Mental Illness / Marathon of the Apes

The cat is unconcerned with my struggles

The cat is unconcerned with my struggles

Every time I consciously decide to do something stupid the chorus of the Fiona Apple song “A Mistake” ( - “I’m gonna make a mistake / I’m gonna do it on purpose” - ) runs through my head. And I’ve been thinking about that song a lot lately, because in the last month or two I’ve made a lot of bad decisions on purpose.

Before you get too worried I should clarify that these are pretty low level mistakes. I haven’t tried any addictive opiates and I haven’t made friends with any violent criminals. No, when I say that I've made a lot of bad decisions lately, I’m mostly talking the fact that I've bought a lot of DVDs that I definitely don't need this summer. 

There are quite a few reasons to think that buying any DVD in 2018 is pretty stupid. They take up space, they are a pain in the ass to move, and streaming is a lot easier. Those are all valid points. However, they are valid points that I don't really care about because I just bought a house that has plenty of room for more bookshelves and I don't plan on buying another house anytime soon.

More importantly, I generally prefer watching a DVD to streaming. I find streaming to be very unwieldy – it is hard to choose one thing to watch when there are so many options coming at you at the same time. I think it is easier to pick one movie from a small stack of previously pre-screened selections than it is to scroll through the hundreds of random semi-appealing options that are available across a bunch of different platforms.

Well, it is easier to watch a DVD than to stream… Unless you have way too many movies to choose from in your stack of DVDs

Which leads us to one of the big reasons why it was a mistake for me to buy hundreds of movies this summer: because having that many things on my to-watch shelf overwhelms me. “Retail therapy” starts out as kinda fun – who doesn’t enjoy hunting for a good bargain and who doesn't feel satisfied when they stumble across an unexpected find? – but it quickly becomes stressful for me because I start to worry that I’m wasting waayyy too much of my money on a bunch of junk, and then after it has been bought I feel a lot of pressure to actually use that junk,

(And yes, you did read that right: hundreds. The number is inflated in large part because I bought a 200 movie boxset for $26 on Amazon, but, yeah…. We’re talking about a lot of DVDs here.)

So why am I doing this? Why am I going to store after store and buying movie after movie if I don’t enjoy it?

The cat is gearing up to yawn here

The cat is gearing up to yawn here

Well, I have a theory about that: it is because humans like to feel like they have some control over their world, and if they are confronted with a problem that they have no control over then they’ll dream up a new problem that they can control and then they will worry about that instead..

It's a concept that I first I learned about in the context of 12 step recovery programs. Serious drinkers generally know that drinking won't solve their problems - in fact it will probably make them worse - but oftentimes when they get overwhelmed their first response will be to reach for a bottle because cleaning up the nasty after effects of a bender feels more manageable than actually addressing the problem that got them down in the first place. Emotional transference isn’t a good coping mechanism but unfortunately it is one of the brain's most basic defense mechanisms.

And I think that’s what’s going on with me: I’m frustrated at my job. America’s political institutions are collapsing all around me. I know that constantly refreshing Twitter is doing bad things to my brain but I can't help but look at my phone every time I find myself bored for five seconds. It feels like a weird, bad time to be alive, particularly if you are alive and on the internet (which I definitely am.) 

And unfortunately my ability to address these problems is somewhat limited,  As such, I find it easier to ignore those problems by retreating into my safe space: my basement man-cave, where there's a big TV and very little natural light. 

However, that anxiety is still in me while I’m watching my ridiculously large TV. It’s festering in the back of my brain and it still wants to be addressed. So I have to find an outlet for it, one that makes sense in the context of my all consuming devotion to pop culture escapism. So I go out and buy movie after movie – good movies, bad movies, random movies that could be good but are probably bad – I keep buying them and buying them, just because I need something tangible to stress out about. And wasting a ton of money on things I don’t need and can’t justify – well, that fits the bill.

I’m making this sound more dire than it really is. I’m not truly self destructive; I’m not going bankrupt because I can;t stop purchasing cheap Steven Seagal movies from pawn shops. My rule is that I won’t spend more than $5 on a movie and I’ve stood by that with one notable exception – and even that isn't so bad because I think I might give that $7 movie away as a Christmas gift. But my general point is that I’ve been feeling stressed out and I’ve decided to combat that by… doing something that stresses me out. It doesn’t really make much sense.

Fortunately, I think I might have had a bit of a breakthrough this last weekend.

This is such a batshit crazy franchise

This is such a batshit crazy franchise

Here’s what happened: I try to volunteer at the Hollywood theater at least once a month. I was there this last Saturday afternoon. My plan was to come in, work my three hour shift, then go home and try to chip away at my ever-growing stack of movies. But that plan changed an hour into my shift one of the managers brought a giant box of punch cards to the box office.

I knew that the theater was playing all eight of the Planet of the Apes movies in August – technically, eight of the nine but they’ve decided to erase the Tim Burton one from history – but I didn’t realize that if you watched all eight movies at the theater then you would win a prize. Specifically: you would win a copy of the poster they created to promote their Ape-a-thon. 

This new fact put me in bit of a bind, because on the one hand: I had just received 200+ movies in the mail on that very day, so it didn’t make any sense to add 8 more movies to my to watch list – and it was going to have be all eight; if I got even one punch on that punch card I would go mad if I didn't get all eight. And going to the theater eight times in a month didn't make much sense given that I already owned most of the movies and don’t need to drive across town if I wanted to see them. And at least half of the movies aren’t that good! Especially the most recent trilogy, which took itself way too seriously. And I don’t even like the promotional poster, which has an odd tangerine-and-teal blue color scheme that I think is pretty tacky.

But on the other hand... I love dumb gimmicks and jumping through hoops! I love love love doing something silly to earn a silly reward. And watching eight Apes movies over the course of a month to win a tacky poster is silly on top of silly for sure.

So what was a boy to do: be responsible and try to clean up the mess they've already made or throw caution to the wind and try to win an unappetizing poster that they probably won't display in their new home?

There's an old saying: if you owe the bank five dollars then they own you. If you owe the bank five million dollars then you own them. I was already so deep into this movie hole that throwing 8 more movies on the pile was not going to make a damn bit of difference so I might as well go big before going home. 

I decided to stick around after my shift to see the first Apes. I’m so glad that I did so, and not just because it is a good movie. (Although it is; it walks the line between kitsch and sincerity perfectly, and as such is legitimately enjoyable on multiple levels.) No, I'm glad I stuck around because the decision to throw caution to the wind actually interjected a bit of fun back into my pop culture consumption after a long month of obsession, anxiety and self-castigation.

Yes, the movie itself is fun and watching it improved my mood. But the bigger reason why I felt better after I left the theater is because I had decided to participate in something social rather than suffering all by my lonesome.

I am slightly embarrassed that I'm still out there buying DVDs long after most of my friends had liquidated their collections so I generally keep my new purchases to myself. In contrast, while I was trying to decide whether or not I should watch the movie I texted my friend Pablo for advice, and after the movie wrapped up I sent him a follow up text to explain how it went. And because Pablo and I are both Simpsons nerds we immediately began to make jokes about the infamous Simpsons episode where Troy McClure stars in "Stop The Planet of the Apes: I Want To Get off!"

Specifically, we started joking about the line where Troy sings “I hate every ape I see / from chimpan-a to chimpan-zee.” I did a quick bit of math and realized that if there are eight ape movies and 26 letters of the alphabet then each movie would get ~3 hateable chimpans. So when the first movie was over I texted him to confirm that indeed, chimpans A through C were definitely bastards that I hated to see.

No, really, it is super crazy

No, really, it is super crazy

So of course when I saw Beneath the Planet of the Apes the next night I had to send him a follow up where I confirmed that chimpans D through G were also on my shit list.

However, Monday night's showing Escape from the Planet of the Apes presented a bit of a problem because it’s the first Apes movie that doesn’t star Charlton Heston. This raised a previously unforeseen problem for our “I hate every ape I see” rating scale: does the “I” in “I hate every ape” refer to the guy who is stranded on the Planet of the Apes or does it refer to me as a viewer? I maintained that Heston/McClure remained the gold standard for judging this issue, but Pablo responded by saying that I had to “make like Richard Nixon” and get us off the gold standard. (In some way that’s an obscure reference, but it definitely makes sense in an Escape from the Planet of the Apes context, given that that movie came out in 1971.)

The conversation descended even deeper into madness from there. In fact, it descended into quantum madness, because the debate about who was judging these apes inevitably lead to a discussion of the observer effect , and from there I started to think about an updated Schrodinger’s cat scenario where there was an ape in a box and until you opened the box it was both loveable and hateable at the same time.

I’m sure our in-jokes won’t make much sense to most people, and our entire text thread was nerdy and over the top. Nonetheless, the conversation actually did a lot of good for me because it injected a bit of levity back into a pastime that had been increasingly stress-inducing.

Deciding to see those eight movies was a good decision not just because it helped me to actually have some fun while I was doing something that was meant to be fun, but also because it helped me realize that it doesn’t really matter if you have 225 movies on your to-watch list or 233. Either way, it’s way too goddamn much, and the important thing is not that I get them crossed off my list but that I have fun while I’m “relaxing”.

And if I can do all that while also winning an ugly poster that I don’t really want to display in my home, well, then good for me.