Dealing with grief through cinema

How the movies help us deal with loss - and how the likes of Star Wars show that life goes on...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Light spoilers for Lord Of The Rings, Star Trek Beyond and Life Of Pi lie ahead

Lord Of The Rings was a transient and some may say biblical experience for the younger me. Peter Jackson’s magnum opus was a trilogy to call my own; in a world full of Star Wars, Back To The Future and Star Trek I had finally gone to the cinema year after year to experience my own cultural mega event. Howard Shore’s score was my score. Legolas taking down the Oliphant was MY Luke ensnaring the AT-AT with his snowspeeder cable. If they were ever to return to Middle Earth an screw it up years down the line, it would be my childhood getting defiled.

And then The Hobbit happened.

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Most importantly of all this was my yearly theatre expedition with my father. Many would call me a ‘mumma’s boy’ and they would be right – us Jewish boys cling to our mothers as if letting go would see us plummet into the volcanic and hellish Mount Doom. But the cinema. The cinema was my time out with dad. Popcorn, candy and grotesquely sugary beverages were our idea of a good time and that didn’t change from aged six to 26. Whether it be a Terminator Salvation-esque lame duck or the revelatory experience that was The Fellowship Of The Ring, we’d spend a lot of our time together at the cineplex both enjoying and enduring what Hollywood had to offer.

I only wish I had the chance now to ask him whether he adored the medium like I did, or whether he initially just humoured me with the trips to the cinema to see utter tosh like Lost In Space before these very same outings transformed into a full blown love of the experience. Was he passionate about war films prior to his service in the Falkands? Did he truly care for all the Marvel films I dragged him to?

I’ll never get to ask him these questions because he died in June of this year. A sudden heart attack robs you of the chance to ask many questions, least of which regarding a man’s affinity for the cinema.

However, ones mind does go to some utterly bizarre and occasionally incomprehensible places when a loved one passes on. The classic regret reared its ugly head along with questions of what may have been. Thoughts of parallel dimensions where he never suffers a heart attack – where maybe, just maybe we get to see Star Wars Episode VIII and the continuing exploits of Rey and crew – together. The damnation of modern technology was another constant thought – “Why do I live in an age where we haven’t successfully pioneered time travel?!”

After the initial days of mental fog and lack of hunger I asked myself perhaps the strangest, question of all: “how the hell am I ever going to watch the Lord Of The Rings trilogy ever again?”

Forget economical or existential crises brought on by parental mortality – I was more concerned about my emotional fortitude and whether or not I’d ever be able to listen to Howard Shore’s triumphant, delicate and emotional score again without collapsing in a puddle of flesh and salty tears. You see, movie soundtracks are my de facto source of inspiration when working. Words tend to distract me when writing (have you ever tried listening to a podcast and reading a newspaper on the train? A bit like that) so I tend to go for atmospheric background noise. If I needed to go to sleep – movie score.

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Yet here I stood, my world irrevocably changed – fearful that sources of warmth and hope were now violent maelstroms of emotional decay. One scalding hot evening, I could feel myself getting worked up and distant from the article I was writing. It wasn’t until I realised that I was six tracks deep into my spotify playlist aptly titled ‘work’ that I understood why I wasn’t in the right frame of mind – this playlist was full of musical cues that permeated through the movies and TV my father and I watched together. Band Of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, Lord Of The Rings; the list endless – all movies we enjoyed and debated together, sometimes for years subsequent to the initial viewing. It all came tumbling down as soon as Journey From The Grey Havens began playing from Return Of The King and I firmly hit the pause button.

Film has this incredible ability to both distract and intoxicate. When we need to escape this plane of existence we turn to a wonderfully diverse medium to fulfil those needs. Whether that escape involves superheroes or periods of time we could never have been involved with, it provides a window into another reality.

Alternatively, film can reflect the very real world realities and emotions of life, regardless of how outlandish the premise. Notions of love and loss have provided the backbone of many a production. Take a look at Life Of Pi, a beautiful adaptation by Ang Lee that primarily comes down to the relationship of a boy and the wild tiger – stranded at sea together, they must forge a relationship of mutual survival. This flick is a beautiful example of cinematography, score, CGI and direction combining to create a cinematic experience unlike any other. I felt a tinge of sadness when Mr Parker headed off into the jungle without even a look of acknowledgement for Pi, but nothing close to my grandfather, who had recently lost my Nan. A CG tiger was enough to conjure feelings of regret and resentment. Loss and love. It wasn’t hypothetical resonance nor was it theory – encapsulated in that moment was the true power of film. Maybe it helped in him cope in a way – some sort of catharsis? I’ve never wanted to ask.

That moment wasn’t lost on me as I felt my heart begin to drop as memories were conjured of a time when my father was still around to impart lessons on a younger and more impressionable version of myself. After a film had broached these tender topics of course. “Don’t worry son, it’s perfectly fine to cry if you feel you need to. Let it out.” Many chastise the multiple endings of Return Of The King and rightly so, yet they taught the 13 year old me how to cope with loss and the moving of time. I had spent three years traversing the deadly lands of Middle Earth with the Fellowship, yet here I was, being told that endings aren’t always perfect. Sometimes friends must go their separate ways. Change is inevitable – not always for the better.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been caught in my tracks by something movie related in the wake of my fathers passing. Creed hit me for six the first time I had watched it in the aftermath. Excuse the pun. Even Star Trek Beyond’s initial half an hour hit me hard as Kirk debated whether he was on the path he truly wanted – or if he was in fact just chasing the legacy of his father. Prior to the films inevitable plunge into summer blockbuster-ville. Normally I’d pass the moment with a grimace and descend into the eternal debate as to whether life was worthwhile.

This time was a little different.

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I could have wallowed and lamented the fact we’d never get to see the sequel or reboot to that movies we adored so dearly. It feels like only yesterday we had left a screening of The Force Awakens in breathtaking IMAX. He had never cared for Star Wars, begrudgingly sitting through The Phantom Menace for our benefit back in 1999 – what 9 year old wasn’t obsessed with Darth Maul?! However, he adored JJ’s modern version and was truly pumped to see where the next instalment would go. I felt cut up on subsequent viewings but what was the point in that? These movies and moments are ones to be cherished – celebrated. Our last three trips to the cinema were The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Captain America: Civil War – a pretty damned good swansong if you ask me.

The cinema was our place. As two men without any real attachment to religion, we always jokingly referred to it as our ‘church’ – I’m sure many of you reading this will feel the exact same way. The drive to the cinema would always be a time to catch up, or break down what had gone on so far in the ever-expanding MCU. His choice of pic’n’mix always involved chocolate covered raisins.

I’m told time heals all wounds and to date, it has proven relatively true. At some point, I’ll feel strong enough to tackle these films once again (not you Lost In Space) and perhaps, share them with children of my own down the line. My dad would have loved that.