney produced kids movie from the early fifties" then you can easily imagine what kind of racist stereotypes the man-eaters turn out to be.) The movie's central setpiece is a long scene where everyone on the submarine has to team up to fend off a giant squid which is trying to sink them; it's the only time that Ned Land, our rogueish hero, is on the same page as the dictatorial Nemo.
The film has some charms to it, particularly Kirk Douglas' performance as Land, who is a hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-singing old timey sailor man. It's a role that requires a lot of charisma and brawn, both of which Douglas supplies in spades. James Mason is also fairly good as Nemo - he can be a bit broad, more like a campy James Bond villain than the misanthropic aristocrat he's supposed to be, but when he does nail Nemo's precise mixture of dignity, condescension and cruelty the movie really sings.
However, even two strong lead performances aren't enough to keep the movie from feeling old fashioned. I'm not even talking about the giant squid battle - which is as rubber-tastic as you would expect it to be, and light years behind a more contemporary CGI-heavy setpiece in terms of visual complexity. No, I'm talking about the film's pacing, which is very slow by modern standards. I think a big part of it is that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea should've committed to having Ned Land be the film's central character, but it doesn't want to do that. I'm sure that Jules Verne's original novel creates a lot of tension by exploring the shifting allegiances between the trio of survivors and Nemo, but that sort of complicated psychological drama doesn't translate to the screen very well, in large part because the movie feels formulaic enough that it's always obvious that the climax is going to be the good-hearted Ned trying throwing down against the evil-hearted Nemo. Every non-Ned and non-Nemo scene feels a bit like dead weight, and there are so many of those scenes that the movie as a whole feels slack.
Overall I found it very hard to focus on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Part of it is that it's just pitched too far below my viewing level; it's blatantly obvious that this was intended to entertain kids during a lazy Saturday matinee and not to provide a middle aged cineaste like me with something to think about. But even by the standards of a kid's adventure movie the film is a little flat. I liked the set design and the squid sequence was fine, but it's derring-do was never dashing enough to distract me from my own thoughts. I've seen too much of the world to be awed by a bland sequence that happened to be filmed in an exotic location, and since that's basically what this movie has to offer, this movie didn't have much to keep my attention. At no point in Nemo's trip around the globe did I stop thinking about how tense my own little corner of the world feels right now.
When I was in college in the early 2000s I knew a bunch of people who were obsessed with Belle and Sebastian. They had a few songs that I liked, but I was never that impressed by their specific brand of indie-pop - as far as I was concerned it was fine background music, but not much more than that. However, recently they've been on my mind because their song "I Don't Love Anyone" was on on the Girls soundtrack, an album which I enjoy quite a bit, and part of that song's refrain ("I don't love anything / not even Christmas") has been getting stuck in my head at odd times. There's something about the choice of the word "Christmas" in that chorus that I find oddly compelling, and I don't know why exactly, because I'm not very opinionated about the holidays one way or another. Regardless, there's something about that song's take on bitterness which my subconscious has been fixated for several weeks now, so when I realized that the movie that Stuart Murdoch (Belle and Sebastian's lead singer) had written and directed was now out on DVD I felt like I might as well give it a try.
God Help The Girl is a musical about a young woman named Eve who had a traumatic upbringing, who suffers from depression and an eating disorder, and who slowly starts to rebuild her life by forming a band and writing songs about her experiences. The film is like a less well finessed Wes Anderson film, since it does a good job of creating scenes that evoke deep melancholy and French New Wave inspired whimsiness, but it doesn't know how to segue between them. Scenes where Eve is on the edge of suicide are crammed next to scenes where she and her bandmates are hanging out and being goofy without almost any rhyme or reason. I understand that her specific condition makes her prone to mood swings but it's still hard to adjust to as a viewer. The film's songs were probably supposed to be it's connective tissue, but they all have the same combination of wistful melody and gloomy lyrics, which means that they work well as transitions sometimes, but definitely not in every circumstance.
Those damn songs... I was engaged with Eve's struggles almost every time that the camera was focusing on her. I've never had her exact problems - in particular I've never been followed around by a few love struck shy boys - but still, I could definitely empathize with her struggles, because she had a tenderness and a vulnerability that was very relateable. However, every time God Help the Girl cut to a musical number my mind started to wander. Murdoch's songs have never consistently captivated my attention and the songs he put in here were no exception. I might not have loved Eve's borderline generic backstory, but at least I could engage with it, unlike the film's many music videos, which merely felt like filler. It was all fine, but it just wasn't for me.
I'm probably being slightly unfair to both these movies. After all, I wasn't seeing either of them in an ideal context. Right after I got the news that my father died I spent a few minutes trying to figure out how to occupy my time before my friends could get arrive at my apartment and comfort me, and the sad music I played in that little window didn't make me sad and the happy music I played didn't make me happy. However, I have never blamed those songs for failing to move my dial at that exact moment, because I was well aware that a certain inescapable numbness had settled over me that was completely unrelated to what I was hearing. Similarly, I probably shouldn't hold my own dissatisfaction against either of these two movies, which exist independently of the circumstances under which I viewed them.
But... That's not entirely right, because the songs I was listening to on that dark day were some of my all time favorites; I had experienced them in other contexts, and so I knew that they worked for me. In contrast, I have seen a lot of movies like 20,000 Leagues and God Help in good moods and bad moods and just-kinda-there-moods, and I have learned over time that when a movie strikes me as being unmemorable, it tends to end up getting forgotten. Although I can't say this with complete objectivity, I'm pretty sure that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and God Help the Girl would not be that much more compelling in a different context.
That said, I do have to give God Help the Girl some credit - it definitely served as a better distraction for me than 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which is slightly surprising, since it was not designed to be an escapist trifle. I don't know if I was investing my heart in Eve's struggles out of simple sympathy or out of the schadenfruede-esque sense that her massive problems make mine look rather tameable. Either way there was something normal about her suffering that that spoke to me, in large part because it was reaffirming my sense that my problems aren't entirely my fault - that hiccups like the one I'm experiencing right now are just a part of the larger process of getting through life. And for that reason I would definitely have to say that God Help the Girl is a better viewing experience on a mopey Saturday than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, because not once did I see a man trying to take a hatchet to a rubber squid and think "Oh, yeah, that's a totally normal thing we all go through."
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: The Cat
God Help the Girl: Draw